NY Quadrille: Modern Dances, Fresh Viewsby Susan Yung
JOYCE THEATER | SEPTEMBER 24 – OCTOBER 13, 2018
John Jasperse kicked off the 2018 Quadrille, a series curated by Lar Lubovich in which a temporary square platform bridges the front of the regular Joyce stage and some front orchestra seats; viewers sit onstage on risers and in standard rear house seats. From a viewer’s experience, the transformation can feel akin to the flexible setup of Danspace Project and other in-the-round venues, but it is downright disorienting at the Joyce, which has a traditional proscenium. A viewer entering said, “Am I at the Joyce! What happened to the stage?” No doubt that’s the desired effect by the Joyce—now under the artistic leadership of Aaron Mattocks, although Quadrille was inaugurated prior to his arrival—to attract new eyes while expanding artistic horizons for loyal patrons. The choreographers comprising the 2018 Quadrille are experimental, but by-now established modern creators: John Jasperse, Kyle Abraham, Rashaun Mitchell + Silas Riener, Beth Gill, and Donna Uchizono.
Jasperse continually experiments, and defies predictability. His work can scale up or down and can lean toward formal or more conceptual; he often includes props upcycled from quotidian items. His Joyce premiere, Hinterland, felt less than fully formed, and more a cache of ideas. Viewers sat on two sides; the side aprons served as entrances/exits, and housed musician Hahn Rowe, who played the score live. Panels of floral chintz fabric lay onstage—resembling discarded curtains. They hid Mina Nishimura as the audience was seated. Sandwiched together, Antonio Ramos, Jasperse, and DeAngelo Blanchard—garbed in colorful patchwork garments—shuffled in, stopping and starting, sitting, and then lying like rowers in a scull. Meanwhile, since I was seated onstage, I could see Eleanor Hullihan, covered head to toe in a matching chintz bodysuit, slinking along the mezzanine, across the tech platform in the rear of the house, pausing to observe the others, one hand wrapping slyly around a column, before she slunk head first down the stairs.
Blanchard and Nishimura are polar opposite body types: he, very large yet amazingly agile; she, small. Jasperse chose to emphasize their differences in a duet in which she sits atop his back as if on a horse, and he lifts her easily overhead. Hullihan, who always improves anything in which she performs, has changed into blue garments (designed by Kota Yamazaki), as eventually everyone does. The power and refined line emanating from one of Hullihan’s lifted legs astonishes even as she radiates calm. The dynamic peaks when the dancers split into two groups: one performs a passage with bold, sweeping legs, spins, and tilts while the others run like children, limbs flapping, and they swap phrases.
In contrast to the formal and visual studies within Jasperse’s piece, Kyle Abraham delves into the intensely personal and interpersonal in Dearest Home. Abraham had an auspicious week; his Joyce New York premiere was preceded by his first commission for a ballet company, in this case New York City Ballet for its Fall Fashion Gala. That work, The Runaway, burst with controlled energy and used the dancers’ technological virtuosity to the max. In Dearest Home, silence abets the aura of introspection; the 2016 work originally gave viewers the option to listen to a score, but Abraham chose to nix that choice this time. The lighting, by Dan Stearns, plays a critical role in each section’s setting, as do the costumes. Street-ready dresses, tops, and pants, make an impact not as much through their designs (done by Abraham), but as the symbolic acts of their donning or doffing. The intimate stage set-up provided the perfect distance from which to view the implied psychological states of the performers. Buttoning up, tucking in, smoothing, all indicate an external readiness and engagement on a superficial level. Removal, particularly while onstage, or states of undress, signal interiority and emotional nakedness. In one scene at the end, a man is hardly visible in the dimmest of light; we assume he is bare, his actions only presumptions.
Switch, by Rashaun Mitchell + Silas Riener, plays with the idea of performativity and social interaction. If you’re visible and on or near the main stage area, even if you appear to be lounging, are you performing? The eight dancers often seem to be improvising, lost in idle thought, periodically emitting a word or sung note. There is no obvious order or dance-like choreography, although passages repeat enough to indicate a larger framework. This lack of a clear concept and movement vocabulary can be frustrating to watch after a time, even (or especially!) when the dancers are technically virtuosic. But the artists pushed the Quadrille stage set-up beyond its breach of the proscenium. They reserved a row mid-house, which was used as a passageway, and, as Jasperse did, turned the aisles into stage extensions. Later in the work, patterns emerge—the dancers speed walk, narrowly missing one another; they run to the stage platform corners and someone yells “switch!” Mitchell lounges, reclining just off the stage, observing the “action” centerstage, while Riener—still technically onstage—drapes his head and torso off the platform, rather like Juliet in her death scene. So who is performing, and who isn’t?
The issue of defining the stage space arose again in Beth Gill’s Pitkin Grove, where the stagehands became implicated in the performance. At the start, the stage appeared to be a hilly, astroturfed knoll, where Kevin Boateng walked slowly amid the hillocks, occasionally beating the air above his head or sitting down carefully on one of the mounds. Danielle Goldman wandered on, manipulating the squares of fake grass carpeting, and eventually balling them up and dragging them off, revealing piles of detritus that gave the hills their shapes, an evolution from bucolic (if obviously fake) to landfill. Jennifer Lafferty, in a pink costume which included a ski mask, had been lying under the rubble. She carted off the assorted junk to the side stage, where two stagehands took it from there. (The question of where the “performance” began and ended resonated with the Mitchell + Riener piece.)
Things picked up when Joyce Edwards mounted the now-empty stage from the audience, tapping her feet to the side and punching the air, leaving one fist held high for a few moments—alluding to the Black Power sign, intentionally or not. She ran and skipped around the perimeter, fists held in sparring mode. Goldman dragged on a large fan and a big trash bin, which was clearly heavy. She removed her top and dunked her top half, including her head, into the vessel, and emerged dripping and covered in a milky blue liquid. She stood in front of the fan to dry, arms stretched forward like Han Solo trapped in carbonite. Edwards sat and observed this chain of events before exiting, leaving a stagehand to mop the stage around a now prostrate Goldman. Rafferty, now in a silver ruched dress, rooted her feet, assumed poses indicating resistance, and made small hand gestures, kneeling and pivoting, arms spread. Jon Moniaci’s soundscore ranged from barely audible chirps to sprinkler sounds to organ chords.
It’s tempting to project some general narrative structure onto the opaque piece, along the lines of how the planet is being ruined. The pink ski mask evoked the wave of “pussy hats” prevalent in the Women’s March, such a succinct symbol of outrage for that moment, which has only given way to other infuriating issues. Any number of troubling issues can be fodder for the dramas unfolding onstage, albeit veiled in metaphor.
Quadrille is exciting in part because this group of choreographers has not been presented often at the Joyce, which tends toward more classical or popular fare. In a sense, you could go a little south and east to Danspace Project, possibly about a decade ago, and have seen most of these creators experimenting. It’s the curious case of modern dance in New York, where the echelon of venues can sometimes become misaligned with a sense of adventure and unlimited experimentation. Donna Uchizono is the final choreographer in this Quadrille—her work March Under an Empty reign premieres this week—and an artist whose conceptual rigor should challenge regular Joyce viewers even further. How will this affect next year’s Quadrille, assuming there is one?
Susan Yung is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.