The Slow Burn:
Hilary Easton’s Radiator
Hilary Easton + Co.
Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center
May 11 – 13, 2017
Hilary Easton’s bio suggests that her identity as a choreographer is inseparable from her identity as an educator, teaching dance composition at Juilliard. It is fitting, then, that this premiere of Radiator happens at Gibney Dance, a hybrid training and performance space that has ushered many students through its doors. Tonight, it is clear that many of the audience members know each other. The dancing actually begins in the hallways; attendees perform their own elaborate port de bras in greeting each other: arms and spines curve into our path as we walk by people saying hello. The sense of community is palpable. All three of the Hilary Easton + Co. dancers (Alexandra Albrecht, Michael Ingle, and Jessica Weiss) have worked with Easton on previous projects, and collectively speaking, their backgrounds are rich with collaborations in the New York City dance scene. Per the program, Radiator’s task at hand is to examine “the ways a dance can be simultaneously quiet and powerful,” and Easton + Co. are successful in their exploration.
The show opens with a brief video, created by Easton with media designer Tei Blow. First, we see the faces of the three dancers, viewed head-on, close-up, on separate panes. The dancers embody a masculine aesthetic, with slicked-back hair and white collared oxford shirts; their facial expressions fall somewhere between neutral and solemn. They blink at us. We try not to blink, for fear of missing something. They continue, for a duration of time that becomes both fascinating and awkward. Eventually, the video cuts out (additional clips are sprinkled throughout the show) and we are rewarded by the appearance of the dancers themselves, taking their places onstage. In person, the dancers portray a more feminine style: their hair is in soft topknots and they sport clinging pants and tops in dark and jewel tones. Music begins quietly; at first only minimal tones are audible, but as the show progresses, selections from four different composers add a variety of rumbles, gurgles, and coos with growing volume and complexity.
If one were to slow down Easton’s movement, it would look not unlike Tai Chi. We see lots of legs lifted in parallel, deep lunges, and fourth positions; it’s rare that both feet leave the ground simultaneously. The slightest hop is thrilling, when it finally happens. Easton clearly enjoys a good quirky arm gesture, and there is a lot of that. In Radiator, she favors complex sequences of asymmetrical shapes and sharply bent elbows, alternating with fully extended slicing motions. The dancers swat at the air in front of them, and appear to signal back and forth, creating a nonverbal dialogue that stretches across the stage. At one moment, rolling up through the spine creates a blooming effect. The simple shapes are the best shapes; a high upper back arch with raised arms is perhaps the strongest image in the piece. Facing upstage, the trio of dancers displays toned back and arm muscles when each member stretches his or her arms wide. I am reminded of this particular combination of a vulnerable neck and capable arms a day later, coming across Edward Hopper’s New York Interior at the Whitney Museum. Similar to the subject of Hopper’s painting, the dancers create drama via their quiet concentration on the physical task; they deliver movement with accuracy and authenticity over virtuosity. Easton shares Hopper’s tendency, as described by Barbara Haskell in The American Century, to “[transmute] scenes and motifs from everyday life into epic statements about the human condition.”
At the outset of the show, the dancers move thoughtfully, almost meditatively. They perform a series of brief duets; sometimes one dancer watches appraisingly in stillness as the other moves. Dancers share a psychological space throughout the performance, but no physical contact occurs until the last half of the piece. And that brief touch between dancers, so late in the game, jars the senses. By the end, we’ve seen some lovely pairings and changes in movement quality, where Weiss veers closer to flirtatious, and Albrecht toward sprightly with a sequence of quick coupé jumps. A duet between Ingle and Weiss is notable. They move in unison with straight arms cutting paths through the air, opening and closing. It looks like it feels good: loosening up the shoulders. There is a subtle intimacy in the moments when the dancers bend toward each other, or crouch down together, close but not touching.
The arrangement of the stage itself seems to be a lesson in dance composition, perhaps courtesy of Easton’s symbiotic identity as an educator and choreographer. It reads like a well-balanced photograph, with objects receding into space: one dancer each in the fore, middle, and background, with carefully chosen, complimentary shapes.
Radiator is, pardon the word choice, a slow burn. At first glance, the piece is pleasant, with well-executed movement, but few thrills. But, upon close inspection, we realize that Easton has just resisted society’s appetite for overstimulation and immediate gratification. By persisting with quiet, refined movements and building speed and complexity more gradually, the smallest moments of dynamic change become unexpectedly magnified. We as the audience become students, hoping to understand Easton’s creative formula. I myself guiltily craved some grand gesture of physicality during the performance, perhaps a daring off-balance movement, or a leg that was breath-takingly high. But, the absence of these items teaches us to look and listen more closely as an audience, and that may be Radiator’s most
JEN GEORGE writes out of New York City.