The Making of Modernitiesby Sariel Frankfurter
Dig Dance: Open Doors | 92Y Harkness Dance Center
Artists in Residence Showcase | January 6 – 7, 2017
To the untrained eye, the first several weeks of each January in New York might seem sleepy and inoffensive. Little would you know of the torrent of activity and creativity stirring within the city’s theaters that is APAP—the conference in conjunction with the Association of Performing Arts Presenters and the numerous showcases and festivals that align with it, an often fraught meeting place of presenters and choreographers. Situated in this time span was 92Y’s Dig Dance: Open Doors, a works-in-progress showing for the center’s six choreographers-in-residence: Netta Yerushalmy, Yin Yue, Tina Croll, Christopher Williams, Adam Barruch, and Johnnie Cruise Mercer/TheREDProjectNYC. Their works range from cerebral to purely entertaining, balletic to formally experimental. In this sense the showcase reflected both the span of contemporary dance and the importance of understanding choreography as an arduous process of trial-and-error—an unexpected contrast with the common pressure during APAP to appear polished, prepared for, and worthy of touring.
Netta Yerushalmy’s Paramodernities begins before the audience has settled: three dancers already work in silence onstage in their rehearsal clothes, alone in disparate movement languages. One finds dizzying straight lines and lands from jumps into attitude while shaking from the effort. Another huffs her chest concave as if immortalized post-blow. A third shuffles pigeon-toed—certainly a giveaway of The Rite of Spring. Indeed, standing among her dancers as they lunge and spring in funny obliviousness to their role in her lecture-demonstration, Yerushalmy explains her process of “treating” eight iconic works of modern dance history. So far she has worked on Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Ailey’s Revelations, Graham’s Night Journey, and various selections of Cunningham, with plans for Mary Wigman’s Hexentanz and an undetermined Pearl Primus work, by removing them from their music, costumes, stories, and the sources of passed-down knowledge that a company dancer learning the repertoire would inherit to “make them right.” She is also working with scholars—purposely outside of the dance field—merging both their language and their ideas with the movement. In essence, the work seems to deal with what knowledge and canon mean to dance as a field dominated by lineages, which in turn favor proximity to the icon as source of knowledge. As such, the project is a novel and massive undertaking of research and development.
But one can’t help but think, (as Stanley Gambucci saunters past, leaning and fanning himself with one hand, his other fist on his hip, and Yerushalmy asks us, “Which dance do you think he’s doing?”), that it paradoxically becomes an insider’s guessing game. It would be an entirely different sort of experience for the viewer who doesn’t know that Madelyn Schimmel’s shifting eyes, hunched stumble, and thigh slaps are Nijinsky’s; Emily Rose Cannon’s soul-deep contraction and cupped hands are indicative of Graham, and Marc Crousillat’s sterile parallels and rounded arms are Cunningham’s. Moreover, despite the power and precision of her dancers, can these works truly survive a “stripping of their costumes, their music, their stories, all the things that give them meaning” (as she explains it) with anything left? Trying to keep an eye on several solos at once, I worried that more was lost than gained.
However, there is something to be said for a work that so pushes boundaries in intention. Tina Croll’s Balkan Dreams and She Rides a Tiger were works of modern and folk-dance fusion in loose earth tones, in which dancers smoothly turn and land in deep second, brush legs into neat jumps, or grapevine in sensual syncopation to Balkan music. Their braided paths and voluminous use of the space were still wanting of a greater driving force. So too was Yin Yue’s “Work in Progress created during 92Y Artist-in-Residence 2016,” a commercial contemporary work of ripply and flickering limbs with hip-hop’s precision, audible, whooshing breath, and that familiarly ominous sense of unplaced danger. A duet to broken piano chords, Grace Whitworth relentlessly melds to Zachary Birdwell’s shapes or reaches longingly, but misses, to their dazed confusion. Some lovely moments arise; in one, Whitworth jumps into the grip of Birdwell such that her legs develop into a sharp and floating seated L shape. Yet these fleeting images seemed bogged down by slow rhythm and the formula of slick emotional gesture layered onto gesture. This was also the case with her excerpts from a Through the Fracture of Light, a work for a flock of five, catalyzed by a rushing electronic score with heavy drumming. Yue herself dances with stunning articulation of her hands, and shows potential for novelty in such images as one dancer in profile with the others fluted out behind her like a ship figurehead, and a churning, hunched side-to-side shift that the corps returns to while others break for solo or duet work.
Christopher Williams’s Il Giardino d’Amore, a duet excerpt set to Scarlatti’s lament for Venus and Adonis, proved, like Yerushalmy’s, to be a work of research extending beyond the choreography in pursuit of playfully examining the classics. The audience let out a collective guffaw as Christiana Axelsen stepped into the space and assumed a still contrapposto position, her expression the picture of sobriety, in a nude bodysuit with four sets of breasts of increasing sizes, carnations over her genitalia and framing her fuchsia-painted face. As harpsichord and a mournful soprano set in, she begins to mimic their rises, holds, and lilts with intricate balletic sauté arabesque jumps, saut de basques, and waltzes. She impresses texture by spryly turning against momentum, and literally miming the music through her arms and épaulement (positioning of the shoulders, neck and spine.) The movement is elegant and hilariously campy: while the real story she interprets evades us, she emphasizes its sentimentality and reference to real Baroque dancing. Axelsen regularly draws one hand to her heart and frailly raises the other in farewell, or tips into rotation with a leg and arm outstretched to the side and the other curved down to her torso such that you can imagine her holding a lute. When she finishes, Williams and an audience confederate tweet on water whistles to lure Andrew Champlin from offstage, who crawls out in a wild boar’s tusked headpiece, a white corset trimmed in fur, and a collar of flowers. Champlin resumes Axelsen’s pure and balletic movement, but with an even more doleful expression, cheeky and almost effeminate nods of his head, and animalistic twitches. Like a Greek vase painting, he raises both hands to one side in a “halt” pose, his upstage leg bent in attitude, and looks back with concern. The two then dance in duet as the singers come together in synchronicity or wavy canon, but their interactions are purposely front-centric and vacuous, their heads bobbing in disinterested response to their body’s motions. They emphasize the music’s climbs with gathering “come” motions of their arms; its trills with parallel trots or shakes of their first and shoulders. Williams’s detailed choreography revealed layers of il Giardino d’Amore that transcended beyond the surface sarcasm of its music interpretation into homage. This work left me anticipating the full-length production more than any other on the program.
Though diametrically opposite in vision, Adam Barruch showed a similar skill for detail and drama in Defense of Alchemy, a duet for himself and Chelsea Bonosky. Barruch wears a loose, draped purple floor-length skirt and tunic that covers his arms, and Bonosky a long black-strapped dress with loose skirt, like two tarot card figures. Barruch begins while Bonosky stands by, with a tornado of arms spooling overhead to an electronic drone, which direct him into higher and lower levels, down to his knees, back into an arch. Barruch’s arms have supernatural pliancy, and he winds and unfurls them speedily in front of him, in and out of mirrored geometries and prayer hands. Sometimes they pause in a finger triangle held over his eye, or draw him down into a ninja’s crouch with a single leg extended, arms drawn back and pinched for attack. The effect is mysterious, and when Barruch finishes and glides to the upstage wall, he stands and watches hawkishly as Bonosky take the space. She picks up a similar movement language of clever, descending winds and flurries, but with greater emphasis on her loose hair and expansive legs, which repeatedly kick up with a flexed foot or pull her down onto her back and fan overhead, though like Barruch, she remains tethered to center stage. She ends on her knees with her hands covering her eyes as lights fade. How might a work so concentrated in its visual and emotional effect continue in time and space?
The evening of works concluded with the cartoonish Calamity! (an excerpt from the evening production, Sanctuary) by Johnnie Cruise Mercer/ TheREDProjectNYC, a theater-dance work in which five pants-less players explore growing up as a loss and eventual reconciliation with freedom. They begin toddling around in capes, poking each other, playing games, and occasionally breaking into hysterical shrieks; leashes are introduced (they are wearing collars) and, consequently, suffocated movement. They end dressed in steampunk uniformity, and fix themselves in invisible mirrors as habituated adults. Bizarre and tritely sweet, it’s always a pleasure to forego sleekness and unison and still know that you’ve got dance in the making.
SARIEL FRANKFURTER is a New York-based writer and dancer. She graduated from Columbia University with a BA in Dance and English.