His imagination is staggering. He pulls you into an ancient world, a mythic world, a dream world, where a woman might have a dragon clinging to her, or a man might have a small solar system above his head.
With other dance artists who have developed a unique sensibility, you can often detect a strain of influence. But Christopher is, and always has been, completely his own artist. Even though he’s worked with Tere O’Connor, Douglas Dunn, Risa Jaroslow, and Basil Twist, his own work is nothing like any of theirs. The images seem to grow full-blown out of his brain. (By the way, I lay no claim to objectivity. I danced in his Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins in 2005 and served as advising mentor on a later work.)
Last year Christopher's concert at DNA Dance had an unfinished feel. The costumes, always gloriously outlandish, overshadowed the thin choreography. (However, the music for Hen’s Teeth, by Gregory Spears, was on my Best of 2010 list.) In this year’s performance at the 92nd Street Y’s Harkness Dance Festival, which was a series of excerpts of mostly past work, each section was fully formed. The scene from Hen’s Teeth ended at the perfect point: The six women-birds bare their chests by tearing at their costumes with their teeth, and then start mewing, squeaking, or squealing. When a man (dressed like Peter Pan) enters, their squealing mounts to a cacophony—caused by desire or fear we’ll never know. Blackout.
Christopher is as extraordinary as a dancer as he is as a choreographer. In the duet he dances with Paul Singh from The Portuguese Suite (2006), he hasn’t lost any of that amazing elasticity or captivating stage presence that he had when I first saw him dance about 10 years ago.
It’s refreshing to see a choreographer who escapes today’s trends. He has no interest in super fast movement or very released movement or clever improvisation or tangled cables all over the floor. When you enter his space, you forget about texting and video and tweeting. The music, usually by Hildegarde Von Bingen or other pre-15th-century religious composer, helps transport you to another zone. It’s really a trip, as ornate and supernatural as a novel by Isabel Allende or a film by Fellini. You have to give yourself over to it.
There is zero sentimentality or cuteness in his dances. But when one figure nudges his head against another’s feet, or when three artificially nubile women (strange nearly-nude costumes with breast and buttock padding) hang their heads in grief or regret, it’s suddenly poignant. Or when a woman in a filmy red dress with six fake breasts speaks as though she cannot open her mouth, or when a gorgeous topless woman curls her bear-fingernails behind her back, these images stay with you.
In the new Mumbo-Jumbo, Williams takes on the tradition of minstrelsy, using two dancers of color to illustrate the ridiculousness of it. Other pieces of his give off a vague whiff literature, but in this duet the story of “Little Black Sambo” is actually narrated. Raja Kelly and Paul Singh are the brave/foolish figures who shuffle, fight, kiss, and jive to Bollywood music. It is a mumbo jumbo of cultural clichés. And it's new territory for Williams in that it touches on political commentary rather than being sheer fantasy. You’re caught in that limbo of not knowing whether to laugh or be indignant.
Hen's Teeth with Kira Blazek in foreground, photo by Julie Lemberger for 92Y
The cast of Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise in rehearsal. Photo by Stephanie Berger, Courtesy The Shed
Akram Khan loves to dive into genres he is unfamiliar with. While his own movement vocabulary is a hybrid of kathak and contemporary dance, he has choreographed a new Giselle for English National Ballet, collaborated with flamenco artist Israel Galván and made a dance theater duet with film star Juliette Binoche. Now, in between touring Xenos, his final full-length solo, and several other projects, he's found time to tackle kung fu. Khan is part of the collaborative team behind Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise, a blockbuster musical based on themes of migration and the fight for survival, running June 22–July 27. Directed by Chen Shi-Zheng and featuring a score that remixes songs by Sia, it's part of the inaugural season of The Shed, a new venue in New York City.