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Christopher Williams // "Mumbo-jumbo and Other Works" // Harkness Dance Festival // 92nd St. Y, NYC // February 25–27, 2011 // Reviewed by Christopher Atamian
Raja Kelly in Mumbo-jumbo. Photo by Julie Lemberger. Courtesy 92Y.
A master of creations medieval and strange, Christopher Williams presented a diverse and occasionally sublime program of mostly retrospective excerpts as part of the Y’s 75th Anniversary season. Some of Williams’ pieces border on the grotesque, and his movement vocabulary remains limited: The attraction of his work lies in the intellectual curiosity that he employs in researching and bringing to life long-forgotten saints and martyrs. He marries their stories to gorgeous music and surreal costumes (many of which he meticulously hand-crafts) that would make even the most imaginative fashion designer envious.
The program began with excerpts from the 2003 Virgo Genitrix, set to the eerie Le Lai de la Fontienne by 14th-century French composer Guillaume de Machaut. The women—Kira Blazek, Hope Davis, and Storme Sundberg—wear body suits with breasts attached in the most unlikely places as they cavort around the stage. Two other works referenced early Christian and pagan iconography: excerpts from Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins—the 2005 piece that put Williams on the map as a choreographer—and The Golden Legend, a humorous if slow-moving solo performed by the lithe Burr Johnson bedecked in nothing but a gold-colored skirt. Johnson extends and twists his body in ways that make one question traditional expressions of masculinity and gender. In the languidly erotic duet The Portuguese Suite (2006) danced by Williams himself and Paul Singh, the two intertwined bodies appeared to be almost organically linked, moving with slow grace to the mournful fado of Amalia Rodriguez’s Meu Amor, Meu Amor.
The selection from Hen’s Teeth (2010) presents a striking contrast to these other pieces. In Williams’ ostensible nod to Swan Lake, the women portray the Graeae of legend, “swan-like crones” who do little more than squawk, jump, bend up and down, and then literally hen peck the lone man, a humorously dressed woodsman or Robin Hood of sorts who leaps onto the stage in order to woo a particularly fetching hen. At the end of the piece the hens peel off their tops with their teeth while continuing their unbearable, cacophonous squawking.
The penultimate piece, Mumbo-jumbo, represents an important departure for Williams. He ventures outside his comfort zone to consider notions of race and language in this hilariously crazed send-up of Brer Rabbit, Sambo, and Tar Baby, danced with delightful and energetic abandon by Raja Kelly and Paul Singh. Although Williams intentionally eschews narrative in his work, this premiere felt a bit unstructured as it descended into absurdity to the music of Kishore Kumar and the Bollywoodish Raja Hindustani.
Set to a poem written by Williams, Untitled Excerpt came off as even stranger than the other pieces. Here, a hex is placed upon the animals of nature and, if I read the text correctly (heterosexual) reproduction comes to a grinding halt: “May the gander flee the goose/…May the dog bay to the bat/the fox spurn the vixen,/ and the wolf howl to the void.” Gregory Spear’s gorgeous musical composition was performed live by singers Mischa Bouvier and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek with musical accompaniment by Jacqui Kerrod, Elizabeth Weinfield, and Lawrence Lipnick.
Throughout the evening it was hard to ignore the glaring differences in Williams’ portrayals of men and women. Leaving aside Mumbo-jumbo, the men were chivalresque, physically beautiful, and elegant to a fault; Williams seems to express romantic and sensual impulses almost exclusively through the male body. Meanwhile the women constituted a veritable cavalcade of physical abnormalities and deformities that would scare even the most red-blooded heterosexual man into joining a Medieval monastery. It certainly wouldn’t hurt if Williams revisited this disturbing aspect of his work before undoubtedly going on to create more thought-provoking and absurdly beautiful performances.
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