Eva Yaa Asantewaa is Senior Curatorial Director of Gibney, New York's acclaimed center for dance and social activism. She won the 2017 Bessie Award for Outstanding Service to the Field of Dance as a veteran writer, curator and community educator. Since 1976, she has contributed writing on dance to Dance Magazine, The Village Voice, SoHo Weekly News, Gay City News, The Dance Enthusiast, Time Out New York and other publications and interviewed dance artists and advocates as host of two podcasts, Body and Soul and Serious Moonlight. She blogs on the arts, with dance as a specialty, for InfiniteBody and served as Editor in Chief of Dancer's Turn, a blog devoted to longform profiles of dance artists, created by students of her "Writing on Dance" workshop series at New York Live Arts.Ms. Yaa Asantewaa joined the curatorial team for Danspace Project's Platform 2016: Lost and Found and created the skeleton architecture, or the future of our worlds, an evening of group improvisation featuring 21 Black women and gender-nonconforming performers. Her cast was awarded a 2017 Bessie for Outstanding Performer. As EYA Projects, she has begun partnerships with organizations such as GIBNEY, Abrons Arts Center, Dance/NYC, BAX and Dancing While Black to curate and facilitate Long Table conversations on topics of concern in the dance/performance community.She was a member of the inaugural faculty of Montclair State University's MFA in Dance program. She has also served on the faculty for New England Foundation for the Arts' Regional Dance Development Initiative Dance Lab 2016 for emerging Chicago-area dance artists. In May 2017, she served on the faculty for the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography's inaugural Forward Dialogues Dance Lab for Emerging Choreographers.Ms. Yaa Asantewaa was a member of the New York Dance and Performance (Bessie) Awards committee for three years and has been a consultant or panelist for numerous arts funding or awards organizations including the New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.A native New Yorker of Black Caribbean heritage, Eva makes her home in the East Village with her wife, Deborah, and cat, Crystal.
With a blend of postmodern and black aesthetics, Reggie Wilson's work explores connections between secular and spiritual cultures of the African diaspora in the Americas. Audiences are drawn to his unique synergy of formal rigor, playfulness and depth.
The Milwaukee-raised award-winning choreographer formed Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group in Brooklyn in 1989 after dancing for Ohad Naharin. Most recently, he curated the 2018 Danspace Project's Dancing Platform Praying Grounds: Blackness, Churches, and Downtown Dance.
The Joyce Theater
New York, NY
July 9–14, 2012
Performance reviewed: July 9
Ronald K. Brown’s Gatekeepers (1999) could stand as an iconic piece for his acclaimed Evidence, A Dance Company—as if almost every dance he’s made were not, in its way, iconic. To me, Brown’s oeuvre forms a seamless fabric spanning at least 27 years, less a collection of discrete works than a consistent philosophy in motion, set to music. It’s evidence.
Blessed with a sharp eye for form and talent in everything from ballet to West African dance, from Caribbean dance to hip-hop, the Tony Award winner (for The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess) also has had the good fortune to bring along dancers who could “go there” for him. I’m remembering past Evidence superstars like Shani Nwando Ikerioha Collins, Camille A. Brown, and Keon Thoulouis who could mix it all up and serve up something indescribably fresh. Today, Brown still has his stalwart Arcell Cabuag, the Bessie winner with the true grit and funk of the old days. But, as evinced in Gatekeepers, which opened the first of two repertory programs, the choreographer now leads dancers who deliver his familiar vocabulary and style with discipline, memorable more for smooth team work than individual distinction.
Maresa D'Amore Morrison, Clarice Young, and Arcell Cabuag in Gatekeepers
Photo by Ayodele Casel, Courtesy Evidence
Launching Gatekeepers, set to the aurally translucent layers of music by Wunmi and inspired by something characteristically metaphysical and ancestral, the dancers stir and clear space. Finely crafted, half-angelic “wings” scoop, fling, pump, claw, plow, or sickle while their feet twirl them in one direction after another and sidle into a typically sensual groove that can ripple the entire body. I observe, once again, how Brown works his dancers up in this way even though they’re basically often rooted in one place, locked into a line, pivoting around or fluttering out from a magnetic axis. When he does release them to space, the men’s moves can be pleasingly spongey; the women, springy—all still cool, controlled.
Calibrating Brown’s phrasing, in which movement spools out like silky or sulky poetic musings alternating with thrilling outbursts, the dancers have mastered a demanding musical timing that’s critical to Brown’s impact on audiences. They also look nothing like ballet or modern or postmodern or jazz or even Ailey dancers. They bring a way of the body to the concert stage that audiences read, and embrace, as real, sourced in something folks recognize.
So that leads us to On Earth Together/Everybody at the Table, a recently updated work based on original recordings and live cover versions of Stevie Wonder songs. “Living for the City,” “As,” “Higher Ground,” and six other tunes are offered in either literal, obvious “New York, just as I pictured it” dance scenarios—with Trayvon Martin hoodies thrown in—or unshaped, random boogie-ing among friends. Having worn out my copies of Wonder’s Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life, I can’t help but love much of On Earth Together. But I’m not impressed. If too much of what your dancers are doing onstage merely matches what I was doing in front of my bedroom mirror way back when, well...
Arcelle Cabuag and Annique Roberts in On Earth Together/Everybody at the Table
Photo by Ayodele Casel, Courtesy Evidence
I was looking for a little more choreography—not unreasonably, I think—but my attention kept straying to Chris Rob’s five-piece band and the lineup of several vocalists of varying strengths. Trevon Davis—guesting from The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess on opening night—possesses a voice that, at times, closely resembles Wonder’s and won many hearts. I no longer want the Stevie Wonder jukebox musical I used to clamor for. Just give me those old albums or, failing that, Mr. Davis at the mic, please. Thank you.
Pictured at top: Ronald K. Brown and Annique Roberts in On Earth Together/Everybody at the Table
Photo by Ayodele Casel, Courtesy Evidence
The Joyce Theater, NYC
July 3–7, 2012
Performance reviewed: July 4
Jason Samuels Smith—no longer flying those Tribe-of-Savion dreadlocks—bursts onto the tap floor at a gallop, all business. Theo Hill’s jazz quintet, with Carlos Abadie and Plume cooking on trumpet and alto saxophone, respectively, lays down the bebop framework—Charlie Parker’s “Bebop,” to be specific—with “improvographer” Samuels Smith cramming in as many beats as he can, pecking and stroking the wood with every angle and surface of his shoes, echoing the loop-di-loop of Hill’s piano, trading licks with drummer Kyle Poole. Ah-rum-di-bum-di-bum.
This opening solo, Imagine, seals the deal: Tap, at least the kind I crave, really is bebop. In fact, Samuels Smith—whose Joyce Theater season was inspired by Parker’s revolutionary music—believes that tap dancers put the beats in the ears and creative minds of the boppers, not the other way around.
With “Bebop” squared away, Samuels Smith turns spare and reflective for Horace Silver’s “Lonely Woman,” a quiet, flowing number. Here and there, he drops a few scrapes and slides, an elegant trembling of feet against floor, a few knocks. He applies the sides of his shoes with the accuracy of an elite pastry chef laying on the chocolate icing, drawing squeals from his besotted audience.
Finally, he goes a capella, enjoying his own sounds and giving us eye-and-smile, unlike Savion Glover, as if to say, “You hear this?” A voice from the audience lobs out, “Go on!” And he does—sly and cool though hard-charging.
All of this, at least for me, would have been enough, but it wouldn’t fill the program’s hour. So we were treated to Chloé Arnold, Michelle Dorrance and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards flawlessly matching Parker note for note in excerpts from Charlie’s Angels (2009). Sumbry-Edwards, in particular, is fun to watch as she smooths out the breaks with a sideways swing of her leg or a graceful pivot of her upper body.
Michelle Dorrance, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, and Chloé Arnold
© AK47 Division, Courtesy of Divine Rhythm Productions
I’m of two minds about Charlie’s Angels, loving its forceful tribute to the virtuosity of women in tap—from yesterday’s chorus girls right up through personable young innovators like Dorrance. A few years on, though, that tight marriage of steps to the Parker music starts to feel restrictive, arbitrary, and unnecessary in light of the masterful bebop lesson Samuels Smith has already taught us in Imagine.
The excerpts from Chasing the Bird (2012) are, sort of, Charlie's Angels spliced with a morality tale about temptation by, let's call him, the Devil of Commercial Fame, played by Frank Harts. (“All you need to know is how many behinds you can get in those seats!”) Arnold, Dorrance, and Sumbry-Edwards are, once again, vivacious and fun, but the awkward, largely inaudible vocal elements of this piece (spoken word and song) leave an amateurish impression. And besides, isn’t bebop hoofing capable of speaking for itself?
Pictured at top: Jason Samuels Smith. © AK47 Division, Courtesy of Divine Rhythm Productions
New York Live Arts, NYC
June 14–15, 2013
Reviewed on June 14
In a pre-performance talk about her 10th anniversary retrospective, Makeda Thomas declared her mission to tell “Caribbean stories, women’s stories, political stories, rebellious stories.” For this season, she set out four samples from repertory along with a snippet of a multi-media work-in-development with poet/performance artist Queen GodIs. Of these, Los Colores (2009), a lengthy ensemble piece set to the audio of a beautiful TED talk by Nigeria-born novelist Chimamanda Adichie, peaked my interest due to its unusual setup.
Dancers position themselves along one or more narrow, rectangular swaths of light that span the space, suggesting the rollout of words across a page and the procession of characters across the flow of a well-told narrative. Like Adichie, Thomas, who has performed with Ronald K. Brown and Urban Bush Women, seeks to open our eyes to a complex world and our ears to stories that we seldom hear. Her dancers—Catherine Dénécy, Catherine Foster, Orlando Z. Hunter, Jr., Imani Johnson, Daniel Soto, and Candace Thompson—serve her urgent, extroverted approach, their sculpted movements propelled under high pressure as if there’s nothing more important to do than to dance and be witnessed. A couple of onlookers sitting in front of me that evening could not help but move, too, as if mainlining the dancers’ vibes.
This direct, intuitive connection of dancer to viewer seemed typical of nearly every moment of this program. On the other hand, the choreography looked interchangeable, stretched to fit any context. One can get a little lost in this territory. At the end of Los Colores, suddenly presented with something quite literal and dramatic—the apparent rending of a relationship, with amplified sounds of a heartbeat and panting as a man and woman pull away from each other—I wondered if I’d missed a crucial turn along the way.
Photo at top of Makeda Thomas by Matthew Karas.
The Invisible Dog Art Center
June 12–15, 2013
A dance performance inspired by a riot, no matter how violent in execution, will never be a riot. No dance will ever capture or adequately explain what happened at New York’s Attica Correctional Facility in 1971, when prisoners rose up, took hostages and voiced demands. Their confrontation with state authorities, police, and the National Guard resulted in 39 deaths. Setting that aside, we can look at what Rebecca Lazier, with her outstanding dancers and collaborators, has accomplished in Coming Together/Attica, a premiere at The Invisible Dog Art Center.
Set to two works on the Attica uprising by Frederic Rzewski, performed live by the indie-classical ensemble Newspeak, this piece packs more into its 50 minutes than most dance productions manage to deliver in twice the time. The audience—lining all four sides of the initial performance area—finds itself confined with Lazier’s artists within a small, drab space, the dim lighting unrelieved by a faint glow from frosted windows. With the orchestra’s startling first bang, dancers appear, nothing separating us from them. They sit, gazing and occasionally slouching atop metal folding chairs, just like us and on our level. Tubes of fluorescent light, placed beneath their seats, pop on or flash, only adding to the bleakness.
This first section, “Coming Together”—with Rzewski’s driving, percussive rhythm and Mellissa Hughes spitting text from a letter by slain Attica leader Sam Melville—suggests what it might feel like to be in a prison in meltdown. In a long, punishing sequence, dancers Asli Bulbul, Pierre Guilbault, Jennifer Lafferty, Rashaun Mitchell, Christopher Ralph, and Silas Riener manhandle and abuse one another, grappling and struggling. One question: Since they wear indentical grey, zippered coveralls—Mary-Jo Mecca’s rendering of prison garb–where, in all this terrifying action, are Attica’s corrections officers and outside forces?
Hurling themselves from one corner of the space to another like water breaching a ship, the dancers show an astonishing openness—even feral appetite—for Lazier’s vision of chaos. Watching them, we fear for their safety—and our own.
With the arrival of Part II—“Silence”—dancers and audience quickly reposition themselves surrounding another space. (To my knowledge, no one issued directions, and this appeared to work with quiet, follow-the-leader efficiency.) Like the Attica rebels with their barriers constructed from tables, the dancers stack a few tables atop a larger one. Lined up across this watchtower, they look down upon the audience with disinterest and boredom, drooping or fidgeting in myriad ways. Riener pulls at strands of his luxuriant hair. Bulbul snatches an imaginary fly from the air and eats it. Silence forces us to fix our attention on every detail of their lack of attention. We feel the space’s energy slacken, sucked away.
In Part III—“Attica”—Lazier switches to Rzewski's interpretation of the words of Richard X. Clark, a riot survivor later freed on parole. When asked how it felt to leave Attica behind him, Clark replied, “Attica is in front of me now.” More than 40 years later, the business of Attica and racism in the U.S. prison system remains unfinished. Perhaps Lazier’s audiences will ponder this. For now, she chooses to throw her work’s final space open to powerfully cleansing movement.
Here music returns as does energy and even a measure of outside light with the opening of window blinds to the view of a neighboring tree. Rzewski’s repetitive, accumulating phrases introduce a peaceful drone and chime. Once again, the audience turns to sit along a new space. Here dancers, now in white sleeveless shirts, shorts, and jazz shoes, airily scythe and crisscross, their movements resounding like struck bells. Where did Rzewski and Lazier find these angels?
I momentarily closed my eyes and felt a stinging chill on my cheek as a dancer—Riener, I think—brushed past me. I felt awakened, if not quite released.
Pictured at top: Part III "Attica" of Rebecca Lazier's Coming Together/Attica; photo by Julie Lemberger.
New York Live Arts, NYC
May 15–18, 2013
Performance reviewed: May 16
Shortly before attending Pam Tanowitz’ new work, The Spectators, I watched a TED Talk video on how anxious people can improve their chances of being taken seriously. Just do what animals do. Stop that shrinking and slumping, that clutching of hands to face or neck. Make your body look larger, physically spreading out to claim more actual and psychological space. Doing so—say, before walking into a job interview or a business presentation–releases brain chemicals that help you, in the words of the speaker, “fake it until you become it.” I thought about this when Tanowitz’s troupe, supported by music and lighting, completely occupied New York Live Arts’ space in a rare spirit of arrival and command.
Irresistible to critics for whom the aesthetics of neoclassicism and of Merce Cunningham, and the not unreasonable intertwining of the two, are a surefire draw, Tanowitz nevertheless has taken her knocks for last spring’s premiere, Untitled (Blue Ballet), a work that even she now regards with regret. The Spectators is her comeback attempt, and it’s luscious.
Melissa Toogood (far right) in Pam Tanowitz' The Spectators
Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy NYLA
To open, Tanowitz deals one of her veteran dancers—former Cunningham star Melissa Toogood, flawless of technique and bearing a classic Hollywood face—like a card from a hot hand. She sends her skimming out into the space alone. Dressed in a wine-red melange of ballet-wear, Toogood sets a tone sustained throughout—cool, light, just a hint of the jazzy. Like Dan Siegler’s expansive winds and drumming, the dancer simply carves open and cleans the space before her. For sure, those living-large neurochemicals get popping—for both Toogood and audience. And from this heraldic start to the work’s finish, Tanowitz’s focused choreography exudes clarity of purpose. The regularity of its precision stitch work and practiced patterns reassures and entertains. You never ask yourself, “Why did she do this thing and not that?” “What’s that doing there?” Or the killer: “That again?”
Maggie Cloud enters next—a teal-colored dragonfly darting over a pond. Like Toogood, her moves can be soft and shapely, yet rigorous, nothing out of place. And so it goes, with the appearance of more of this presentable sextet whose every port de bras and rond de jambe à terre, though familiar, seem fresh and natural in this new context.
The score—Part 1 by Siegler, Part 2 by Annie Gosfield—catches us up in fancifully layered, imageful atmospheres that engulf the performance space. It’s possible to find yourself wondering how that distant marching band you can almost hear and see at times will make it over those sands where heavy breakers surge.
Dylan Crossman and Melissa Toogood
Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy NYLA
On one occasion, Davison Scandrett’s lighting design surprises as he redirects sharp beams, and our attention, to busy feet and shins. At another moment, he wavers between revealing the dancers—Toogood, especially, twirling into a distant corner—and plunging them into darkness as he briefly trains a faint light on the audience. With blaring light, he will dramatize dancers invading the bare margins of the theater’s space, or he will flash a magical mini-aurora over the brief kiss in the grand pas de deux between Toogood and another Cunningham vet, Dylan Crossman. If Tanowitz’s dancers execute steps and sequences with strict dispassion, Scandrett’s job seems to be to use light to express thinking, feeling, and drunkenness not demonstrated elsewhere. Or perhaps he represents our own giddy spectator eyes at play.
Pictured at top: Pam Tanowitz' The Spectators. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy NYLA.
Danspace Project, NYC
April 25–27, 2013
Reviewed April 27
For their shared curating gig at Danspace Project, scholars Jenn Joy and Noémie Solomon drew inspiration from musings on dance by Georges Didi-Huberman, French philosopher and art historian. Assuming–I suspect correctly—that most of us have not made the acquaintance of M. Didi-Huberman, the pair introduced their program, “Solos & Solitudes,” by cutting right to the chase. Most people, they told us, think of dancing in social terms, involving a lot of bodies. But, their philosopher argues, a solo might be the one place where dance is most visible.
Solos simplify things, don’t they? Perhaps, that is what M. Didi-Huberman had in mind. But, wait: Not so fast!
In Private Realness, Taisha Paggett, a Los Angeles- and Chicago-based dance artist who is black, complicates simplicity by entering the space not by herself but with a white woman. Dancer Greer Dworman, described in the program as a “choreographic assistant,” stands on the sidelines for the initial passage of the work, then participates in various ways. The barefoot Paggett, dressed in a chaste, though somewhat lacy, white skirt and jacket, moves around to gospel music, Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” and a Wiccan chant about tree roots and branches—some hints, there, of cultural overlapping and appropriation. The “soloist” is never alone because, wherever she goes, the specter of the white race—and of black experience under dominant society—is always there. Skewing this notion of solitude in Private Realness is Paggett’s top move. As dance, though, the work seems slight, dry, and less than sharp in execution.
Soloist Caroline Gravel, from Montreal, has someone there with her, too—her mother, though not literally. Ma Mère Est un Mâle Alpha begins with the sound of loud, insistent, and persistent birdcalls. Gravel approaches us and introduces herself, speaks the title in English (“My Mother Is an Alpha Male”) and strides away. Immediately, one senses a certain aggressive and borderline-comic matter-of-factness about the woman, as presented here, that will blossom into something outlandish.
And so it goes. “My mother is an alpha male, and if no one were watching would move like crazy all the time!” But we are watching and, through Gravel, Mother is here. She bursts into awkward trots just short of a stumble, jerks and hurtles atop bony knees, stomps her noisy boots, swings her arms violently, throws her head and long brown hair forward. All of that, combined with Gravel’s wearing what appears to be an early ’60s thrift-store mini-dress, sloppily belted, makes me nickname her Alice in Blunderland.
At times, the audience chuckled—an exhale from the solemnity of the Paggett piece. Despite skepticism, I found myself falling for Gravel. (A favorite moment: The dancer, with her back turned to us, crying in obvious disbelief, “Are you still watching me?”) But the highpoint is her audio recording of an auctioneer in full-throated flow. I still haven’t figured out what that was doing in the solo, but what vocal virtuosity!
Most anticipated on the evening’s bill, Hilary Clark did not disappoint. Dressed in a filmy tunic over neon leggings, she reads from a journal illuminated by a tiny, portable reading light and comically lays down the law. “Move over Superman! There’s a new witch in town!” She sounds more like a teenager screwing up her shaky courage—faking it, not making it—than a woman warrior or, for that matter, a star of the New York avantgarde. But this may be what it means for Clark to be out there, in space, alone. Her solo’s title, Accessories of Protection, appears to refer to the tall and little structures adorned in silvery paillettes, spread around the floor and listlessly rearranged by the dancer. Rihanna’s unconvincing love song, “Diamonds,” plays while Clark encases her whole head in this wearable art, the paillettes glittering like cheap rhinestones. It’s silly and she knows it. The thing is: Who doesn’t love cheap rhinestones?
Pictured at top: Hilary Clark in her solo Accessories of Protection.
Photo by Tamara Johnson, Courtesy Danspace.
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February 22–24, 2013
92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Festival
New York, NY
Performance reviewed: February 22
Stripped/Dressed—a dance-demystifying strategy Doug Varone created a few years ago—is, in theory, a great notion. “A way to help audiences feel at ease and take ownership of their ideas,” he calls it. “A way to see the company close and dirty.”
A Stripped/Dressed event begins with an informal talk about the genesis and process of making dance and a demo illustrated by dancers in practice clothes. After intermission—during which, this time, we were invited to watch a video of Varone performers dancing in children’s hospital rooms—the group gives a formal presentation of a work. It concludes with a Q&A. All of that can add up to a lengthy evening, as it did on Varone’s recent bill in the Y’s intimate, dance-historic Buttenwieser Hall. The audience needs as much focus and stamina as the Varone dancers, and theirs are downright legendary. I can’t say mine held up nearly as well.
Doug Varone and Dancers certainly made the case for the persuasiveness of seeing dance live and close up. For their Harkness Dance Festival program, the troupe demo-ed the reconstructed Rise (1993), set to music by John Adams. This rousing dance has no business being shown just a few feet from our noses, but here it is—an abstract ensemble with the expansive feel of a zooming, bustling city of massive forces, risk-takers, big appetites, bigger ambitions. Varone rolls his dancers like dice, throwing them hard, way off center where they cling to Earth with tenacity. If you’re going along for this ride, pack your Dramamine.
From left: Eddie Taketa, Alex Springer, Erin Owen and Julia Burrer in Doug Varone's Mouth Above Water
Photo by Julie Lemberger, Courtesy 92nd St. Y
Mouth Above Water, the new work, shares some of those qualities but compresses the surges and blaring movement into tighter, more disturbing intersections and interactions among the eight dancers–Hollis Bartlett, Erin Owen, Xan Burley, Alex Springer, Hsiao-Jou Tang, Julia Burrer, Eddie Taketa and Colin Stillwell. For the Harkness premiere, Varone used the stage space for a kind of Punch and Judy show of three performers and their looming jet-black shadows. The rest danced on the floor in front of us, as they had during the demo, with the tall and willowy, breathtakingly expressive Burrer appearing to be a sacrificial victim. These performances and composer Julia Wolfe’s orchestral string piece—“Cruel Sister,” inspired by an old English ballad about two sisters’ lethal rivalry over a man--made me shift in my seat to release the effects that this tension and violence had on my own body.
Bottom line: Doug Varone’s troupe might be the last one that needs to sell an audience on its methods. If this work and these dancers can’t move you, I don’t know what would.
Pictured at top: Xan Burley (right) and Hsiao-Jou Tang in Doug Varone's Mouth Above Water
Photo by Julie Lemberger, Courtesy 92nd St. Y
Gutierrez, with Hilary Clark and Ishmael Houston-Jones in background. Photo by Chris Cameron, Courtesy BAM.
What’s on Miguel Gutierrez’s mind these days? (A fair question to ask about a guy who has had his performers and audience share the same stage space, or had lovely dancer Michelle Boulé impersonate James Dean.) From the sound of And lose the name of action—which premiered in September at Walker Art Center and is heading for BAM’s Next Wave Festival, Dec. 4–8—it’s the aging body and brain.
But wait. There’s more.
The Miguel Gutierrez & The Powerful People website (www.miguelgutierrez.org) proclaims, in big, fuschia-colored letters, “PROBABLY THE BIGGEST QUESTION I MAKE ABOUT ART IS: WHY ARE WE ALIVE.” Yet And lose the name of action, sometimes described as “a moving séance for the 21st Century,” ventures into the afterlife of ghosts. (The title is a Hamlet reference.) It’s still about bodies, just bodies that are no longer real.
But first, a choreographer needs bodies that are absolutely real. Gutierrez’s track record in collaborating with some of New York’s smartest young avantgarde artists is proven. This time, though, he felt moved to try something new.
“I realized that I had never worked with older people,” he says. “The choreographer is often the oldest person in the process. For all the lip service that we pay to being experimental, New Yorkers make a lot of conservative decisions around casting. You see lots of young, pretty, white ladies in dance in New York. I just wanted to put together a group of people who look really different.”
Besides Gutierrez, that really different-looking—and renowned—crew includes Boulé, Hilary Clark, Luke George, K. J. Holmes, and Ishmael Houston-Jones, ranging in age from 33 to 62.
“It’s funny how the casting has worked out,” he admits. “It’s purely alchemical, psychic weirdness.”
His imaginative curiosity drove research into concepts of “mind-body” in neurology, philosophy, somatics, and 19th-century spiritualism. He pored over The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult (from a 2005 show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and joined a South Florida ghost hunt that featured talk of the Confederate dead. His father’s struggle with neurological complications also shaped his concerns in the work.
Not revealing too much of the magic, Gutierrez allows that the audience at BAM’s new 250-seat Fishman Space can expect “possibilities of multiple perspectives.”
And lose the name of action also travels to Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Jan. 31–Feb. 3, and Seattle’s On the Boards, May 2–5.
Next Wave Festival
Brooklyn Academy of Music
BAM Fisher/Fishman Space
Nov. 27–Dec. 1, 2012
Performance reviewed: Nov. 27
So, Lucy Guerin, what is this fascination with civilians? I silently asked this question every time I saw promotion for the U.S. premiere of her 2009 work, Untrained. The Australian choreographer apparently enjoys the looks of untrained dance performers—the way they throw themselves into an exercise with no tricks to fall back upon, no theoretical filter, no prior orientation to space or to a “dancerly” use of their bodies.
Guerin’s one-hour quartet for men—two of them superbly trained and experienced dancers; two, untrained and wonderfully brave guys from other fields—seems, in its description, a slight project to bring to BAM’s prestigious Next Wave Festival. And maybe that’s why the packed opening night audience in Fishman Space fell head over heels. Unpretentious, at times moving, Untrained is unabashedly all about being flesh-and-blood human. In its ability to draw performers and audience into a big embrace, it puts a lot of highfalutin’ dance experiments to shame.
The current cast includes dancers Ross McCormack and Alisdair Macindoe along with Michael Dunbar (described as a “freelance interaction designer,” a mournful-faced bear of a guy) and Jake Shackleton (an environmental engineer whose education ranged from music to chemistry to business management). This is not Dancing With the Stars. Scruffy-looking T-shirts and sweat pants or shorts bring everyone to the same ordinary, unkempt level. Dudes willing to play Follow the (trained) Leader in ballet flourishes, b-boy downrocking, or the gnarliest, wackiest abstract sequences make us root for them. We come to expect neither more nor less of any of them, and that makes us lean forward for a closer look at everything they do. Guerin is not alone in her fascination!
Michael Dunbar, Ross McCormack, Alisdair Macindoe, and Jake Shackleton in Untrained.
Photo by Julieta Cervantes, Courtesy BAM.
McCormack has facile, minute control of his rubbery body, but it’s every bit as much fun to observe Dunbar and Shackleton making sense of his outbursts in their own way. We learn that there’s a sharp line between what’s awkward and what’s alternative; Dunbar and Shackleton walk that line like Philippe Petit on a high wire. It’s marked by genuine humor relished by the audience out of empathy, I believe. Dance critics who imagine cruelty in the audience’s chuckling are projecting their own expectations and discomfort at the sight of untrained movers.
Shackleton reveals himself to be great at suggesting imagery to Macindoe (who must play an expanding and deflating hot-air balloon) and a natural at reenacting over-the-top movie scenes. I’m tempted to say “A star is born,” but Untrained really leads us back to Sly Stone: “Everybody is a Star.”
Along the way, Dunbar reveals that, because of his weight, he suffered bullying in school. As a new husband, he says, he suddenly feels more concerned about health. Macindoe explains the red skin blotches that we’ve all noticed and wondered about, and other bits of background and interior life are offered up in straightforward, concise ways—just enough to make all of these men, trained or untrained, less objects of our gaze than our kin in this thing called life.
Untrained continues at BAM through Dec. 1.
Pictured at top: Ross McCormack, Alisdair Macindoe (center) with Michael Dunbar and Jake Shackleton on the sidelines. Photo by Julieta Cervantes, Courtesy BAM.
The Joyce Theater
New York, NY
October 2–7, 2012
Performance reviewed: Oct. 2
The Joyce becomes a hothouse, sprouting whirling azaleas, when the men and women of Philadanco, clothed in hot pink and cranberry, showcase Suite Otis. This George Faison work, from three whole decades ago, seems as if it were made yesterday. Never mind the age of those Otis Redding classics or that any run-of-the-mill troupe could easily handle the sassy snaps, high kicks, hip-pumping, and skirt-swirling as well as the by-now clichéd, cutesy bickering between dance partners Chloé O. Davis and Justin Bryant. These dancers bring everything they have, everything they are, to each movement of this picturesque suite.
If there’s fun to be had, Philadanco will have it. But if there’s deeper purpose, these performers will clarify it, underscore it, and make you pay attention. I was pleased to see how they apply themselves to Gatekeepers, a Ronald K. Brown ensemble piece from 1999. For this work, Brown envisioned, he says, “soldiers walking toward heaven, searching for the wounded and looking-out to make a safe haven for others to follow.” Philadanco’s dancers have got this figured out, managing to look both soldierly and heavenly. They take meticulous care with Brown’s complex, demanding musicality–an unpredictable, delicious way of timing and highlighting movement that erupts from anywhere in the body and works the entire body. It’s as if they troubled to clean all the windows onto this dance’s soul because they care.
But even one of America’s top troupes—and Philadanco is certainly that—can’t cover for uninspired design and choreographic infrastructure. Presenting the world premiere of Moan, an ensemble work set to Nina Simone songs, Ailey superstar Matthew Rushing (here in the role of choreographer) showed us fresh ideas and fully-developed drama in only one of its six sections. In “Don’t Explain,” a steamy duet for Roxanne Lyst and Justin Bryant, Lyst pours herself into her character, a wronged woman who knows all too well “what love endures,” holding nothing back. She repeatedly, pitiably abases herself, opening her body to her cheating lover. She is unable to resist pawing his back even as he glides away. Yet, in the end, she wins her gamble, reclaiming firm, if quiet, power over a man as shamelessly addicted to her as she is to him.
Last season, Rennie Harris’ Home hit a home run for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Now Wake Up, introduced to New York by Philadanco, argues for sending Harris out on a mission to inject new life into troupes of all kinds. Wake Up—which draws inspiration from the creativity and self-definition of Black and Latino youth, the phenomenon of hip hop, and the Afrobeat of Fela Anikulapo Kuti—has a funny way of restraining its dancers while freeing them. I noticed Harris’s tendency to hold them in place like a chorus line, aligned along a horizontal grid (a spatial arrangement altered, now and then, as some come or go offstage) while keeping their bodies bubbling to Fela’s irresistible rhythms. What at first seemed restrictive eventually struck me as being quite apt: Proud, foxy dancers, each one saying, “This is me” and “I am here” and “This is what grounds me.”
Photo by Ayodele Casel, courtesy Philadanco. Pictured left to right are Rosita Adamo, Ruka White, Lindsey Holmes, and Tommie- Waheed Evans in Matthew Rushing's Moan.
Philadanco continues at the Joyce through Sunday, Oct. 7.
New York Live Arts
September 18–19, 21–22, 2012
Program A, Sept. 18
We humans—and especially those of us living in privileged nations—label things in order to act upon them, to control, to sell, and consume. With regard to those useful yet often troubling people, places, and things “over there” at a safe distance, our claim to the right to label can be critically strategic; it permits us to view and treat The Other as suits our current needs.
The African continent, virtually a map of labels imposed from outside, is home to three dancer/choreographers, recently presented at New York Live Arts, who subvert Western stereotypes of Africa, its women, and its art. They flip the script, appropriating non-African cultural artifacts and behavior and turning them to their own artistic and political ends. They demonstrate that African peoples have creative agency, are not frozen in time and are—for better or worse—active players in this world that we have all wrought.
Nelisiwe Xaba (South Africa), Kettly Noël (Haitian-born, living in Mali) and Nadia Beugré (Cote d’Ivoire) introduced two impressive works during Program A of the touring festival Voices of Strength: Contemporary Dance and Theater by Women from Africa, curated by Mapp International’s Cathy Zimmerman. None of these three women artists care to conform to American expectations, nor to any manner of theatrical reticence. They say yes to raucous humor, yes to glamour (in either their person or, in the case of Beugré, extravagant stage design), yes to repeatedly invading your space, yes to intimations of sexuality and undercurrents of violence.
Nelisiwe Xaba and Kettly Noël in Correspondances
Collaborating on Correspondances, Xaba and Noël depict affluent, ultra-stylish ladies whose notion of dance is as far from tribal tradition as you can imagine. For instance, they might take inspiration from rock videos, nailing the Eurythmic hit, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” with deceptively cute, gestural intensity. They interpret ballet terms like piqué with nearly lethal literalness. They ratchet up an initially chummy butt bump with bumper-car velocity. And they turn the ridiculous (two milk-filled, udder-shaped balloons descending to the dancers’ mouths) into the sublime (what if the sensual Vollmond had wet Bausch’s dancers not with water but milk?) and back to the ridiculous (bodies wildly slipping over a milk-slicked floor). And while these charismatic buddies make viewers chuckle, they sometimes chill the blood. In one segment, a reclining Xaba unfurls a gorgeous leg, raising and dangling a white-gowned, white-skinned doll that she appears to have impaled on her black stiletto heel. Later, as we listen to a Blossom Dearie recording of “Satin Doll,” Xaba looms over the pitiable marionette, “walking” its tiny feet and coolly manipulating it in what, for white people in the audience, cannot be a comfortable image.
Nelisiwe Xaba in Correspondances.
All photos by Ian Douglas, courtesy New York Live Arts.
Beugré's Quartiers Libres provokes more discomfort. Beugré, sitting among the audience, prettily sings the famed Swahili love song/lullaby “Malaika” (“Angel”). But all is not well. In short order, she launches a long, self-punishing journey in which the heavy microphone cable looped around her neck and chest will turn burdensome; its rubber clenched between her lips will distort her face. The audience must ponder whether the space this dancer inhabits is truly free, as the solo’s title suggests. Throughout her physically and emotionally difficult performance, we witness freedom continuously toggling on and off.
At times, Beugré seems energized, even fearsome. Yet she acts upon a stage decorated with a “waterfall” that, while shimmering like liquid silver, is actually an assemblage of trash—flattened plastic water bottles (brilliant work by set designer Laurent Bourgeois and lighting designer Christopher Kuhl). She will stuff a large trash bag into her mouth. She will dress herself in a “tutu” of plastic bottles and pluck them from her body like bloody arrows. In these commercial byproducts of natural resources, we recognize the deadly personal and global consequences of unbridled political and corporate power that seizes free space and destroys autonomy.
Above and pictured at top: Nadia Beugré in Quartiers Libres
Voices of Strength’s Program B, which I did not attend, features Madame Plaza, a work by Morocco’s Bouchra Ouizgen first brought to New York in 2010, and the US premiere of Sombra, a solo by Mozambique’s Maria Helena Pinto. More American viewers will have a chance to catch this exciting festival when it comes to Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle, and Washington, DC.
Voices of Strength continues at New York Live Arts through Sept. 22.
The Joyce Theater, NYC
June 19–24, 2012
Performance reviewed: June 19
In An Unfinished Memoir, choreographer José Limón recalled first dancing a new solo—Chaconne, set to a Bach violin work—before the astonished gaze of his mentor and colleague Doris Humphrey. She declared it, he wrote, “one of the most magnificent things I have ever seen...chiefly because it is a man dancing.”
This spring, for the Limón Dance Company’s run at the Joyce, Chaconne is a woman dancing. Performances of this work honored the late Graham dancer Ethel Winter, who died earlier this year. Roxane D’Orleans Juste (who I saw on opening night) and Kathryn Alter shared the role, accompanied onstage by violinist Kinga Augustyn.
In Chaconne (1942), D’Orleans Juste brought to her performance an awareness of theater space as a malleable reality activated by a body charged, in turn, by the deepest of human experiences and feelings. Dressed simply in tailored black slacks and white shirt—a femininity-neutralizing costume fit for a matador—she unfolds her first courtly gestures as a way of humbly, politely introducing herself. The solo then proceeds through stages of the music’s—and life’s—dynamics, handled by D’Orleans Juste with faithfulness if not fresh revelation. She achieves one critical moment that seizes the eye—her body stretched along a taut diagonal, it would seem, between heaven and earth, or heaven and hell.
Daniel Fetecua Soto as The Emperor and Durell Comedy as The Trader in The Emperor Jones.
The viewer might have hoped for signal moments like this in Limón’s The Emperor Jones, a 1956 ensemble piece reconstructed by Clay Taliaferro to open the two-hour program. Limón’s main character here—an island tyrant mentally tormented by his own cruelty and guilt—should be as fearsome, at least initially, as the hallucinations that bedevil him. Daniel Fetecua Soto—the only “Emperor” after Limón and Taliaferro—gives us the shapes and motions of Jones in a lithe, dancerly way but cannot deliver the necessary heft that would make this character, with his ineffectual pistol dangling from his crotch, seem convincingly mad, not just physically manic. Durrell Comedy’s depiction of the conniving slave trader rests on his skill at minute, slippery changes in the body that require superb physical control. He’s believable and actually quite fun to watch.
Most likely, this historic piece—with the artificiality of its wrenching, staccato style and florid clichés—has lost impact as dance-theater. Nevertheless, Limón might still speak to the dangers of unbalanced, unbridled power manifest every day from elite boardrooms and prep schools to the halls of governments here and abroad. Eerily, the troupe’s season opened right after word arrived that Egypt’s deposed strongman, ailing and confined to a prison hospital, had come very close to death.
Logan Francis Kruger and Kristen Foote in Cathedrale Engloutie.
The company also staged a revival of JiÅ™í Kylián's La Cathédrale Engloutie, set to Debussy. The 1975 piece featured pretty references, in the dancing, to both the lyrical flow and the monumental strength of ocean waves, as well as particularly strong, resonating presence from Comedy, Logan Francis Kruger, and Kristen Foote.
But artistic director Carla Maxwell knows that the durability of her well-trained ensemble will depend on more than a museum’s worth of classic repertoire. She has scored a major popular win with a world premiere—Come With Me, the first U.S. commission for Brazilian choreographer Rodrigo Pedeneiras of Grupo Corpo and the first dance commission for Cuba-born Paquito D’Rivera, a multiple-Grammy winner and a giant of Latin music. The Limón dancers not only took to D’Rivera’s mellow Latin jazz but clearly relished Pedeneiras’ penchant for erect posture, lilt, and fleet movements. If coolness can be said to sizzle in space like surges of electricity, they are cool personified.
Aaron Selissen and Daniel Fetecua Soto in Come With Me.
Pictured at top: Logan Francis Kruger and Durell Comedy in Come With Me.
All photos by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy Limón Company.
The Joyce Theater, NYC
May 15–27, 2012
Performance reviewed: May 15
Each time I see Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, I marvel at the earnest physical investment of its dancers: They attack each work as if they all matter equally, even ones that might not otherwise move me. I imagine choreographers would fight for the chance to have their visions interpreted by a repertory ensemble with this much commitment and intensity, not to mention technical capacity. I recently caught up with the troupe for Program A of its Joyce Theater season.
Hofesh Shechter's Violet Kid, which includes 14 dancers, almost the entire company, opens with an aggressive, grinding sound that is quickly silenced. A man's heavily-accented voice—perhaps the choreographer, an Israeli—asks, "Do I talk too much?" This seems innocent enough, and apropos of nothing, until it is repeated while one man kneels and another presses two fingers against the kneeler's head like a cocked pistol. The voiceover speaker elaborates: "If I didn't talk too much, I would have more friends." Suddenly, we're not sure where we are except that it is someplace we'd rather not be.
Matthew Rich (foreground) in Hofesh Shechter's Violet Kid
Musicians Ramon de Bruyn (double bass), Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf (cello), and Tawnya Popoff (viola) appear and disappear from a surface suspended above the stage. Fog obscures whatever holds them as if they are afloat on a cloud. The score—which also includes recorded percussion by Nathan Davis and Matthew Gold—gathers, groans, pounds, and chugs along, ominous and anxious.
Shechter's ensemble boils and spews, a gush of lava, or an ocean roiling and alive with agitated creatures. Each performer dances with more-than-human elasticity, stretching and snapping in ways that no human should move. Dancers melt into and emerge from dark spaces, at times becoming one organism, at other times splitting into distinct beings who handle one another roughly for no reason other than that's their nature. Cedar Lake dances the hell out of this bleak, terrifying work where hell, as we've heard, really is other people.
Crystal Pite's Grace Engine—premiered by Cedar Lake this year in Lyon, France—opens with an extreme, breakout solo for Jon Bond, always a company notable, now with several years under his belt and, like his colleague Nickemil Concepcion, a maturing, deepening self-presentation. But Pite, like Shechter, capitalizes on the troupe's collective rigor. Moreover, she brings out, in the men, an athletic hyper-masculinity, another capability often seized upon by Cedar Lake's commissioned dancemakers. It makes for a wow of a stage picture, although enough of it can make me long for different textures.
Cyrstal Pite's Grace Engine
Set between these two works was Angelin Preljocaj's 1995 Annociation, performed, the night I saw it, by Acacia Schachte (as the angel) and Harumi Terayama (as perhaps too girlish a virgin). Schachte handled the disruptive, alien physicality of her role very well, though neither dancer inhabited her dancing with galvanizing force.
With the inclusion of this duet and the necessity of two intermissions, Program A ran very long. It's curious how a venue can determine what is considered to be the appropriate length of a show. An hour is good enough for a production running at any of the usual “downtown, contemporary dance” spots where, admittedly, I spend the bulk of my dance-going time. If it's mounted at houses like the Joyce or City Center or at Lincoln Center, apparently nothing under 90 minutes will do. Any of the three works here could have been shown elsewhere all by itself, perhaps leading to interesting explorations of the work by the performers and greater engagement for their audiences.
Cedar Lake continues at The Joyce Theater with Program B, May 22–27. See www.joyce.org.
Pictured at top: Ana-Maria Lacaciu & Joaquim de Santana in Crystal Pite's Grace Engine
All photos by Julieta Cervantes, courtesy Cedar Lake.
La MaMa Moves! Festival
La MaMa E.T.C., NYC
May 9–19, 2012
Performance reviewed: May 12
Perhaps La MaMa Moves! curator Nicky Paraiso felt that he had to say something, following the dismissive review of Yoshiko Chuma's new multimedia production that appeared in New York's preeminent newspaper. "Art doesn't always come in tidy packages," Paraiso told the audience as he introduced a Saturday afternoon performance of Love Story, Palestine. "Sometimes it's messy. Sometimes it's fierce. And that is what Yoshiko has brought to us."
I have to agree that Love Story, Palestine does not perfectly cohere as theater. Its messiness undercuts any potential fierceness. However, something else comes through that could prove more crucial than theatrical polish, and that is visibility, contact, connection. How many of us who often read and hear about the Palestinians—and have even formed strong opinions about their situation and concerns—have ever seen or met a Palestinian?
Chuma offered these performances for free because it was important to her that we get to meet her company's Palestinian guests—dancers Anas Abu Oun and Sari Husseini—who, once again constrained by border laws, cannot work for money in the US.
In Love Story, Palestine, we see drawings and photo portraits of Palestinians. We listen to interviews of Palestinian artists, hear about their values and tragic losses. We watch videos of Ramallah's El-Funoun dance troupe and, in La MaMa's intimate space, observe the two guest dancers, live, as they perform variations on the vigorous dabke. The stomp of boots on the floor, the occasional vocalizations and flash of smiles—are all, finally, close enough.
Sari Husseini of the El-Funoun dance troup in Chuma's Love Story, Palestine
These are what Yoshiko Chuma has brought us. What she cannot bring in its entirety, however, is 6 Seconds in Ramallah, the piece she worked on with El-Funoun. Instead, she has patched together a part-literal and sometimes didactic, part-abstract and sometimes poetic meditation on El-Funoun and Palestine, made of movement, spoken and distributed text, video and set installations, audience interaction and live music—including a luscious, moody piano introduction and coda. It's a lot of overlapping data to take in at once, much of it looking rushed and unsophisticated. But maybe that's deliberate, and maybe that's okay.
I want to tell you about a section that slowly grew on me. It centered around alternating tarps—one sunny yellow, the other in camouflage print—unfurled to engulf the floor. My memory of the sequence of events is unfortunately fuzzy, but I do recall Husseini angrily bunching up the camouflage tarp around him as if weary of all that camouflaging implies. I remember the cheerful glow of the yellow tarp sliding out from under the darker one, and I think that Chuma's childlike open heart guided how she would tell her story to hearts that could similarly open.
All photos by Hugh Burckhardt, courtesy La MaMa Moves
Pictured at top: Sari Husseini and Anas Abu Oun of the El-Funoun dance troupe in Chuma's Love Story, Palestine.
The Joyce Theater, NYC
May 8–13, 2012
Performance reviewed: May 8
In Alonzo King's vision for his San Francisco-based ensemble, ballet itself appears to be a body capable of uncommon, even freakish pliancy and distorted, roughed-up lyricism. It is ballet contradicting ballet at nearly every turn, not so subtly referencing the ground but often doom eager for it.
In Resin (2011)—set to a suite of spiritual and secular, traditional and contemporary, instrumental and a cappella music of the Sephardic diaspora—dancers frequently propel torsos outward and downward or sink into raffish pliés or tempt fate by stretching or thrusting a movement phrase past what might be its sensible end point. Feet flattened, or skimming as if on ice, draw attention to the floor, so that pointe work, coming in brief bursts, appears more functional than aesthetic: "I rise just to get to the next place." A dancer might shoot her leg up to her ear, but she is just as likely to wind up with her rear jutting in our faces for no discernible reason. When dancers lift their partners or lock arms with them or slam into them, you feel the effort or the impact. I have rarely been more aware of—and fascinated by—the literal weight, the matter-of-factness, of ballet dancers' bodies than while watching LINES at the Joyce.
Victor Mateos Arellano in Alonzo King's Resin. Photo by RJ Muna.
At the same time, LINES can puzzle. Resin opens with the inexplicable image of a floor-length tube of fabric, first drenched in lime-green light, that trembles with the groping movements of the man within; it looks a bit foolish when this sheath lifts away, and Victor Matteos Arellano stands before us in a pair of briefs. The luminous music forms a tapestry of Mediterranean/Arabic/Near Eastern cultures, but the very nature of it—undulating melodies, alternately soothing and propulsive rhythms—seems to have engendered a sameness in movement design over a lengthy journey. I took that journey through Resin, feeling vaguely dissatisfied, unaware that I was waiting to meet someone important.
That someone turned out to be Meredith Webster—a tall switch of willow, King's most senior performer and perhaps his quirkiest. In Resin's penultimate section, backed by the male trio of David Harvey, Zack Tang and Keelan Whitmore, Webster moves against a steady beat and a woman's sonorant voice amid a chorus of male voices. King has singled her out and captured her individuality, her self-possession, her way with breath and timing that is fresh in the moment. Her vibrancy, it would seem, is the force unleashing showers of resin upon King's ensemble.
Yujin Kim in Alonzo King's Resin. Photo by Quinn B. Wharton.
Scheherazade (2009), again, does something unexpected—even unseemly—with dancers' physical reality. It nakedly displays weariness, and rightly so. Doesn't that befit a legend of a queen spinning tales for her husband through grueling hours, night after night, to save her life? Michael Montgomery, Ashley Jackson, Courtney Henry, and other LINES dancers are ready athletes, but I found it far more gripping to watch Kara Wilkes (Scheherazade) and Harvey (Shahryar) slumping, stumbling, and clinging to one another in increasing exhaustion. Contemporary ballet à la King.
Ricardo Zayas in Alonzo King's Scheherazade. Photo by RJ Muna.
Pictured at top: Meredith Webster in Alonzo King's Scheherazade. Photo by RJ Muna.
All photos Courtesy LINES.
PLATFORM 2012: Parallels
Danspace Project, St. Mark’s Church, NYC
February 2–March 31, 2012
Parallels—a two-month series commissioned by Danspace and curated by Ishmael Houston-Jones—is arguably the most significant event of the current dance season. A provocative survey of innovative black choreographers, some veteran and some emerging, who work within non-mainstream dance, Parallels revisited and updated a program, also called Parallels, created by Houston-Jones 30 years ago. That series focused on an earlier generation, such as Blondell Cummings, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Fred Holland and Houston-Jones himself. “Black dance” is a quick, easy label to say and write, but what, if anything, does it mean, and what does it mean, now, to be a black choreographer?
Even the series’ launch—an “Artist’s Voice” conversation with Houston-Jones at Studio Museum in Harlem—broke with expectations. For the moment, and for a change, let’s take this out of St. Mark’s Church, take it way uptown and affirm dance as a visual and conceptual art that might prove interesting to outside artists and spectators. The SRO event acknowledged Houston-Jones, a recent Bessie Award–winner and iconoclast, beloved educator and advocate for contemporary dance. One video clip showed him, with dance partner Holland, challenging even the then-revolutionary contact improvisation community by bringing black bodies to the mix—just for starters.
By working outside the Ailey tradition and other popular black conventions, Houston-Jones and his colleagues radically broadened the aesthetic possibilities for Black dancers while making room for black perspectives within the white-predominant avant-garde. This was not without the usual difficulties of riding the turbulence between two powerful worlds.
With the updated Parallels, Houston-Jones acknowledged that, over the past few decades, our understanding of this work and its range has grown more complicated and sophisticated. “Black dance”—if that term still holds—now includes contemporary innovations from African and Caribbean artists; dance styles emerging from urban streets and clubs; and choreographers who, like the symbolic Sankofa bird, look backward to past traditions in order to surge forward in imaginative ways. One of Parallels’ guest curators, Dean Moss, even dared to select choreographers from other ethnicities—Korean-American, Latino, and white—for a program bluntly titled “Black Dance.”
No review can do justice to the varied material offered and rich questions generated by Parallels—the title of which, according to choreographer Reggie Wilson, should have been Vectors—meaning not two or more things neatly lined up but lots of things shooting in various directions. Nor can I do more than note a handful of the many artists who contributed to this historic series, like Gesel Mason, Cynthia Oliver, and Marya Wethers, sharing a program curated by Bebe Miller, whose pieces showed that the black (and black female) body cannot be considered apart from the personal and cultural history it holds, for better or for worse. The black body will tease, strain, and break the cool, neutral, movement-focused silence of postmodernism the way that Ann Liv Young, wearing blackface and a fuschia dress in the program curated by Dean Moss broke the silent decorum of her liberal, downtown dance audience. This review’s selection of events merely offers a rapid survey of some of Parallels’ highlights and issues, and I apologize to those artists whose work cannot be covered here.
Cynthia Oliver and Leslie Cuyjet in Oliver's Where We're Calling From
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s curated evening, "Black Jam," asserted improvisation as an inherent feature of black culture and art—undeniable in tap dance and jazz, for sure, but less well recognized in contemporary dance. Zollar presented a loose cluster of segments—movement jams, a movement game, improvised storytelling, a flock of house dancers. Not all of these activities gelled as performance or argument, but improvisation’s creative intelligence was reflected in Zollar’s three main dancers—Hunter Carter, Samantha Speis, and Marya Wethers. How slyly they met, locked in, assisted, complicated, manipulated, interrupted, enabled, contained, and transformed one another. Speis, like a star jazz player, could be counted on to stir in some wilder, funkier ideas that changed the equation and compelled us to watch.
If the performers in Zollar’s club dancing segment were surprisingly listless, we only needed to wait a week for “From the Streets, From the Clubs, From the Houses.” This program, featuring works by Regina Rocke, Niall Jones, Darrell Jones and Nicholas Leichter, opened with the screening of a trailer for Check Your Body at the Door, the acclaimed documentary on house dancing (done right), produced by critic/historian Sally Sommer. Houston-Jones introduced the evening by invoking Pearl Primus and Dianne McIntyre for their role in adapting black forms of social dancing to the Western concert stage.
Darrell Jones’ Hoo-ha (twister pump breakdown) did not just drop vogueing and house dancing into a postmodern setting; he underscored the discrete, almost ritualistic vocabulary, arrangement and timing of club dance movement, arguing for it as contemporary choreography. Leichter, the club dancer turned choreographer whose Twenty Twenty, a scorching, irrepressibly sexy duet-in-progress with Bryan Strimpel, amused everyone who suddenly remembered that—omg!—Danspace Project is housed in a church.
Darrell Jones' Hoo-ha
In Rocke’s duet Boy Troubles, danced with Niall Jones, Rocke alternates between between spiky, expansive swagger and balletic twirl, her superpowers. Who is she? Whoever she wants to be. And so goes Jones–aka niall jones or niall phoenix jones, sometimes identified as male, other times as female—who drifts into soft submissiveness as easily as slipping off a flannel shirt. Rocke clears space to employ variety in technique as well as gender fluidity and complexity. Leichter queers contemporary Black culture (R&B, hip hop), staking out territory for frank eroticism in a duet with a partner who is white, male and a generation younger.
Regina Rocke's Boy Troubles
Three choreographers presented here would crown any season even without Parallels’ special framing: Nora Chipaumire, originally from Zimbabwe; Okwui Okpokwasili, born in the Bronx of Nigerian parentage; and one of New York dance’s latest wunderkinds, Kyle Abraham.
Okpokwasili’s solo, Bronx Gothic, called to mind Kara Walker’s provocative cutout silhouettes of generic characters from the days of slavery. But it was as if one of these figures had touched the third rail. Grotesquely shimmying, twitching and panting, the dancer reenacted a half-amusing, half-alarming event from her youth. In this narrative, two pre-teens trade correspondence about sex. One claims a lot of experience; the other, bemused but fascinated, asks naive questions. Then comes the day when Okpokwasili’s mother discovers this exchange and launches a relentless interrogation. The trembling dancer gave voice to all three characters in this nightmare. In moments of song, an angelic voice chillingly emerged from a face rendered demonic by the lighting.
Chipaumire’s solo, The Last Heifer, followed Bronx Gothic, and audience seating was rearranged to form a neat square around a small version of a boxing ring. Even just sitting and staring at this platform engendered dramatic anticipation. Chipaumire has become a rock star of downtown dance, with a majestic quality that blows everything else out of the water. We waited for her.
Nora Chipaumire's The Last Heifer
The word “heifer” means “cow,” but, in black America, it’s also a popular and terrible insult hurled by one woman against another. Chipaumire’s often exposed nipples and languid movement suggest something cow-like. But I recognized in her jet-black costuming and movement a huge raptor or a mythic harpy. I saw her soaring on thermals, hovering over mountaintops with her astounding wingspan, skillfully negotiating rocky ledges. But she also gave off vibes that might draw disapproval—and the “heifer” epithet—from those with less self-possession. Her slow trajectory, heroically sustained, remained focused on precarious edges. She might have been trapped physically—sweat pouring down her mask-like face—but, in her mind, she was free.
To watch Abraham’s Boyz N’ The Hood: Pavement, with news of Trayvon Martin’s shooting fresh in mind, was to sit with heart in mouth as dancers continuously reinforced the image of a man pulled down to the floor and cuffed with his hands behind his back. What swiftly morphed from a contact improv encounter to the image of an arrest, also came to resemble an act of affection or of sex, body stacked atop body. But then, the bodies continued to stack as if you had stumbled across a scene of mass slaughter. There’s much more to Boyz N’ The Hood: Pavement than I have room to discuss, but it represents a new unfolding and triumph for Abraham. Exploring the limits and possibilities of black manhood in American culture, he is developing fine skill in blending bold imagery with subtle, telling mutations. His theater has become a multidimensional tapestry of visual, sonic, energetic, and emotional depth.
Kyle Abraham's Boyz N' The Hood: Pavement
In short, Abraham’s work is black in the way that dancer-scholar Thomas F. DeFrantz observes, where Africa and Africanisms underlie much of what we see and hear. Starting Performing Black, his 30-minute performance lecture for Parallels, DeFrantz warned that “What is black dance?” is a trick question. He then proceeded, trickster-like, to speed us through history and theory with stops along the way for rapid-fire tap dancing and an Africanist nod to Merce Cunningham’s love of the unplanned and unexpected.
“Black is less about being something,” he concluded, “than doing something.”
All photos by Ian Douglas, Courtesy Danspace
David Zambrano’s electrifying collective of performers tours the U.S.
Take a batch of performers, hailing from places like Slovakia, Mozambique, and South Korea, game for anything. Plop them down in an art gallery, fish market, even an actual stage. No chairs: Let your audience drift, settle, and drift some more. Crank up the volume on classic soul—James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle—as one extravagantly costumed dancer after another spontaneously seizes ground anywhere amid the milling crowd and explodes into a song-length solo, not just making up movements but touching primal, electric ecstasy comparable to the driven voices.
This is Soul Project, directed by world traveler/master improviser David Zambrano, a native of Venezuela now based in Amsterdam. New York got its first, unforgettable taste in 2010 during Ralph Lemon’s i get lost platform at Danspace Project, a series of events tracing links between performance and trance. That same year, a 50-stop tour took Soul Project to adventures in Senegal, Poland, Costa Rica, and beyond. Zambrano discovered that “our way of dancing reaches much further than what we thought, helping us to become more interconnected with our planet Earth. Our audience can be anyone in this world.”
In Slovenia, one dancer veered out into traffic, confronting a street full of angry drivers. “For a moment we thought he’d get injured,” Zambrano said. “But by the end of his solo, everyone was happily smiling. One of the best shows we ever had.”
Part of Soul Project’s immediacy and wonder is that you never can tell where one of its virtuosic solos will break out. But you can learn where to experience this phenomenon when it returns to the U.S. this spring. Details on the Milwaukee, New York, San Francisco, Austin, Stanford, Minneapolis, and Miami engagements can be found at www.mappinternational.org.
Edivaldo Ernesto in Soul Project. Photo by Anja Hitzenberger, Courtesy MAPP.
New York City Center, NYC
Dec. 1, 2010–Jan. 2, 2011
Performances reviewed: Dec. 16, 21
The ticket reads, “Robert Battle’s First Season,” and if you still have yours, hang onto it. Decades later, when the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is still going strong, 2011 will be recalled as the year when even the warm, loyal City Center audience found new surprise and reward in the company’s offerings, the season when even jaded critics were forced to sit up and take notice.
Ailey’s new artistic director has some crafty curatorial ways. Let’s count a few, based on the repertoire of two evenings I attended.
Neither Joyce Trisler’s Journey (1958), Alvin Ailey’s Streams (1981) nor the first Paul Taylor work to grace an Ailey season, Arden Court (1970), represents a rose of the freshest bloom today. However, by programming these pieces, Battle grounded the company in classic modern dance, reassuring his audience that matters of elegant line, technical power, humanity, and wit will not be devalued as the troupe pushes into a new era.
The solo Journey, restaged by Diane Grumet and featuring a live performance of Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question,” benefits from the charisma of Linda Celeste Sims, whose arms, draped in her frosty white tunic, look capable of reaching beyond the stars. Her subtle twists and swirls, her deep backbend, and the way her feet paw a seemingly gelatinous atmosphere suggest a process of gentle, if persistent, effort.
Alvin Ailey's Streams.
Streams earns its highlight in Ailey history as the choreographer’s first plotless dance, one whose shape and pacing feel a little obvious and stilted now because, I suspect, Ailey was caught in an uncomfortable place midway between representation and abstraction. Its shallows and deep waters, indicated by sectional changes in movement dynamics and color scheme, are meant to suggest currents of emotion in the human heart. I have stronger memories of the effectiveness of these changes and currents—particularly, a thrilling turbulence—than I noted this time around in Masazumi Chaya’s restaging of the piece. Nevertheless, one especially bright and telling spot is Akua Noni Parker’s deft interpretation of Ailey’s fight with balance and flirtation with imbalance in “Recitativo.”
The dancers unfold the cupped petals of Taylor’s Arden Court and William Boyce’s symphonies with varying degrees of coolness, playfulness—see scampish Rachel MacLaren orbiting reliable Glenn Allen Sims—and exaltation. But the familiar Baroque and Tayloresque musicality of Arden Court has nothing on musicality of a different sort liberated in these Ailey dancers by Reggie Harris’ Home, a world premiere.
Linda Celeste Sims and Kirven J. Boyd in Paul Taylor's Arden Court
Home, underwritten by Bristol-Myers Squibb, was inspired by the pharmaceutical giant’s “Fight HIV Your Way” initiative and its essay contest on living with or being affected by HIV. Though Harris, well noted for distinctive hip hop–based choreography, reviewed the winning essays, what he produced does not directly address the specificity of illness and crisis. Instead, it reflects inner faith and resilience, a perfect response and a perfect fit for Ailey.
Amid a slowly writhing cluster of dancers, one or two people briefly hop and wave, as if trying to be seen above the crowd. Guest artist Matthew Rushing breaks away, becoming an incandescent, soulful focus as house music pumps through the space—Dennis Ferrier’s “Underground Is My Home.” Rushing’s dancing has never been this free, this juicy. Here, too, at last, are the Ailey dancers as youngsters reflecting their moment, saturated in the musical and dance culture of the streets and clubs. Rarely have they been asked to articulate their whole bodies, from the core, in this way, reflecting a different kind of accuracy, force, speed, feeling and authentic individuality. Later, even faster, more demanding footwork rides on Afro-Brazilian rhythms. The piece made the audience roar, rightly so.
Rennie Harris's Home.
The night I first saw Home, Battle also introduced many in the audience to the eccentricities of Ohad Naharin. This, too, proved to be less a shock to the system than a loving gift and was received as such.
Minus 16 (1999), restaged by Danielle Agami, is an odd patchwork of recycled Naharin excerpts, presented here in honor of the choreographer’s wife, the late Ailey dancer Mari Kajiwara. Chief among its pleasures is its prelude, a lengthy stretch of physical comedy performed during intermission. A man (Samuel Lee Roberts, wearing an ill-fitting black suit) stands at the edge of the stage and begins to move to the blare of cheesy old cha cha and mambo tunes. Manic yet joyful in his childlike silliness, he seems to have taken to heart that popular expression, “Dance like nobody’s watching,” because he’s hardly self-conscious. In due time, the stage gradually fills with identically attired dancers, all with the same nutty, herky-jerky itch to dance.
Ghrai DeVore and Kirven J. Boyd in Ohad Naharin's Minus 16
A section of Minus 16 derived from Naharin’s Anaphaza (1993) finds the ensemble of men and women arranged on chairs in a semicircle that spans the stage. They move with the propulsive force of whips, bullets and grenades to an Israeli rock band’s electrifying version of “Echad mi yode'a,” a Passover song of many repetitions and reversals of counting. The steely thrust of the music’s gruff voices and percussion grip us viscerally even as we notice Naharin’s unexplained, if suggestive, imagery—bodies recoiling backward, the explosive flash of white from the dancers’ exposed shirts, a pile of clothing and shoes in the center of the stage, and the unusually rapid disappearance of that evidence before a new section begins.
As Minus 16 approaches its closing passages, the performers roam the aisles, selecting audience members as social dance partners, at least one of whom will emerge as the new star of the show (typically an elderly woman who’s petite, lift-able and game for anything). It’s easy to work the system, though: Want to be chosen to dance? Wear a brilliant color that contrasts nicely with the black suits. Don’t want to be chosen? Carry a notebook and pen and make like a critic.
Robert Battle seals the deal. After Revelations, Minus 16 has become the next most effective way to end an Ailey evening. Getting up on stage and cutting a rug with Naharin’s nutty gang or just watching from your seat in the hall is delirious, unforgettable fun.
Naharin's Minus 16
All photos by Paul Kolnik, courtesy AAADT.
Pictured at top: a moment from Rennie Harris's Home.
Next Wave Festival
BAM Harvey Theater
Brooklyn Academy of Music, NYC
November 16–19, 2011
Performance reviewed: Nov. 17
The BAM Harvey Theater is far from the most daunting of performance spaces, especially compared to BAM’s Gilman Opera House. And yet, every now and then, a production will test its mettle within the Harvey’s studiously funky environs and come up short.
For the New York premiere of Canyon, John Jasperse’s Next Wave commission, visual designer Tony Orrico approaches the back wall, stage floor, audience area, aisles, staircases, lobby, and even the restrooms with rolls of fluorescent tape in hand. Hard to tell if Orrico wants to subdue or merely decorate the building’s expanse but—with the designer hidden inside a white cube that awkwardly creeps along the floor dispensing tape like slug slime–it all ends up looking meaningless. It’s a little like shooting silly string into the Grand Canyon.
Oh, wait. Could that be the point? My first view of the Grand Canyon instantly silenced me—less out of awe than awareness that comment of any kind would be banal. Perhaps Orrico and Jasperse want us to think of dance as a humble, transitory act in the world. Even Jasperse’s choreography for Canyon seems to issue from an aerosol can, like the children’s toy. When everything’s done, you could just roll it back into a ball—as dancers will eventually strip and roll up Orrico’s tape—and tuck it away in some corner.
Canyon’s opening sequence gives the impression, though, that dance is essential, the substance of life itself. Dancers—Lindsay Clark, Erin Cornell, Kennis Hawkins, Burr Johnson, James McGinn, Jasperse himself—pop into the space, breeze in and out, prance and fan past one another with so much buoyancy, so much breath, in their bodies. (Johnson’s remarkably tensile performance, in particular, goes from strength to strength as the piece unfolds.) Hahn Rowe’s band, stashed in a corner, evokes a world of railroad trains compressed into one chiming howl. Taken together with the windswept dancing, this initial passage of music establishes a sense of spacious, vibrant landscape.
The 70-minute ensemble work suddenly pulls back from this intensity and drops us into movement that, in spatial and sonic context, seems less sure of itself. (For a time, Hahn’s score gets less interesting, too.) I noticed that I could look aside for a few moments and then return with no feeling of loss. With few exceptions—one being a charming quartet of hands that rose behind the floor mat’s rim, making goose-necked shapes—Jasperse’s material spooled out like Orrico’s tape, unassuming, all too similar, and only lacking the garishness of color, which might have been welcome.
I haven’t yet mentioned the little orange flags on tall, thin poles that mark a section of the floor. In the opening sequence, one flagpole rises from the back of McGinn’s shirt, bobbing back and forth as he skitters about. They are, perhaps, the sort of flags that keep sprawling tour groups in line with their leaders. Near the end of Canyon, dancers quietly remove these flagpoles and place them behind the floor mat’s rim. Done, filed away, a simple procedure.
Photos of John Jasperse's Canyon by Julieta Cervantes, Courtesy BAM. Top to bottom: Erin Cornell, Kennis Hawkins, and Lindsay Clark; Burr Johnson and Erin Cornell; John Jasperse.
Brooklyn Academy of Music, NYC
October 19–22, 2011
Performance reviewed: Oct. 21
By Eva Yaa Asantewaa
For its U.S. premiere at BAM’s Next Wave Festival, Beijing Dance Theater rode in on a big concept, filled the Harvey Theater’s space with sophisticated eye candy, and failed to leave a sustainable impression. Wang Yuanyuan’s stage picture, like her ensemble, looked both handsome and downright puzzling. If you’re creating a dance about environmental crisis—a growing concern in your city and nation—why on earth make air pollution and the affected populace look so uniformly lovely?
The problem for viewers starts with well-intentioned concert notes and an “Artists’ Statement”—both drafted under the assumption that we need to be told what we will soon see for ourselves and that “Haze, as a type of air pollution, is in fact a product of the process of industrialization.” When we close the program notes and watch the actual dance, we’ve already learned everything it has to tell us. All that remains, then, is to experience Wang’s troupe of 17 sleek, pliant dancers as they work through 70 minutes of choreographic sameness.
Set to compositions by Henryk Górecki and Norwegian musician Biosphere, Haze takes place amid some of the shapeliest, most picturesque theatrical smoke effects I’ve ever seen. This atmosphere—lit to reflect various degrees of brightness, temperature, maybe even personality—is as precisely controlled as the dancers who repeatedly rock, bend, spring and noiselessly flop in clever variations across a grid of mats embedded in the stage floor. From our distance, this unusual surface resembles parched gray clay earth–as well as, unavoidably, the dust of 9/11—although dancers sink into it, down to their ankles, as if it were mud. The very fact that Wang’s surefooted performers clearly have no trouble negotiating their spongey flooring, at any speed or angle of attack, undercuts the meaning (environmental and economic destabilization) that she and set designer Tan Shaoyuan intended.
As a finale, a lingering one, snow falls upon motionless dancers scattered around the stage. A pretty sight, although, like all snow scenes, a little melancholy, too. And one might be provoked to ask, “Shouldn’t someone check the chemical mix in that snow?”
Photos: Beijing Dance Theater in Wang Yuanyuan Haze. By Jack Vartoogian, courtesy BAM.