Miller Theater, Columbia University, New York, NY; January 10, 2015

Jerry Hochman

Alison Chase/Performance in 'Drowned'. Photo © Whitney Browne

Alison Chase/Performance in ‘Drowned’.
Photo © Whitney Browne

Alison Chase is one of the co-founders of Pilobulus and Momix, and she’s regarded by many as a dance/theater icon. That says a lot about the choreography on view last weekend performed by her company, Alison Chase/Performance, at Columbia University’s Miller Theater – but it also doesn’t say nearly enough. Although much of the program of dances displayed similarities to Pilobulus (and included a Pilobolus piece that Ms. Chase choreographed), the company has its own style, and Ms. Chase continues to push boundaries.

The most ambitious of the four pieces was “Drowned”, choreographed – as all the dances were – by Ms. Chase with input from current and former dancers. It’s a magical visual feast of projected images and superbly performed live dance that is haunting, inventive, and at times extraordinarily beautiful. That it ultimately doesn’t work as more than a remarkable visual presentation may have been a product of the narrative, which is told in unmistakable terms and in an interesting and inventive way, but which lacks the depth and power of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short story “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World”, on which it is purportedly based (although there was no reference to it in the program notes), and has no significance beyond being a vehicle for Ms. Chase and her collaborators’ magic.

“Drowned” has a simple narrative. It was a dark and stormy night, and a tempest assaults the sea. A man drowns during the storm, and his body is washed ashore. Soon he’s found by a primitive tribe of six dancers. The three men are hostile and aggressive, and regard the body as invasive and a harbinger of evil. The three women see the body as, perhaps, the first decent man they’ve ever met, and are curious and affectionate. There are various interactions between the corpse and the tribespersons. Then the body floats back out to sea, or was never on land in the first place (perhaps the encounter was a drowning man’s dream). The end.

The piece’s reason for being is less to tell the story itself (which is similar to the Garcia Marquez story, but necessarily differs from it in many ways and, in any event, stands on its own) than to display the visual and kinetic inventiveness that the audience views as the story unfolds. “Drowned” opens to an upstage screen upon which videos and photographs (by Associate Directors Derek Dudek and Sean Kernan, respectively) depicting the storm, the drowned body, calming water, and later the island landscape are projected. The projections themselves are a combination of photographed images that move within the video, and video segments that suddenly stop or merge into different video segments, all of which vividly set the physical scene and capture the story’s essential punctuation points, which include a frightening electrical storm (a different storm) and dream-like encounters between the individual women and the drowned man.

Particularly effective is Ms. Chase’s use of two devices that give the piece added texture and an aura of mystery – a translucent scrim which functions as an intermediate visual layer of action, as if it were a distinctively separate cloud or haze into which the performers appear as if sprung from the screen behind them and from which they at times emerge into the stage ‘clearing’; and a cloth ‘sheet’ (maybe a remnant of a ship’s sail, as in the Garcia Marquez story) that is at once a wrapping for the corpse, a stage divider of sorts, and an additional screen behind which people, the corpse, or an imagined monster are hidden, within which things happen, and from which the characters at times emerge. As a result, “Drowned” frequently brings to mind a museum-like diorama, but one which is in motion and is populated with live (and one dead) characters. Add to these ingredients the original programmatic score by Grammy Award winning composer Paul Sullivan into which the stage action fits like a glove, the muted but primitively colorful costumes designed by Angelina Avallone, and Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting that brings it all together, and you have a powerful creative framework into which Ms. Chase (who is also the piece’s Director) and her choreographic collaborators weave live movement images that can be violent as the savage men battle over the corpse and attempt to capture or neutralize it; or rhapsodically beautiful as the docile women interact with the corpse – live or on screen.

The dancers (Jessica Bendig, Mark Fucik, Mistral Hay, Jenna Liberati, Kenneth Neil, and Shane Rutkowski, and even the drowned man, are bodies to be manipulated, but they also have personality traits, primitive and animalistic and ritualistic though they may be, which the choreography creates and exploits, and through which the narrative flows. For example, Mark Fucik’s character is a lion of a man and an alpha-male wannabe who reacts viscerally and more aggressively than the others, while Shane Rutkowski’s primitive man is a crouching tiger who tries to think things through before taking control. On the other hand, the women treat the body reverentially as well as affectionately, in poses that appeared at times to resemble Michelangelo’s Pieta. And although the piece includes bodies balancing bodies (mostly when the corpse is balanced against and manipulated by the individual dancers, or when the one male – Mr. Rutkowski – climbs atop the others as if standing on a promontory with a commanding view of the beach), the bulk of the movement is more than a collection of semi-static poses. Ms. Chase utilizes practically every inch of stage space, and focuses back and forth from the men to the women as if they were the subjects of different but interrelated paragraphs.

Alison Chase/Performance in 'Red Weather'. Photo © Whitney Browne

Alison Chase/Performance in ‘Red Weather’.
Photo © Whitney Browne

But the narrative context is not insignificant here, and without the emotional resonance and cosmic qualities imbued in the wonderful Garcia Marquez short story, the narrative is simplistic and of no significance, and memories of “Drowned” float away as the drowned man returns to his watery grave. What’s left is just a strange story that’s a vehicle for some fabulous stagecraft.

More successful, although less ambitious, were the other pieces on the program.

“Red Weather,” which had its New York premiere the previous evening, explores relationships, fractured though these relationships may choreographically be. There’s nothing new about that – but the interactions are displayed as bodies manipulating and balancing against bodies in strange and interesting and entertaining ways – male/female pairs (one pair appear to be boxing with each other), a male/male pair, and groups. I particularly liked one sequence in which the men lifted and manipulated one woman as if she were a goddess.

But what’s really different here, is the interplay between the movement of dancers and the musical accompaniment, created and performed by Rob Flax. Mr. Flax stands downstage right, playing the violin accompaniment. Suddenly, in mid duet, the violin music is joined by eerie sounds, which the dancers’ movements at times mimic. These sounds are not unpleasant to hear (they’re not, for example, the sounds of bodily functions) – they’re just…strange sounding. And they provide “Red Weather” with a distinctive aural framework that is as stimulating as the movement quality of the choreography and its flawless execution by the cast of six.

Also given its New York premiere was “Devil Got My Woman”, a 2008 company piece that is as hilarious, in a muted sort of way, as it is athletically complex. The piece describes a woman courted by three men, who ultimately selects one to cohabit with – the habitation being a contraption that looks like monkey bars in the shape of a house, with the bars colored orange (orange being the new black), through which Ms. Bendig and Mr. Rutkowski slither. Unknowingly, Mr. Rutkowski’s character drew the short straw – he’s the chosen victim. It’s deliciously wicked to watch evolve.

Mark Fucik (standing) and Shane Rutkowski in 'Tsu-Ku-Tsu'.  Photo © Whitney Browne

Mark Fucik (standing) and Shane Rutkowski in ‘Tsu-Ku-Tsu’.
Photo © Whitney Browne

The evening concluded with a brilliant performance of a Pilobulus classic: “Tsu-Ku-Tsu.” As should be obvious from the title, the piece has an Asian sensibility, augmented by the music and the robes worn (at first) by the dancers (the musical accompaniment was created by Leonard Eto, and the superb costumes were designed by Ms. Avallone). Here again there is a ritualized exploration of relationships, but the piece is much more than a Bugaku adapted for body manipulation and balance/counterbalance. Among other physically complex and hauntingly beautiful images, that of the women being carted across the stage on the men’s backs, ultimately rising to stand on their shoulders as if they were heavenly warrior angels, is particularly striking.

While not completely successful, this entertaining and intriguing program succeeds in doing what Ms. Chase set out to do – to push boundaries of dance and imagination.