Tom Gold Dance
The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College
New York, New York

April 10, 2018
Charm, Rapid Oxidation, Ashanti

– by Jerry Hochman

When New York’s major ballet companies break for vacations, most dancers take advantage of the opportunity and leave the city for distant shores. Some, however, use the available time to perform with smaller dance companies that seem to emerge, or re-emerge, in these periodic intermezzos like perennial flowers. The process benefits both the dancers and the companies: the dancers get the opportunity to perform in featured roles, to join rising choreographers in the creative process, and to expand their range and experiences; companies gain the presence of highly capable dancers, as well as proven dance commodities who can, by their affiliations and reputations, draw audiences that the companies on their own might be unable to do.

The process has worked marvelously for Tom Gold Dance (“TGD”), which celebrated its 7th Anniversary New York season, and its 10th Anniversary year, with two performances this week at Hunter College’s Kaye Playhouse. In the three prior annual TGD New York programs that I’ve seen, the dances, all created by Gold, have been marked by intelligence, creativity, and clarity, and by execution at the level one would expect from dancers currently or formerly affiliated with major ballet companies. This year’s program was no exception. Indeed, if anything, this year’s program was superior to others. It was brief, but each of the three dances was distinct, and one, the program’s world premiere, was particularly noteworthy.

The dance’s title, Rapid Oxidation, does not reflect the titles of the pieces of music that Gold, a former New York City Ballet soloist, selected for his score. But in an elementary sort of way it reflects the process that the words mean: as a substance undergoing oxidation changes upon exposure to various chemical agents (like iron rusting on exposure to oxygen), Gold’s choreography and the dancers’ execution of it changes based upon exposure to the score. Rapid oxidation is when this process is … rapid, as in burning. Perhaps that’s what Gold is getting at: music is choreography’s oxygen, and rapid oxidation occurs when the music prompts rapid movement change. But that’s too simplistic to me – and it’s what all dances to music supposedly do.

It’s also possible that the title reflects the interactive process between the two dancers, with one “igniting” a response in the other. But although there are plenty of opportunities for some cause/effect connection between the dancers (they’d often approach and then separate, and occasionally dance in the same “plane” of the stage but with contrary movement qualities; and one might be seen to gently push or direct another). If that’s the point, it was made very subtly, and I saw it more as part of the whole response to the music than as isolated examples of each dancer responding to the influences of the other.

Regardless, a dance’s title isn’t nearly as significant as the quality of the dance itself, and in Rapid Oxidation Gold’s choreography is a pleasure to watch unfold. It’s sort of like ingesting chocolate infused with alcohol – it tickles both the eyes and the brain, it goes down  (visually) smooth as silk but with a bit of an unexpected kick – and it makes a viewer (ok, it made me) feel happy and a little dizzy, a little caffeinated and a little pixelated, all at the same time.

The music is by The Junkman, the name adopted by Donald Knaack, a percussionist and composer who creates music from found objects – what to others might be considered junk.  Hence the name. But the sound that Knaack creates is not only not junk, it’s interesting because it doesn’t seem to fit a particular sound category – most likely because his instruments don’t fit a particular sound category. Reportedly, his mentor was John Cage. I have not heard Knaack’s music beyond the pieces from his album Junk Music (which was nominated for a Grammy Award) that Gold has utilized here (Kitchen Music, Body Music, 3+2, and Mishmash Music), but whether as a result of Cage’s influence or not, to my ear it’s both accessible and interesting, albeit in a quirky kind of way.

What Gold has created to this music is choreography that is accessible and interesting to a viewer, albeit in a quirky kind of way. The movement is recognizable, but it’s put together in a way that’s looks as surprising – and satisfying – to the eye as Knaack’s music is to the ear. If you asked me to describe it in specific terms, I’d be unable to do it. It’s a combination of a lot of things – maybe describable as “found” choreography – but that doesn’t mean that it’s thrown together haphazardly or without intended purpose. Suffice it to say that that it’s ballet movement with an edge, that the choreography both responds to and anticipates the sounds and rhythms of the score, and that Gold seems to be approaching the music from different but complementary points of view – reflected in the colors of the contrasting predominantly black or white embellished leotards (by Marlene Olson Hamm). Picking up on contrasting themes in a musical score is nothing new, and reflecting these themes by alternatively isolating and “combining” dancers as Gold does here in the context of a duet is nothing new either, but in Rapid Oxidation Gold translates these themes (without assigning values to them) in a way that’s as pleasantly unusual as The Junkman’s music. In essence, Gold provides the opportunity for an audience to see The Junkman’s music in a way that they might not have considered by just listening to the music alone, and in a way that enhances it without changing it. He didn’t spend 21 years with NYCB for nothing.

It appears that this duet was originally scheduled to be performed by a male and a female dancer, and for whatever reason it was changed to a two-woman duet. To my eye, the result was fortuitous. Presented as a male/female duet might have had an added element of gender tension that the choreography doesn’t require. As a female/female duet, however, the dance is more a reflection of differences of manner or of purpose alone; perhaps opposite but complementary sides of the same coin. And with dancers of the caliber of Allynne Noelle and Stephanie Williams, the choreography is so cleanly and compellingly performed that if the interest level were not already sufficiently high, the performances put it over the top.

Noelle, who was most recently a first soloist with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, was a standout during last year’s TGD season. In Rapid Oxidation, her movement quality is commanding without being regal; somewhat sultry without being overly sensual. Williams, a talented member of ABT’s corps (more about that below), appears generally to display more mutedly aggressive movement in this piece; more angular – but that word is deceptive. While the dance is filled with circles and angles, its pervasive sense is of a sort of staccato fluidity that matches, but is not bound by, the percussive emphasis points in the music. And I’m not quite sure what the significance of it is (beyond visual interest), but having Williams’s character evolve into manipulating (appearing to conduct) Knaack’s music cemented the connection between the music, the choreography, and the performance.

While they are two totally different dances stylistically and engender a totally different response, the choreographic sense of musicality and variety, the visual surprises, the connection of the two dancers to each other and to the music – and the distinctive way that Gold encourages the audience to “see” Knaack’s music, all brought to mind Balanchine’s Duo Concertant.

The other two dances on the program didn’t quite generate the same interest level, but they’re fine examples of the way Gold converts seemingly simple themes into pieces that go beyond the mundane.

The program opened with Charm, which premiered last summer in Great Barrington, MA and was reportedly “inspired” by the birds of the Berkshires. [A “charm” is a gaggle, or swarm, or flock … of finches.] Normally I’m not enamored of dances that attempt to mimic the movement of animals, including birds. But, like everything else, it depends. Essentially, if the movement does more than just recreate animalistic movement, that in a sense gives the dancer/birds character, the dance takes on a different focus. So it is with Charm.

The piece, which looks as bright and sparkly as a dance inspired by birds in open, outdoor space should be, begins with the “birds” that the title references in a group; then, in the course of various permutations of the larger group, each dancer performs solo. The solos are what provide clear indications that the charm of these dancing birds is that they’re individuals, even though part of a larger group (although I suspect a measure of individuality was also evident in the group context – I just wasn’t as attuned to it.). I saw, for example, the “‘finch’ danseur noble” portrayed by James Shee (a former member of National Ballet of Canada); Williams’s “dying finch,” and the sprightly fast-fluttering finch (in my notes, I wrote “Balanchine finch”) of Mary Elizabeth Sell (a member of NYCB). Marria Cosentino’s finch seemed the more circumspect, purposeful finch – perhaps one cautiously wary of predators (Cosentino is a former member of Pennsylvania Ballet and Carolina Ballet). All these descriptions, of course, are what I subjectively interpreted – they may not have intentionally been so specific. The greater point is that these birds weren’t just birds – they have character.

What they all also had in common, of course, was an overall sense of birdlike movement – not an unusual physical expression for many members of Gold’s company who have experienced moving like swans. And in this respect, I’m indebted to Gold for giving Williams the choreography he did (she danced the role when Charm premiered last summer, her first TGD appearance). When I first mentioned Williams in a 2013 ABT review, less than a year after she joined that company, I wrote that she was a dancer to watch. Later that same season, in the context of ABT performances of The Sleeping Beauty, I commented that down the road I could see her dancing Odette/Odile with ABT. Given the perpetual ABT leading role logjam, that may take longer that I’d thought. But seeing her so successfully execute her “swan/finch” role in Charm both reinforces my prior observation, and will tide me over for awhile longer.

Charm is choreographed to a variety of compositions by Elena Kats-Chernin, expertly rendered, live, by pianist Joseph Liccardo.

The evening concluded with Shanti, a piece that Gold created in 2002, prior to forming his own company. It is part of a trilogy that Gold choreographed to music by John Zorn from his Masada Project. I saw and admired the other two dances – La Plage (2013), and Oasis (2016) – and Shanti, though an obviously “early” piece, is equally engaging.

Essentially, Shanti presents Gold’s choreographic eclecticism in a narrow context. It brings to mind the sensuality of Indian dance without being specifically indebted to Indian dance forms: take a little bit of the style of La Bayadere, marry it with a little bit of Bollywood, dress the women in simple but colorful tunic-like costumes, and add a more than healthy dose of classical ballet, and you have a sense of Shanti.

Shanti is a relatively large dance (eight dancers), but Gold skillfully weaves them into and out of focus so that the stage never seems busy. And in addition to episodes that feature smaller subsets of the whole (e.g., Noelle and Shee dance a sensually Indian-inspired pas de deux), each dancer is given an opportunity to shine, with distinctive qualities that either make each solo, brief though it may be, memorable. Sell’s feet seemed never to hit the ground as she executed her lightning-fast featured solo; Shoshana Rosenfield, a former member of NYCB, dashed off multiple fouettees with aplomb, and Evelyn Kocak, formerly with Pennsylvania Ballet, soared through her solo with unbridled attack.

As I observed after TGD’s annual New York program last year, the most remarkable common denominator among the three dances on that program, aside from overall craftworthiness, is that there is no common denominator. Each of the three pieces in this year’s program reflect the same qualities: each is totally different from the other, and each is a quality piece of work demonstrating not only Gold’s range, but also that gives his dancers an opportunity to demonstrate theirs. If there’s a deficiency in Gold’s choreography, it’s that the dances he creates, at least based on those I’ve seen, may not be considered “important.” Of course, importance is a relative term. If it’s meant as having, or intending to have, some degree of cosmic significance or some universal message, the dances he’s provided to date do not show that. But they make no attempt to be something they’re not. What they are are “just” very good dances that show a high level of choreographic ability, performed by dancers who can do these dances justice. You can’t do much better than that.