The Knife, The Moon, and The Grace of Jesus

The Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival
featured appearances by Jodi Melnick, Beijing Dance Theater, and L.A. Dance Project.

Jodi Melnick appears fragile and harmless, until she wields a knife. Much of “Moment Marigold,” her new work for three dancers that premiered October 8 – 11, proceeds with benign nonchalance. For the duration of the hour-long piece, Melnick, Maggie Thom, and Emma Grace Skove-Epes maintain stoic and impenetrable faces. They move through BAM’s intimate black-box Fishman Space with intention and indifference, seemingly unaware that an audience surrounds them on three sides.

The three women begin knotted together at center. After various entanglements, they unravel to continue solo, with lots of straight, swinging arms and flat hands pointing skyward. Their focus is internal; they’re having a private experience. This sense of aloofness can be mesmerizing if you feel like you’ve been given access to something deeply personal. The performers don’t really reveal themselves in this way—the effect is more antiseptic and scientific, like observing participants in a lab experiment—but Melnick, Thom, and Skove-Epes still manage to engage with their calm focus.

L.A. Dance Project. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

And then, Melnick steps away and retrieves a knife. Alone, she dances with it in the same deliberate, dispassionate way. (It appeared to be a steak knife: thin, delicate, sharp.) It’s a shocking disruption to the logic of the work up to that point, which had been unraveling at a steady, uneventful pace and seemed on track to be thoughtful but forgettable. The knife—which occasionally flashes when hit by the overhead light—changes the game. Melnick points it at the audience, slides it across her stomach, touches it delicately to the side of her neck. By introducing this weapon, she stabs her work with a subtle and thrilling sense of danger, reminding us that even an unassuming person can quickly obtain power.

In 1927, the venerated Chinese writer Lu Xun published “Wild Grass,” a collection of 23 prose poems in which he meditates on imperialism and individual identity alongside powerful images of nature. Mao Zedong was a big fan of Lu’s body of work, even if his reading of it was selective and strategic. Lu’s anthology also inspired the choreographer Wang Yuanyuan, who translated three of his essays onto the bodies of her troupe, Beijing Dance Theater. The company presented “Wild Grass” at BAM’s Harvey Theater on October 15 – 18 and, from a design perspective, captured the quiet force of Lu’s words.

In the first section, “Dead Fire,” a swirl of brushstrokes on a black backdrop evokes a vibrant but somber moon; a few additional wisps conjure distant mountain peaks. As the dancers enter, they scatter delicate white leaves that soon cover the black stage like a thin layer of snow—a bleak but beautiful picture. In the second section, “Farewell of the Shadows,” a twisting sculpture, coiled like a serpent, spins over a gleaming white floor; in “Dance of Extremity,” the third section, a sloping carpet of dead grass transforms the space into a barren field. The sets feel vast and powerful in their starkness. Yet the choreography insists on excess, constructed largely of generic turns and kicks delivered with frantic speed. The dancers project to the audience rather than relate to each other and, from section to section, the quality of movement doesn’t differ much.

Jodi Melnick. Photo by Ian Douglas.

Lu Xun believed in the power of revolutionary action. In light of the recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, it is potentially radical for a Chinese dance company to bring us a program based on his words. It would, of course, be unfair to superficially read a political message into Wang’s work, but a more nuanced, thoughtful interpretation of Lu might have offered unexpected insight, or at least allowed us to marvel at the confluence of art and life. Unfortunately, at no point does Beijing Dance Theater earn such consideration. Though “Dance of Extremity” is largely comprised of moments of aggression, oppression, and desperation, it ultimately comes down on the side of melodrama (and even misogyny). “In silence I feel full; with speech I sense emptiness,” wrote Lu Xun. In this case, so too with movement.

The L.A. Dance Project, born in 2012, made its New York debut October 16 – 18 at BAM’s Gilman Opera House. In its aesthetic polish and penchant for virtuosity, the three-part program felt like the West Coast cousin of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, which is meant both as a compliment and a warning.

First up was “Reflections,” choreographed by the company’s founder, Benjamin Millepied, a former principal with the New York City Ballet and new head of the Paris Opera Ballet. The work packs a strong visual punch, thanks to artist Barbara Kruger. Against a bright red backdrop, the word STAY screams out in white; the floor is stamped with “Think of me thinking of you.” (Mid-dance, another screen lowers, shouting: “GO.”) The solo piano accompaniment by David Lang whispers in comparison. The problem is Millepied’s choreography, which neither explodes like Kruger’s words nor implodes like Lang’s notes—nor does it bridge the two.

Justin Peck’s “Murder Ballades” is a more satisfying ménage à trois of music, dance, and design. Bryce Dessner’s commissioned score for the Chicago-based contemporary ensemble eighth blackbird takes inspiration from a niche American folk tradition of recounting murders through song. If Aaron Copland’s Western-flavored symphonies went on a Bonnie and Clyde rampage, it might sound like this. Sterling Ruby’s backdrop mixes linear composition with wild, graffiti-like strokes. Peck pulls the two together by splitting his sneaker and street clothes-clad dancers into two gangs facing off against each other, constantly advancing and retreating across the stage. But despite its dark premise, “Murder Ballades” feels more playful than threatening: murder as entertainment, which is often how we treat it in America.

Beijing Dance Theater. Photo by Rebecca Greenfield.

William Forsythe is best known to American audiences for removing the flesh from the traditional ballet vocabulary and leaving us with the skeleton in all its cold, sleek hardness. Yet “Quintett,” a work from 1993, is comprised of humans, not deconstructed body parts. Against a black backdrop, five dancers arrive and depart in various configurations, slip in and out of unison, cross paths, acknowledge each other, and withdraw into their own world. It’s a bit like observing passers-by in a park: the glimpse is fleeting yet sometimes revelatory. Gavin Bryars’s “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” provides the soundtrack, grounding the work in faith and yearning. That single line, warbled by an old homeless man, repeats on loop dozens, maybe hundreds, of times. It’s distracting, until it’s transcendent. The music begins as a sigh and grows to a prayer before rising to a hymn; Forsythe’s unfussy and endlessly evolving staging allows the work to become something of a quiet requiem. That L.A. Dance Project would invite such a spiritual work into its repertory bodes well for its future growth.

Contributor

Brian Schaefer

BRIAN SCHAEFER has written for the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post, among others. A sampling of articles can be found at www.Brian-Schaefer.com. He tweets from @MyTwoLeftFeet.

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