Ariel Rivka Dance
(with Chanel DaSilva)
10th Anniversary Celebration
New York Live Arts
New York, New York

September 7, 2017
Ariel Rivka Dance: No Words, Holly, Four Concerned, Undertow, Variations on a Box
Chanel DaSilva: Susan

— by Jerry Hochman

One of the pleasures of attending programs that feature dances by “emerging” choreographers is being able to chart a choreographer’s artistic development, and progress, over time. Another is to happen upon a superlative dance on my first exposure to that choreographer’s work. Last Thursday’s performance at New York Live Arts in celebration of Ariel Rivka Dance’s (ARD) 10th Anniversary provided both: beautifully crafted dances that evidence the continuing creative growth of Ariel Grossman, ARD’s Artistic Director; and an explosive and compelling piece by Chanel DaSilva, the evening’s guest choreographer, whose work I had not previously seen.

If there is one commonality among many of the pieces on this program, it’s power: not just the expression of forcefulness, although that’s part of it, but the ability to take a dance beyond exhibiting steps and combinations appropriate for the musical accompaniment or that chart an “original” movement quality. That is, the power to convincingly move a dance, and the dance’s audience, in a particular direction by a balanced merger of motivation, message (to the extent there is one), music, and technique. Grossman’s No Words, which opened the evening’s program (its NYC premiere), her Variations on a Box, which closed it, and DaSilva’s piece, titled Susan, are completely different-looking dances, but they have that quality of power in common.

I discussed Variations on a Box in my review of last year’s ARD anniversary celebration, and can only reemphasize how superb a piece it is, and how it marks a seismic shift in the appearance of Grossman’s choreography created by adapting and infusing her movement to the stringent structural framework that she set, and which she then explored beyond the structure’s anticipated parameters. The resulting variations on a theme (which, at the least, displays how far one can visually stretch the meaning of the word “box”) yields a fascinatingly powerful piece even though “force” in the usual sense isn’t present: it’s powerful because of its novelty, the absence of self-congratulatory stylistic arrogance, and its overall dynamism that, even though it’s an abstract piece, draws audience members in and takes them on a tour of patterns and shapes while buttressing it all with Grossman’s characteristic robustly punctuated fluidity.

No Words, Grossman’s latest piece, is tougher to like than Variations on a Box because it doesn’t look quite as polished. That being said, No Words isn’t supposed to have the same polished look: it’s a coarse, angry, absorbing dance, and one that’s groundbreaking both for Grossman and her dancers.

The brief program note indicates that the genesis of No Words was a “reaction to a particularly charged moment in our country,” but it (intentionally I’m sure) fails to specifically identify the referenced “moment,” thereby untethering the visual commentary from any single event. It further references a poem reprinted at the back of the program, which I found unhelpful at best (except for the first word of its title: Fury).  Be that as it may, regardless of any poetic inspiration there may have been, and even without knowing the specific factual inspiration, it’s apparent that No Words is, at least, a response to a specific notorious sexual assault, or a series of them; or to a culture that implicitly encourages or turns a blind eye to the issue.

As the piece begins, the full company of eight woman (ARD is an all-female company) is spread unevenly upstage, standing, each with a hand over her heart, not so much pledging allegiance as resolution (as in ‘never to happen again’ or ‘never to forget’ – with an added inference of ‘not in my country’). One woman moves forward, either to illustrate her own story or as an individual representative of all the women. She’s obviously disturbed and disgusted about something, and toward the end of her solo reaches out as if calling for help, divine or otherwise. She’s soon joined by another woman who separates from the pack (again, either giving her own testimony or being a group surrogate). This second woman eventually becomes considerably more agitated than the first – as if she was the actual victim of some horrifying event that’s happened to her. The other six women, effectively an empathetic and empowering “women’s chorus,” at various times continue pledging, but also sway, pull their torsos in and out, and circle in support or in reaction to the other two. The sense of loss, frustration and mourning from the first woman and anger from the second woman (forcefully attempting to kick something, or someone, away from her, and ultimately emitting a blood-curdling silent scream), is overwhelming.

Eventually, the piece proceeds into a second segment, in which four of the remaining six women become the focus. It soon becomes clear that two of these women are being victimized by the other two (e.g., being pulled up from the floor by their hair; pushed around; objectified; degraded). My notes indicate that the two aggressors were acting in a stereotypically “masculine / aggressive” way. It was then that I noticed that the two “aggressors” were wearing pants; the two “victims” costumed in something resembling skirts (the other women in the piece wore skirts or dresses). If there was any doubt as to the impetus for No Words, that realization made things crystal clear.

Normally I’m turned off by dances that make their point with a hammer. Although it may sound like it from my brief snippets of description, No Words isn’t that.  On the contrary, and even though it’s hardly subtle, No Words is considerably more intelligent, more contemplative, and persuasive, than pieces with similar motivations that are more literal. Indeed, as I watched it, I sensed a vague similarity to Antony Tudor’s Dark Elegies, one of his many masterpieces, here with the chorus of women grieving about victimization instead of parents and townsfolk grieving over the unexpected death of children. While not as finely wrought as that piece (few dances can be), and more “grief / anger / resistance” than “grief / anger / acceptance,” No Words, like Dark Elegies, is concurrently opaque and clear. You don’t know exactly what happened, but in a sense you know exactly what happened.

Although the “motivation” in No Words may seem one dimensional, the choreography isn’t: the piece never comes across as simply didactic; it’s as much a clarion call as a condemnation. And Grossman has given her dancers opportunities to dance, and to act, in ways that I haven’t previously seen, and the ARD dancers (Caitlyn Casson, Allie Kronick, Kristin Licata, Casie Marie O’Kane, Jaclyn Rae, Kyleigh Sackandy, Danita Shaheen, and Hana Ginsburg Tirosh) squeezed every ounce of passion from Grossman’s choreography (which was matched, in style, quality, and intensity, by the accompanying score created and performed live on piano by Grossman’s husband, David Homan). And the performances by both Sackandy (subject to verification) and especially Kronick (the first and second woman per my description above) were devastatingly gut-wrenching.

In recent seasons, in addition to showcasing her own work, Grossman has invited other choreographers (and their companies) to join ARD’s anniversary festivities. This year, spread between two programs, were pieces choreographed by Michael Spencer Phillips, a dancer with Rioult Dance NY (with whom ARD shared the stage at last year’s anniversary celebration), and DaSilva. DaSilva was a classmate of Grossman’s at LaGuardia High School of Music, Art and the Performing Arts, is a Juilliard School graduate, and after a lengthy association with Trey McIntyre Project, is currently a member of Lar Lubovitch Dance Company and a co-founder of Moves(NYC), an intensive summer program for local teenagers.

Although their choreographic styles are markedly different, DaSilva’s Susan is as powerful and effective as Grossman’s No Words.

Susan has no program note, so I’m not aware of the title’s significance, and one isn’t clear from the dance itself. But whether it’s intended as a remembrance of, or a dedication to, a particular individual, or something else entirely, the dance is multi-faceted and searing.

The eight dancers (no “company” is indicated), five women and three men, are costumed in simple, bluish coverings that function as a second skin, and their bodies are marked in various locations with black paint or ash smudges that, with nothing further to go on, have obvious but unexplained significance (perhaps ceremonial – a birth, a death, a transformation). Two women, Mia Brice and DaSilva herself, soon become the Susan’s focal points.

The piece’s atmosphere is tribal, and, to this viewer, African (or at least African influenced), created not only by the bodily markings, but by the accompanying music (by DaSilva, Michela Lerman, and Ulysses Owens, Jr.) that is entirely pulsing rhythm, like drumbeats, which at times produces stereotypical tap dance rhythm (perhaps using drumsticks) that seems incongruous since the choreography is not tap, but the score somehow still comes across as a unity. The choreography itself is feverish and looks wild, with the dancers at one moment shaking in fear (or in awe), and at another gobbling stage space like corporeal spirits on a mission. But throughout the fury, the movement is unified and disciplined, programmed and purposeful.

I’m not sure of Susan’s subject matter, but there is one even though the piece doesn’t tell a story per se or clearly relate, or relate to, a specific event. To me, at various times I felt I was watching an African version of The Rite of Spring, with one of the two women (DaSilva) being the Chosen One.  But Susan is far more complex than that, particularly in terms of the relationship between Brice and DaSilva. Brice is a force, but not nearly as a physical a force as DaSilva: she’s more of a director or molder, an instructor or cleric or parent figure. And when she fades into the upstage darkness as the piece ends, one has the sense that DaSilva’s character is not so much a chosen sacrifice, but one who has been reborn as her own person, within the overall cultural context.

In addition to Brice and DaSilva, the highly accomplished group of dancers included Cassandra Bowser, Shannon Dawson, Jaryd Farcon, Kyra Ferguson, Sequoia Harris, and Jesse Obremski.

The remaining pieces on the program, all by Grossman, also illustrate Grossman’s development over the past 10 years, but are not as choreographically revolutionary as No Words or Variations on a Box. That doesn’t make them less significant, just not as startlingly good. Undertow, a 2016 non-narrative piece that was given its NYC premiere, is Grossman’s lyricism taken to the next level. It’s a gorgeous piece to watch – the sensuous turquoise/blue costumes, designed by Keiko Voltaire, and Homan’s equally evocative music, lend an aquatic air to the piece that the title would indicate it’s supposed to have. Beyond that, however, I didn’t get an “underwater” connection, but this mattered not at all. Undertow works because the choreography flows, Grossman utilizes the entire stage to create an interesting interplay of the dances either in groups of four and three with one highlighted soloist who often is the musical and choreographic melody to the other dancers’ softly lyrical rhythm.

Four Concerned, created in 2012, is also a lyrical, balletic dance and it has moments of beauty, but I had no idea what the four dancers were concerned about (and with that title, they had to be concerned about something). Regardless, the piece is not uninteresting to watch, and it clearly points Grossman in the evolutionary direction that leads to Undertow. Holly, a 2011 solo dance that was performed by Tirosh in the performance I saw (and by Grossman herself the previous night) is nicely done, with more choreographic variety than is often found in such dances, but it’s not at all unusual, particularly for an early effort that seems to be a combination of supplication (she’s on her knees at the piece’s outset, and at its conclusion), searching for something (inspiration; blessing), apprehension, and prayer. [And, like Susan, I don’t know the title’s reference.] Tirosh did an excellent job expressing the soul imbued into Grossman’s choreography.

A final comment about two of the ARD dancers. All the pieces, except for the solo and her four-woman Four Concerned, are ensemble pieces, and each dancer excelled. In this situation, I hesitate to highlight individual dancers, but two were particular focal points in each of the non-solo pieces, and stood out in everything they did every moment they were onstage, and I would be remiss to ignore that. Kronick and Shaheen (who was one of the aggressive women wearing pants in No Words) went beyond executing the choreography and presenting themselves well. Each added a welcome sense of drama, urgency, and attack that took their performances beyond the highly capable NYC emerging company norm.

ARD, now based in New Jersey (No Words and Undertow premiered at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center), has developed far beyond what might have expected based on my initial exposure to it in 2013. As Grossman continues to develop a style that allows for a variety of expression in different thematic contexts, I’ll look forward to seeing what she and her dancers come up with in the next ten years.