Facing the Music

Atonal keynotes, dissonant chords, a sharp trill, the pleasant pop of a piano string. These are the sounds that emerge when listening to John Zorn’s musical compositions. The effect is not pleasurable in the traditional sense; rather it induces a mild sense of disorientation, thwarting expectations. This feeling of being adrift is at the core of John Zorn’s Music Interpreted: New Choreography by Donald Byrd and Pam Tanowitz, which had its premiere in February as part of the Guggenheim’s Works & Process series.

Works & Process at the Guggenheim. Discussion: Charles Wuorinen, John Zorn, Donald Byrd, and Pam Tanowitz. Photo by Matthew Murphy, February 28, 2011.

Donald Byrd, artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater based in Seattle, premiered \ (fay çe que vouldras), a piece for five dancers set to an experimental, modern-classical piano solo of the same title. The music is dramatic and discombobulating, filled with subtle and not-so-subtle surprises. During the discussion portion of the program, Byrd said that the music calls to mind “second Viennese School...[and] heightened late Romanticism.” One sees his visual translation of this in the dance’s tacky Hans Bellmer doll-aesthetic: lace attire and gothic-inspired makeup. Two women and two men weave a loose narrative replete with desire, agony, and apocalyptic gloom, while a fifth dancer in a bustle walks very slowly across the back of the stage, her figure drawn in stark silhouette. She seems to be keeping time throughout, a human metronome. Unfortunately, her role feels more gimmicky than thought provoking.

In one scene the two women assume scintillating, foreboding postures over the men, who lie heaving on the floor. The women move in synchronized motion as they pirouette, gracefully extend a single leg in the air, and teeter around on tiptoe like broken mechanical dolls, cold and estranged from their bodies. Some quivering and twitching happens—a signature habit throughout the piece—and then the roles reverse. Throughout the performance, the power dynamic between the men and the women shifts several times, but the movements are relatively indistinguishable from each other. By the end, the bustle-wearing dancer takes center stage, breaking the overwrought tension between the male and female dancers. She extends a leg in the air and leans heavily forward to create a dramatic horizontal position. She spins with fierceness while moving her arms in wide, circular strokes, and then elegantly flails her limbs with wild theatricality. \ (fay çe que vouldras) boasts impressive athleticism and technique, but its impression quickly fades.

The weaknesses in Byrd’s performance are especially glaring after seeing Tanowitz’s spontaneous and spirited femina. “Woman of truth. Astronomer. Magician,” a recording of Laurie Anderson’s voice reads the opening text of Zorn’s score, “…she measures off the heavens.” Seven women and a man walk out and into the orchestra pit and pose like modern mythological goddesses. A story begins.

Unlike Byrd, Tanowitz co-created this piece with her performers. It shows. The dancers have liberating glows about them, a genuine sense of enjoyment as they dance to Zorn’s episodic collage of minimalist pop melodies. Duets transition into solos and solos into informal gatherings, as all eight dancers share the space and experiment with their own personal movement. The resulting work is tremendously playful and pulsates with energy as each dancer embodies a self-proclaimed independence. Even the performance space is included in the collaborative effort. In an unexpected moment, one of the dancers enters from backstage and quickly walks one full lap around the Guggenheim’s oddly circular auditorium. In moments like these, femina plays with your curiosity as much as it rewards it.

And then there are the exemplary solos by Ashley Tuttle and Banu Ogan. Tuttle, the only dancer to appear in pointe shoes, performs an elegant and wistful solo to the melody a single violin. There is a sense of nostalgia in her classically trained ballet movement, yet Tanowitz keeps the atmosphere alive and breathing. Tuttle awkwardly lies on her belly and lifts her arms and legs into the air, stands up and repeats the pose on a different part of the stage. She performs simple ballet exercises synchronized to the music as if she were in rehearsal. femina calls to mind Tere O’Connor’s choreography, with its elements of playful experimentation and ease: the dance unfolds like children engaged in a game of discovery, or cogs supporting and enabling each other in an elaborate, imaginary machine.

Hips roll, bodies tilt, arch backwards, and jubilantly spring up and down, while a dancer’s arm creates a square frame around her head and impishly bobs it up and down. There is a naïve pleasure in all of this, the story not so much being told as experienced through these repeated movements. Ogan closes the evening in an inquisitive and unassuming matter. Yoga poses like Warrior Three and Fish Pose flow in and out of each other with supple peculiarity. The solo is drastically different from the opening duet and Tuttle’s solo, but like the other episodes, never feels outside the realm of the all-encompassing femina. 

Contributor

Christine Hou

CHRISTINE HOU is a poet and arts writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

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