Loving a Dance All the Way Through vs. Changing Your Opinion Midway

August 8, 2012

Sometimes you get hooked on a dance from the minute the lights go up, and you ride with it all the way. It reels you in. Other dances don’t grab you right away and then you gotta work at giving it a chance. If you’re lucky, you can feel your own opinion change…and something emerges that you hadn’t anticipated.

Of the seven pieces on the excellent program at Vail International Dance Festival, two gave me pleasure all the way through. Two others took me a while to appreciate while still having doubts, and the remaining three didn’t pull me in choreographically, though they were well performed.

Doug Varone’s Lamentation Variation engaged me right away. After Katherine Crockett’s commanding rendition of Graham’s stretched and torqued original Lamentation (1930), four guys sitting on the same bench, chin in hands, instantly evoked changes in era and gender. As they leaned into or held onto one other, they could be soldiers, survivors grappling for a raft, or just four roommates depressed about not getting a date. Or four parts of one lonely self. The camaraderie was so poignant that at times they seemed like a sad man’s version of Iwo Jima, all hoisting some shred of hope in the same direction.


Tadej Brdnik, Lloyd Knight,
Abdiel Jacobsen,
and Maurizio Nardi in Doug Varone’s
Lamentation Variation. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy VIDF.


The dance opened up as it unfolded, keeping in tune with Ravel’s gentle piano music (similar to the original Kodály, both played live by Cristina Pato). Tadej Brdnik seemed the protagonist, often stepping away from the other three, sometimes facing the audience with a lost look on his face. The group touching and the peeling away from each other are typical Varone devices, but this was more focused, more restrained than usual. The only image of death was at the end, with Brdnik again being the loner while the other three lay belly down upstage beyond the bench. Was it all a flashback? Did part of himself die? However you interpret it, Varone sustained the inventiveness as well as the mournful mood throughout.

The other piece, also quite short, that pulled me along, was One of Sixty-Five Thousand Gestures, a solo co-choreographed by Jodi Melnick and Trisha Brown, performed by Jodi. No surprise that I loved it: I’m a denizen of the Trisha Brown sea, and Jodi was swimming in it. Wearing a super full brown tunic that created its own shapes, she moved like liquid sculpture. Though we couldn’t see her torso, her hip swivels sent the tunic billowing out or looping back in.

There is no effort to create a memorable image or “meaning” or even a sense of place. But the way the movement travels through Jodi’s partly hidden body creates its own mystery. A reach here, a collapsed elbow or knee there—everything is connected in that special, unpredictable Trisha Brown way. And then there is Jodi’s own glamour, which makes each movement a visual occasion. A simple turn of the head can look exquisite because, well, it’s Jodi Melnick.


Jodi Melnick in
One of Sixty-Five Thousand Gestures. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy VIDF.


Now for the premieres I did not instantly “get” but were worth wading through.

Christopher Wheeldon set himself the enormous challenge of juxtaposing Graham powerhouse Fang-Yi Sheu with three New York City Ballet dancers including Wendy Whelan. Although Whelan has been his muse, this is Sheu’s ballet—or at least it seems so in the beginning. She’s standing in the light, her hands and arms spiraling up and down like a tree extending its gnarled branches. Never has Wheeldon’s movement looked so rooted. But the other three dancers are not nearly as vivid, and there seems to be no reason why they are all so spread out. This initial foursome, separated by both space and style, is too amorphous to have an effect.

Another problem is that instead of brief blackouts in between sections, there are long fadeouts. So it feels like an ending each time, instead of just moving along at a decent clip. But the title, Five Movements, Three Repeats, reminds you that there will be more sections, and some will be identical, or nearly so. I thought about Wheeldon’s decision to repeat the opening section, the most formless part of the choreography, three times. Is he trying to train us to see form even when there is very little?


Tyler Angle and Wendy Whelan in Christopher Wheeldon’s
Five Movements, Three Repeats. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy VIDF.


The stage picture takes clearer shape when it switches to two consecutive duets, both gorgeous. The first one for Whelan and Tyler Angle, is along the celestial lines of his past duets for her and Jock Soto. (I even caught a moment where her palms meet behind her as in After the Rain.) The second, for Sheu and Craig Hall, is more grounded and gritty, as though there is a centrifugal force between their two centers. Because Sheu is so strong and rooted, there was an equality of gender here, despite the lifts where she floated on his back. I really felt Wheeldon discovered something new in this duet.


Fang-Yi Sheu
and Craig Hall in Wheeldon’s
Five Movements, Three Repeats. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy VIDF.


The final movement with all four was something of a surprise. Two of them formed a garland through which a third would dive. There was some sisterly interaction, or maybe just looks, between Whelan and Sheu. The piece ended with the last repeat of the spread-out beginning, but by this time it had become an old friend.

In the opening of Brian Brooks’ duet for Whelan and himself, she is circling her arms around her torso with a sublime fluidity befitting the circular phrasing of Philip Glass’ music (played live by Brooklyn Rider). She was so kinetic—like the wind wrapping around a tree—that I didn’t even notice when Brooks entered. I know that Whelan and Brooks entwined together, but my memory is solely of her dancing/flowing alone. Although Brooks choreographed this movement, he didn’t perform it with any special quality. Next to Whelan’s luminosity, he almost disappeared.

The dance started looking more like a real duet when Brooks lay down and Whelan lightly stepped on his arm, his torso, his leg. He was her floor. And in the last and best section he was her floor again: He bent over and she draped her body on top of his, facing up, while he slowly sank to the ground. The visual interest was in how her body changed shape to accommodate to his deflating body. It was at that point that I felt Brooks figured out what to do with this glorious creature, and it was also at that point that the title, Fall Falls, made sense.


Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks in Brooks’
Fall Falls. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy VIDF.


When they reached the floor for the last time, I thought of the Wicked Witch sinking into a pile of rags after Dorothy throws a jug of water on her. I half expected Toto to scamper over and sniff at the remains.

When Brooks finds something, he sticks with it, and it was satisfying to see this fall again and again. But it means the piece was basically in three separate parts: Whelan’s swirling, her stepping on his body parts, and the double sinking to the floor. Although the structure was simplistic, there was a certain inevitability to the long ending.

The other three pieces didn’t make a strong impression on me—either right away, or midway through. Matthew Neenan’s new Switch Phase for his company, BalletX, was a series of overlapping duets. It was graced by William Cannon’s very physical presence and the mercurial dancing of Jesse Sani. Jill Johnson’s Solo for Sy, for Sokvannara “Sy” Sar, claimed to be about this young dancer’s split between his traditional Cambodian dance training and his later immersion in ballet. But I didn’t see any particular style emerging, let alone the stated “duality.” And Balanchine’s Elégie, a late solo he created for Suzanne Farrell, was nicely sustained by Carla Körbes, who has both the juiciness and spiritual qualities of Farrell. However, what makes Körbes such a vibrant performer is her changeability, and here she was confined to an unchanging lamentation of her own, within one of Balanchine’s minor works.

Overall, I came away from this evening feeling sated by the choreography, stimulated by the unorthodox mix, and grateful for the beautiful dancing. As I mentioned in my “Dance Glance” artistic director Damian Woetzel has a knack for instilling an appreciation for dance in his audiences. So I was not the only one feeling happy, walking back under the covered bridge in the rain.