Alexandra BellerDances in milkdreams Photo Scott Shaw

Alexandra BellerDances in milkdreams
Photo Scott Shaw

Ellen Stewart Theatre, La Mama, New York, NY
June 12, 2015

Jerry Hochman

Alexandra Beller/Dances was created in 2002, and since then has performed extensively in various venues in New York, the rest of the United States, and world-wide from China to Norway to Poland. The company’s latest piece, milkdreams, began a two week, six performance run at the Ellen Stewart Theatre, part of the La Mama Moves! Dance Festival. After a shaky start, I found milkdreams to be an unusual piece that speaks whatever it’s saying in an interesting and unique way, and that utilizes a new but vaguely familiar movement vocabulary in the process.

Beller is a veteran of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company (from 1995-2001), and I suspect that her choreography owes much to that association. But milkdreams appears independent from that or any other formal dance connection. Rather, it is intended as an exploration of and elaboration on the dances of children (infants and toddlers), based on observations of Beller’s own children and research with developmental movement specialists. Notes explaining Beller’s intent were not distributed until the performance ended, so unless Friday night’s audience was in on the piece’s background and process, or was remarkably perspicacious, this would not be a necessary conclusion.

But knowing the choreographer’s purpose (the choreography is attributed to Beller’s two children, with the dance itself ‘created’ by Beller and the company dancers) might have limited the impact of the piece. milkdreams may have been intended as a recounting or capturing of baby/toddler movement, but I suspect more was involved here. Following an initial period of virtually no movement and staring into space, milkdreams becomes the vehicle for a highly unusual choreographic language. The four dancers, moving through space with little apparent sense of time, move independently and occasionally interact – there are movement patterns that recur; and motifs that repeat at odd, unexpected times. It is this profoundly simple, and at the same time profoundly complex, movement language, and the repeated visual motifs that give milkdreams a more than ephemeral existence – and make it a dance rather than a thesis.

Alexandra Beller/Dances in milkdreams Photo Judith Stuart

Alexandra Beller/Dances in milkdreams
Photo Judith Stuart

The piece opens with the four dancers (Lea Fulton, Carly Berrett Plagianakos, Edward Rice, and Simon Thomas-Train), positioned opposite each other – the women on audience left; the men on the right, and two musicians stationed on a balcony toward the rear of the space. The dancers’ costumes are relatively muted or light colored.

Fulton’s character, who is the dance’s central focus (to the extent there is one), crosses toward the center of the stage, and stands in place or falls to the floor, staring into space throughout. Occasionally she lies on the floor sideways, with her legs raised a bit and her body bent slightly – a position that is one of the piece’s motifs. In hindsight, and with the benefit of the program notes, this looks like a cradling position, but it appeared more introverted and contemplative.

The other performers watch her, but don’t appear to be physically reacting, until the Plagianakos character, gets the urge to move. Eventually others follow, walking tentatively in their own worlds, slowly, with soft little ‘baby steps’ – living in a life without balance or learning how to maintain their balance. Occasionally they bump into each other, as if testing spatial, and perhaps social, limits. The Fulton character lifts herself up and falls down sideways as if pulled by gravity. She reaches up for something as if searching or exploring, falls down, stares into space, lifts herself up again, falls down, etc.  Eventually, other dancers perform their own movements – with the men a bit more animated, jutting arms out and back, but essentially moving within confined parameters.

An original instrumental composition by Robert Poss hums in the background like the din created by idling airplane engines or like indistinguishable or indecipherable background noise. Every once in a while this basic sound is augmented from the balcony by Poss and Kato Hideki on their electric instruments, like the irregular hum generated by an electromagnetic field. The light, projected onto the stage floor and walls from different directions, also changes in intensity and direction as the piece progresses.

None of this resonated with me until the pace picked up. Beller injected patterning that utilized the initial vocabulary and became the foundation for the more ‘advanced’ movement as the piece progressed. While there wasn’t much of it, there was a structure to milkdreams with these repeated images and group movement patterns. The movement explorers (infants and toddlers) began to act together (e.g., holding hands) and to move with increasing frequency. They took longer steps, would begin to rock on their feet, similar to what a baby does when learning to crawl. Their footwork became more agitated and they began to run. Some measure of consistency began to develop, sprinkled with these simple, almost primal, repetitive images. And while all the dancers did a fine job with the technically precarious movement language, Fulton in particular appeared to live it.

milkdreams takes a little getting used to, and may not be to everyone’s taste. Regardless of whether you know Ms. Beller’s intent, if you give it time, you might see something in this movement vocabulary; something that is simultaneously very old and very new – like the recollection of a beginning from which all things since began.