Manhattan Movement and Art Center, New York, NY; November 8, 2014
That there’s a lot of dance talent out there should not come as a surprise to anyone. Nevertheless, when I take the opportunity to see a company that I’ve not only never seen before, but never heard of, and find the choreography and the company’s dancers generally to be on a high level, I’m shocked. In a good way. I should know by now.
Thomas/Ortiz Dance, a group I’d not previously crossed paths with, had its 10th Anniversary New York Season last weekend at the Manhattan Movement and Art Center on West 60th Street, a stone’s throw from the Hudson River. The company was founded by co-Artistic Directors Ted Thomas and Frances Ortiz in 2001, and made its debut at the Bronx Academy of Art and Dance that same year. A native New Yorker, Mr. Thomas’s background seems a hybrid of ballet and contemporary dance (he danced with Ballet Hispanico, Elisa Monte, Murray Louis/Alwin Nikolais, and the Paul Taylor Dance Company). Ms. Ortiz, born in Puerto Rico, appears to have had more exclusive experience with contemporary dance, although I suspect her dance background is broader than that. In any event, the company’s choreographic style is, not surprisingly, a synthesis of lyrical balleticism and contemporary angularity (with a focus on upper body movement and arm/hand gestures as opposed to footwork) and the dramatic power of contemporary dance fused with contemporary issues. The company also wears its multi-culturalism on its sleeve – it proclaims this as a virtue, not simply a fact, and based on this program, it is.
The evening’s new piece (the world premiere was the previous evening) was “Four Temperaments”, a choreographic product of both artistic directors. It’s an unfortunate title: Thomas/Ortiz’s “Four Temperaments” has nothing at all to do with the classical psychological conceptions of the four primary human personality traits (sanguinic, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic), the composition by Paul Hindemith that explores these ‘humours’, or George Balanchine’s neo-classical ballet that mined and expanded on both. And although the music is by the Kronos Quartet, it is unidentified, and there is certainly no recording of a composition by the group with that title.
Rather, as the rather dense program notes suggest, the dance depicts a man’s love/hate relationship with four vices in his life. These four vices are all portrayed as women, and the relationship that the man has with these women, with one exception, all seem essentially similar.
But this is intellectual nitpicking. The dance is a dramatic, exciting piece depicting irresistible attraction, powerless power, and the unwillingness, or inability, to break free of those forces that attract but also condemn.
The dance opens with one man (William Robertson) at center stage, and four women (Nicole Corea, Gabrielle Gilchrist, Emily Pihlaja, and Rachael McSween) at four corners around him. The man is dressed in a suit and tie, and the women are costumed as contemporary, business-like, alluring sirens. Costumes for this and the other pieces on the program are by A. Christina Giannini.
The choreographic movement variety is limited, but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is the sense of irresistibility and inevitability that it delivers, and that the dancers exploit. At one point I sensed that the man was a businessman, and the women personifications of his greed. At another, that he was a pimp, and the women his captive agents who ultimately control him. And at another, the man was an everyman battling his demons and succumbing to them. In the end, because the sexual dynamic is so strong, I landed on this being a battle for sexual control between one man and the women he’s attracted to but whose existence will destroy him. He can’t break away, and doesn’t really want to. But who the characters are supposed to be, or what they represent,
is less important here than the overall intense energy in the piece.
The vibrant, dramatic, choreography is matched by the same qualities in the dancers. Ms. Corea (who gets stage-slapped, twice), Ms. Gilchrest (who appears to have the most committed relationship of the four with Mr. Robertson’s character), Ms. Pihlaja, and Ms. McSween were super sirens, both in the sense of allure, and in the sense of warning alarms. But Mr. Robertson, as the dance’s focal point, carried the piece. He was at once belligerent, dangerous, victimizer and victimized, powerful and powerless, controlling and losing control to his vices. It was a memorable performance all around.
Equally stunning was the New York premiere that preceded it on the program, “Lagniappes”. Attributed choreographically solely to Mr. Thomas, “Lagniappes” focuses on two women, Ms. McSween and Ms. Pihlaja. The piece is described in the program notes as “A joyful and emotional duet after surviving a natural disaster that destroyed their home, two friends celebrate the gift of life.” I haven’t a clue where the first part of that description comes from, or where it was reflected in the piece, but I have no quarrel with the dance being a celebration.
The word ‘lagniappes’ means an unexpected gift given to a customer following a purchase; something extra; an indirect benefit. Its usage is predominantly in the south – particularly in Louisiana and southeast Texas. This location, and the word’s supplemental definition, might indicate some side benefit arising from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, but nothing on stage would lead a viewer to infer that predicate. Consequently, and abetted by unidentified music performed by the legendary Miriam Makeba, I saw it differently from the description given.
Ms. McSween is African-American; Ms. Pihlaja is pale, blonde Caucasian. As much as I tried to eliminate racial differences as a factor in the piece, I couldn’t do it because the dancers and the choreography wouldn’t let me. Instead, I saw different cultures and backgrounds coming together slowly, with the women first communicating their differences, then celebrating their ability to overcome them. To the extent there is a gift involved, it is the unexpected gift of community.
The choreography is pulsing and dynamic – somewhat different at the beginning for each of the dancers in a way that to me was a cultural reflection. But “Lagniappes” is one of those dances that is as good as it is because its dancers are as good as they are. Ms. McSween and Ms. Pihlaja appeared somewhat alienated and disconnected from each other at first, watching curiously as the other danced. But the stage relationship grows, and each of them danced not only differently, but enthusiastically, passionately, and with growing interest in each other and each other’s music and dance as the piece progressed. It isn’t a particularly beautiful-looking dance to look at (though it’s executed brilliantly), but it doesn’t need to be. The beauty in “Lagniappes” isn’t skin deep.
The other New York premiere, “Corelli”, which both artistic directors choreographed, wasn’t quite as successful as the other two. Commissioned by the Connecticut Ballet, the piece, which premiered in 2010, is a…ballet. It’s lovely, but its overall pace is slow, and the hand gestures and posing reflect a more limited dance vocabulary. To music by 17th-18th Century Italian baroque musician/composer Arcangelo Corelli (the music is attributed to ‘Antonio Corelli’, but that appears to be an erroneous reference to the lead character in “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”, which was inspired to some extent by the real Corelli), the eight dancers – Ms. Gilchrist, Ginna Ortiz, Kristen Prescott, Hannah Smith, Andrew Pontius, Mr. Robertson, Mark Taylor, and William Gonzalez – perform solo, in pairs, or other permutations; isolated or in front of others. It flows very nicely, but it’s not a substantial work. The dancers, however, were quite good, particularly Ms. Gilchrist, Mr. Robertson, Ms. Smith, and Mr. Taylor.
The balance of the program was comprised of ballets that had been previously presented in New York and elsewhere. “Frayed Ends” is a romantic duet choreographed by Ms. Ortiz in 2007. There’s nothing new here – the relationship ebbs and flows; there’s conflict and resolution – but, taking its cue from the music (Yo-Yo Ma’s recording of Rachmaninov’s “Sonata for Cello & Piano in G Minor,” Op.19-3 Andante), a deeply sensitive and passionate movement from the larger composition, the choreography draws the viewer into the couples’ relationship, and the couple – Ms. Corea and Mr. Pontius – injected their own measure of passion and compassion, and executed Ms. Ortiz’s choreography exquisitely.
“Leverage”, a 2011 piece, and “Un-Damely”, one from 2005, each of which was choreographed by Mr. Thomas and Ms. Ortiz together, concluded the program. Neither is particularly complex, but the former, a dance based on the premise of having dancers perform in front of, and in-between, large rectangular mirrors that move about the stage, and the latter, a serio-comic ‘feminist’ romp performed
by five women, were both entertaining.
Based on this performance, Thomas/Ortiz Dance is an interesting company that features intriguing choreography and is blessed with some very fine dancers. I’ll watch for them the next time they’re around.