Jessica Bendig and Alison Chase/Performance Dancers in "Tracings" Photon Christopher Duggan

Jessica Bendig and
Alison Chase/Performance Dancers
in “Tracings”
Photon Christopher Duggan

Five Angels Theater, New York, New York
January 15, 2016
In the Forest of the Night, Tracings, Red Weather,
Monkey and the White Bone Demon, and three “Pregnant Pauses”

Jerry Hochman

For its second New York season in as many years, this time at the relatively new and attractively designed Five Angels Theater in Hell’s Kitchen, Alison Chase/Performance presented two world premieres and two established favorites, as well as three solo intermezzos.

One of the co-founders of Pilobolus, Chase has been celebrated for the choreographic innovation evident in her body of work, and for pushing dance boundaries. That description is unnecessarily limiting – her choreography, not just for balance-shifting groupings and athleticism, but for intricate and inventive partnering, is top notch, and was on vivid display throughout this year’s program.

This season’s new dances are fine for what they are, but they lacked the depth and drama of last year’s world premiere, Drowned. Of the two, In the Forest of the Night, which opened the program, is more ambitious, but Tracings is the stronger piece.

Loosely based on a gem of a short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Drowned, though not entirely successful, was intriguing dance theater. In the Forest of the Night, which had its world premiere Thursday evening, may have been similarly inspired by a work of literature: William Blake’s famous poem The Tyger (“Tyger Tyger burning bright,/In the forests of the night,/What immortal hand or eye,/Could frame they fearful symmetry?…”). But if that’s the case, In the Forest of the Night doesn’t replicate the poem’s awesome power. Chase and her dancers (the choreography for all the pieces on the program is attributed to Chase in collaboration with current and former dancers) here focus on atmosphere rather than substance. Well-crafted and performed as it is, it comes across as a relatively lightweight slice of forest life.

The dance begins, appropriately, in darkness. The dancers position themselves resting (or asleep) on the stage floor, essentially in separate left and right groupings. Soon one slides a ‘ball of light’ (a small hand-held light source) across the stage floor to another on the opposite side, in the process softly illuminating a small part of the stage and functioning as a first ray of penetrating daylight. Other forest denizens subsequently pass their own light sources across the stage to those on the other side. It’s a nifty piece of stagecraft, not entirely original, but in this case effectively used.

Accompanied by eerie sound (the musical accompaniment was created by Franz Nicolay), the dancers eventually pair up, roll around, stretch, crawl, and at times pull others across the stage floor, until all the beings are ‘awake’. They form hollow ‘logs’ though which some crawl, or an ersatz tree limb upon which others climb. Eventually, the dancers plant their light sources on stationary ‘holders’ positioned at the front of the stage floor, illuminating the forest (the theater’s ‘black box’ stage floor – there is no set) in a brighter but still muted ‘daylight’. The forest occupants frolic with each other (a trio of men playfully passes the ‘middleman’ from one to the other; one dancer hoists and swings another), and Chase’s choreography for the dancer pairs, possibly intended as a generalized reference to sexual activity, is vibrantly presented. This is what these creatures do. Jessica Bendig, Mistral Hay, Océane Hooks-Camilleri, Beau Dobson, Mark Fucik, Kenneth Higginbotham, and Shane Rutkowski comprised the forest community.

To her credit, Chase does not have her dancers simply imitate animal movement: they populate the forest and move as they do because that’s the way they are, not because they represent particular animals (or primitive humans). But aside from reasonably interesting movement quality from moment to moment, and the visualization of a ‘forest community’ of sorts, nothing much happens here. One keeps hoping for some defining moment: maybe a predator to shake things up. One male dancer does emerge from the forest depths (the wings) swirling around with more force than the others and interrupts the forest reverie with some level of menace, but it’s just another development in the circle of forest life. In fairness, nothing in the program (other than the piece’s title) indicates that In the Forest of the Night was inspired by the Blake poem, and this slice of forest life may have been intended to be no more powerful, and no more awesome, than a glade filled with squirrels, monkeys, primitive natives, or imaginary critters, but it could use a tiger or two to liven things up.

Tracings is similarly rooted in an exploration of animal movement – in this case, what appear to be birds. Accompanied by avian sounds, one dancer, Bendig, wearing an off-white, skin-tight unitard with a cluster of flower petals circling her upper body (the costumes were designed by Grier Coleman), moves languidly and sensuously among the three men (Dobson, Higginbotham, and Matt Walfish), who are bare-chested and wear tight-fitting briefs. She’s a dominant force of nature, a siren – the males may manipulate her physically as the dance progresses, but she’s in control, until she no longer cares to be. A role-reversed L’Apres Midi d’une Faune, perhaps, but without that iconic dance’s romance and drama. Nevertheless, this piece is focused and makes a statement, and Bendig’s performance was particularly compelling.

These dances, as well as the other two on the program, were separated by what were called “Pregnant Pauses.”  But unlike other such pauses in multiple piece programs, these were not periods of dimmed lighting until the dancers change costume and return for the next dance – they were curious and somewhat refreshing mini performances of their own. In each, a female performer (Jenna Sherman) dressed somewhat bird-like (vaguely like a rooster crossed with a pregnant ostrich) meandered stage left to stage right accompanied by, and moving in response to, a recorded description of certain rare birds (a different recording, and slightly different performance, for each ‘pause’). There is no credit for the vocal recording, choreography or costume, but Sherman’s appearances were greeted with appropriate laughter and considerable applause. However, entertaining though they were, these mini-dances somewhat undercut the apparent seriousness of Chase’s new pieces – which possibly was the point.

After a repeat performance of Red Weather, which had its New York premiere as part of last year’s program (but which suffered from the absence of live musical accompaniment at this performance), the program concluded with a Chase-choreographed Pilobolus classic, Monkey and the White Bone Demon, a vaguely Asian-themed piece that tells of a monkey who repeatedly tries to vanquish a seemingly invincible demon, assisted by three wanderers who are both potential victims and human/simian co-conspirators. Led by Rutkowski (the Monkey, armed with a decorated shower curtain rod), and Fucik (the Demon, a diabolical wizard/zealot of sorts), the piece is brilliantly crafted, outrageous, and hilarious, a spoof that’s considerably more entertaining than that description might lead one to believe. And Fucik, the company’s Associate Artistic Director, did an extraordinary job moving up and down and around the stage on silver stilts. The dancers, who also included Bendig, Dobson, and Walfish, killed it – the demon, as well as the dance.