The Joyce Theater, New York, NY
October 18 (evening) & 20, 2015

Brenna Monroe-Cook as Empress Carlota in Carlota Photo Beatriz Schiller

Brenna Monroe-Cook as Empress Carlota in Carlota
Photo Beatriz Schiller

David Mead

Let’s get this out of the way up front. I’ve never been a huge one for American modern dance on stage (even Cunningham, which I love as a technique). It might of have been the leader in things new at one time but these days it does not have anything like the bite or edge of contemporary dance in Europe. The fact that, Mark Morris in London aside, it does not seem to be an easy sell, suggests I may not be the only one who thinks like that.

Limón works in particular are very rarely danced in Britain. Still, ever prepared to be convinced I’ve had it wrong for all these years, the Limón International Dance Festival offered a chance to see things new, and maybe reassess my opinions. The performances on 18th by dance schools (as part of the ‘Next Generation’ part of the festival) and on 20th by the Limón Dance Company, American Repertory Ballet and sjDANCEco proved to be a mixed bag both in terms of choreography and performance.

That the most accomplished performance came from the Limón Company is probably no surprise. It helped that Carlota also had choreography and staging that was strikingly different from anything else on the two programmes. The work tells the story of the overthrow and eventual execution of Emperor Maximillian of Mexico (a puppet ruler placed on the throne by Napoleon III as part of an attempt to extend French influence in the region and thereby weaken that of the US), wife of the Carlota of the title (or Charlotte of Belgium as she is known in Europe).

There is no music; the only sounds coming from the dancers’ footsteps and the humming of the theatre air conditioning, the latter rather and unexpectedly adding to the atmosphere and the tension. The dance itself is often highly stylised and reminiscent of stylised German Expressionist dance of the 1920s and ’30s. This is particularly true of the choreography for Benito Juarez, played Mark Willis, who led the overthrow and subsequently became president.

Brenna Monroe-Cook as Empress Carlota in Carlota Photo Beatriz Schiller

Brenna Monroe-Cook as Empress Carlota in Carlota
Photo Beatriz Schiller

The powerful Willis, full of strong accented gestures left no-one in any doubt about who was in control. He dominated throughout, his black formal suit in stark contrast to the almost effete red garb of Maximillian and the red dresses of the Court Ladies. Willis is a sort of master of ceremonies as he directs events and his band of four fanatical guerrillas, whose stomping, percussive footwork made them a threatening quartet indeed. This was all in stark contrast to the appropriately weak, indecisive and slight-looking Maximillian, played by Ross Katen.

But for all the men’s efforts, the show belonged to Brenna Monroe-Cook as the Empress. The work is seen very much through her eyes and her memories (she was a depressive anyway and suffered greatly after the incident). Indeed, it starts with a scream, a scream for her already dead husband. One of the best scenes comes as her husband meets his fate, when she rolls around the floor in a frenzy, an uncontrolled outpouring of emotion, and one of the few moments when realism gives way to the visualisation of feeling.

The rest of the programme on 20th paled in comparison. There is a Time, danced by American Repertory Ballet, is a sort of theme and variations work based on Ecclesiastes and “the interminable passage of time” (‘a time to be born, a time to die’), as a programme note put it. It certainly seemed interminable. Historically interesting yes, worthy certainly, and not unpleasant, but ultimately dull. It consists of short dance after short dance, many having much the same mood, using similar choreographic devices (I screamed silently when yet another section continued after the music stopped) and movement motifs. In amongst it all were a few highlights. Lily Saito sparkled in the joyful (hurrah!) ‘Laugh;’ and later in the rather balletic duet, ‘Embrace,’ with Michael Landez. ARB look a useful ensemble, but one capable of, and deserving of, better than this.

A suite from Mazurkas had been danced on the Sunday evening by a group from the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. They were technically assured, looked bright, had energy and danced with all the lively tempo that the traditional mazurka demands. At times they had the sense of children playing on a sunny day. sjDANCEco on Tuesday could barely have been more different. Seen as a whole, the work encompasses a wider range of meetings and relationships. In some ways it does remind one of Jerome Robbins, only he was much better at it, and gave things time to develop. But even in the brighter dances, gone was the lightness and playfulness, and in its place was uncertainty, more than a few stumbles and too many legs that couldn’t decide whether they were turned out or in. Very disappointing.

Li Yi-shao (r) and Yeh Xiao-Chen of Taipei University in A Choreographic Offering Photo © 2015 Yi-Chun Wu

Li Yi-shao (r) and Yeh Xiao-Chen of Taipei University in A Choreographic Offering
Photo Yi-Chun Wu

Ning Fang-hsin (front) and Yen Yao-june of Taipei University in A Choreographic Offering Photo Yi-chun Wu

Ning Fang-hsin (front) and Yen Yao-june in A Choreographic Offering
Photo Yi-chun Wu

But NYU were pipped to the Sunday honours by an ensemble from Taipei University (薹北市立大學, plus one dancer from Instituto Sinaloense de Cultura from Mexico), who rounded off the programme with a buzzing and upbeat performance of a suite from A Choreographic Offering. The sort of pure dance work that guaranteed to send you home happy, it’s based on variations, paraphrases and motfs from the work of Doris Humphrey. As one short dance follows another, the choreography is as colourful as the costumes. You almost dare not blink in case you missed something. The whole cast performed with vibrancy, but standing out were Li Yi-shao (李怡韶) in a sparkling solo full of sharp, quick footwork, and Ning Fang-sing (甯方欣) in an near-equally effervescent duet.

Also enjoyable was the opening – and nearly as bright – of a few excerpts from Concerto Grosso by Cleo Person, Mark Sampson and Taylor Johnson from the Juilliard School.

The Hartt School in Psalm with Kareem Lewis in the foreground Photo courtesy Limon International Festival 3

The Hartt School in Psalm with Kareem Lewis in the foreground
Photo courtesy Limon International Festival

Tisch, Taipei and Juilliard all had choreography that suited them. They had works that needed youth and energy to see them at their best and they got it. Sadly, and despite their best endeavours, the Hartt School from the University of Hartford failed to connect in anything like the same way with their excerpts from Psalm. Again, though, the problem was more with choreography that struggles to achieve much colour. Kareen Lewis stood out at the Just Man, though.

So, did the festival change my mind? Not really. The dances in these two programmes are undoubtedly well-constructed, and the more upbeat ones made for good watching. Credit too to Carla Maxwell and the Limón Company for putting on the fortnight and ensuring that the repertory remains in performance. Often, though, I felt I had seen it all before, and often it all seemed rather too earnest. Apart from being fantastically danced, Carlota scored highly simply because it was different and had edge, while the students proved that a little youthful energy can work wonders when it comes to injecting some much needed zest to proceedings. Give me one or both of those any day.