Does the Worst Affect the Best?

August 26, 2007

What happens when a great piece of choreography is on a program with a lousy opener? Does it stand out even more, or is it tainted by what comes before?

    Twice in the last couple weeks I saw a terrific piece, but had to wade through boring stuff till it came on. The first was Pilobolus’ Program 3 at the Joyce. The opening piece, Aquatica (2005), had the usual mildly amusing, tumbling and rolling partner work. But it lost its focus (or its watery theme) half way through. The piece I loved was  Rushes, the new collaboration between Robby Barnett and Israeli choreographers Inbal Pinto & Avshalom Pollak. It has exquisite timing, deliciously odd characters, wonderful surprises, and an elusive something that keeps it all together. It starts with a circle of child-size chairs and weird Breughel-looking people from another century who are suddenly interrupted by a man flying/stumbling in from the left to break the circle. From then on, everything the six dancers do seem fascinating—because of timing, focus, and a hint of narrative. At one point a man spins a chair on its leg and I swear I haven’t paid so much attention to one object, living or dead, on the stage in an age. When it was over, I wanted so much to dwell on what I had seen—to reconstruct the dreamlike narrative in my head—that I felt like leaving the theater and not cluttering my vision with anything else.

    However, there were a couple of other noteworthy pieces on the program.  The classic solo Pseudopoida (1973) embodies the human/animal hybrid that Pilobolus has continued to perfect, and Memento Mori (2006) is a very funny duet. But Rushes was more than ingenious or funny: it was hauntingly beautiful.

The other piece that trumped its surrounding work was Second Signal by Henri Oguike, whose company from London was making its U.S. debut at Jacob’s Pillow. However White Space, an extroverted romp with predictable spatial patterns and supposedly saucy (but to my eyes just cute) posturing, opened the program. The group piece Tiger Dancing was more grounded, more interesting choreographically, and the dancers were beginning to look like people you might want to know. Oguike’s own solo Expression Lines was softer, deeply felt, and quite poignant. But the exciting best was last: Second Signal with the taiko drummers. It took off from the very first resounding strike of the drum, which set a solo dancer into a pelvic swivel and arm swat. The three drummers (from the British group Taiko Meantime) would lunge sideways as they seamlessly braided their arms to hit the drum with one arm then the other.  The five-minute section for the drummers alone was magnificent, but when the eight dancers reappeared, they were pretty great too. Everything came together in that rare kinetic space where you can’t wait to see what happens next.

I understand that companies don’t want to put the most exciting piece first (it would be downhill from there). But I also think that in that case, you run the danger of the audience’s eyes glazing over before they get to the good stuff. I’m glad I hung in there, both at the Joyce and at the Pillow. I felt like I had found two gemstones in the rough.

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