There is a sector in the microverse of contemporary choreography in which the kids aren’t alright. It’s not that they can’t dance (they can), but rather that they are aggressive and dissociative. Choreographers Juliana F. May and Natalie Green illustrated two aspects of this phenomenon in their recent split bill at Dance Theater Workshop: May’s abstract work demonstrating a nihilistic physicality, and Green’s, while seeming to provide the conventional comfort of narrative, subverting it with dark surreality.
May led off with Gutter Gate, an incomprehensibly named piece whose closest semic approximation may be Dantean (“Abandon All Hope…”). Gutter Gate was performed by Benjamin Asriel, Madeline Best, Anna Carapetyan, Eleanor Smith, and Maggie Thom in the round, the audience on three sides of the stage in immediate, unexpected proximity. Chris Seeds’s excellent, ominous, electronic wave music further heightened the emotional tension.
After initial confrontational and clichéd tai chi-like movements, one of the dancers removed her tights, dancing au naturel from waist down for no discernible reason. No other female dancer followed suit, but Asriel predictably, if naturally, removed his sweats. The mutual exposure brought to mind Imponderabilia, Marina Abramović’s Adam-and-Eve passageway couple. The remaining women spent a substantial amount of time dancing sans shirts in affectless aplomb. The nudity was neither sexual nor sensual, but rather calculatedly cool, unsmiling.
Gutter Gate closed with the women torquing shirtless in dark tights. This, in Chloë Z. Brown’s subtle, modulated lighting, became the most aesthetically beautiful and emotionally moving movement of the performance—the dance literally stripped of extraneous elements, the color combination of black, flesh, and rose an artist’s choice palette. But even this reprieve was undercut by May’s abrupt elimination of any ambient music, which halted any hint of uplift. There came instead a footfall “soundtrack,” resounding ever louder in the silence.
Despite the dancers’ serious intensity and discipline, Gutter Gate came across as callow. If May’s objective is to explore physical emotion through movement, she needs to expand her lexicon: she has anomie down cold.
Natalie Green’s conventionally staged nerves like tombs, nerves like nettles, likewise ineffably named, was likewise inscrutable, albeit in a vastly different way. Danced by Green, Carapetyan, Stacy Grossfield, Miriam Wolf, Brown, Sera-Kim Huenergard, Tei Blow, and Abraham Hawkins, nerves unfolded in a series of narrative-like vignettes. A quad of shorty-white-caped dancers took to the iceberg stage, marching in runway precision. One removed her cape to reveal a shimmering tunic; eventually all four flowed across the stage in sumptuous allegory. At one point, Hawkins, the non-dancing male foil, emerged from the first audience row to remove a dancer; he was later seen in the wings petting a rabbit, which proved, of course, to not be real. Grossfield emerged as the mad main character in this L’Age d’Or cinematic dream-dance. Near its closing, nerves presented a pair of horizontal writhing odalisques in a faux erotic tableau, identically clad under their soon-shed antiseptic capes in sheer noir nighties and choker necklaces from which lipstick-red rabbitsfeet hung. Soon they shared the stage in parallel universes with Grossfield, who ultimately patted the bunny, smiling ever after.
Green’s nerves was a beautiful bedlam of fantasy, distraction, and dreams. The irrational was normal; the gravity-defying dancers leapt, spun, and froze in a floating stagescape. And yet, though the physical and emotional depth was much broader than in Gutter Gate, nerves was nonetheless a tragedy of mental disconnection.
Whether the social and personal breakdowns seen in these two works are fashionable or purely coincidental, they are disturbing in their adherence to flatline themes. Life, after all, has so many more dimensions than those outlined in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.