Janis Brenner & Dancers

November 12, 2009

Janis Brenner & Dancers
Joyce SoHo, NYC

November 12–14, 2009

Reviewed by Christopher Atamian

Kyla Barkin in Brenner’s
Guilt. Photo by Julie Lemberger, Courtesy Brenner.


There is something wonderfully grounded and real about Janis Brenner, whether she’s dancing a solo by Meredith Monk (Break, 1964) or choreographing a touching tribute to a generation of performers lost to AIDS (Dancing in Absentia). Brenner is a veteran performer who has danced with Monk, Murray Louis, and Alwin Nikolais. Her “Five Decades” program was well curated, moving from the 1960s to the present with one piece from each decade.

In Break, Brenner appears alone onstage in all black. She performs simple, sometimes silly movements, playing for example a charming game of hide-and-seek from behind a white partition; only her hand or face momentarily appears before vanishing again. Occasionally a noisy soundtrack is heard—think objects crashing to the ground—and Brenner emits a few syncopated blips: “Watchout. Look Out. Watch it. Hey, hey, hey.” At the end of the piece her hand, which has done a remarkable job of holding our attention, disappears one final time behind the partition. Lights out.

(1978), choreographed by Murray Louis to music by Paul Winter Consort and Ernesto Lecuona, is an elegant pair of solos performed with delicious sensuality by Aaron Selissen and Sumaya Jackson. Selissen is an energetic, winsome performer while Jackson is all curvy seduction as she sways her hips repeatedly. After their respective solos they appear on stage together—obviously smitten—but mysteriously pass each other by without ever really connecting.

Kyla Barkin is electrifying in Brenner’s Guilt (1985) where she appears inside a three-sided wooden box and contorts, twists, and flips around to Marianne Faithfull’s raspy, remorseful crooning. She alternates between looking alluring and resembling a wild animal caught in headlights as she navigates the small space with remarkable athleticism, at times reminiscent (I dare say) of Jennifer Beals in Flashdance!

A Matter of Time
(1995), competently choreographed by Brenner and set to a metronome-like beat by David Karagianis, explores the interactions between two couples: Barkin and Selissen; Moo Kim and Pam Wagner. Kim and Barkin have a hankering for each other but seem unable to leave their respective lovers. When the piece comes to a halt the audience—like the performers themselves—is unsure of the dancers’ final choices.

The night came to an emotional close with the premiere of Dancing in Absentia, a “re-remembering and repositioning” of close to 50 talented men and women who passed away from AIDS—Arthur Armijo, Arnie Zane, Alvin Ailey, Ulysses Dove, Michael Ballard, Rudolf Nureyev, and Louis Falco among them. The piece is set to music by Brenner and Theo Bleckmann, Bang on a Can, and Charlemagne Palestine. In a video by Jamie James Wenger, images of the dancers are projected against a backdrop of Mark Rothko and Rothko-esque color field paintings. After a few routine dance sequences, the six performers sit on the ground facing the screen. They breathe heavily in and out as each departed soul fleetingly appears, each one a bright, beautiful shooting star.