Tribeca Performing Arts Center, New York, NY; March 14, 2015
Cecly Placenti and Jerry Hochman
Measuring creativity in a dance performance can be like trying to measure air. It may be there, but it’s difficult to define, doesn’t have objective standards, and looks different to different people. But you know it when you see it. At Saturday’s performance of “Renewal,” an evening-length work by Amanda Selwyn Dance Theatre, the creativity was abundant and evident.
While we have some relatively minor criticisms of “Renewal,” the program’s choreography, production values, and dancers, were all startlingly good. Not surprising, perhaps, for those familiar with the company, which celebrated its fifteenth Anniversary with these performances, but a delightful surprise to us.
“Renewal” is a slick, impressive production in which each element – music, lighting, costumes, and choreography – is symbiotically related. The evening comprised of 16 semi-independent and separately titled dances of varying lengths, most of which could stand on their own, but look better as part of an overall group. Aside from the introductory and concluding pieces, which complement each other, the component dances can generally be divided into groupings depending on a common movement quality, the type of musical accompaniment, and the costumes. And even though several of the individual dances look completely different from the one before or the one after, there is a unity to the whole evening that the choreographic and production components provide. Even a seemingly isolated solo or duet somehow fits the theme.
The company and Selwyn’s related activities come within an umbrella organization called “Notes in Motion,” which is an apt description of her choreography. Her style, while it encompasses a variety of movement qualities, is overwhelmingly lyrical and one of continuing motion – as akin to contemporary ballet (though danced barefoot) as it is to contemporary dance. There’s angularity and floor work, and certainly emotional expression. But the movement is not limited to a presentation of bodies in space, posing, or angst. Selwyn’s keen musicality makes the auditory visible, truly like musical notes in motion, and she manages to both match the music in tempo and mood and also to highlight its rhythms and syncopations in interesting ways.
According to the program notes, “Renewal” highlights signature structures and elements in Selwyn’s choreography over the years, and is representative “of the state of being made new, fresh, or strong again, demonstrating how we re-invent ourselves again and again over time.” We saw none of that. What we did see, however, was an accomplished presentation with sufficient choreographic and structural variety to maintain interest. If there is a common thread through the evening, it’s searching – for something (identity; survival; relationships) – and the passage (and division) of time into historical or emotional periods.
The music that accompanies each of the 16 dances is not specifically credited, but the identity of the music for each doesn’t matter as much as the skillful assembly and editing (sound design by Joel Wilhelmi) which, broadly, seems to flow from Middle Eastern or Israeli sounding, to sounds of wind, to African sounding, to electronic. Similarly, the superbly conceived costumes (designed by Anna-Alisa Belous) run the gamut from non-specific universal, to being evocative of primitive coloration, to tie-dyed fun, to exotic or futuristic expressiveness.
And the lighting (designed by Dan Ozminkowski and Isabella Byrd) doesn’t just set a mood, it highlights and creates a framework for many of the dances – pathways through which the dancers move; moving squares of light; isolated dancer highlights; careful exploration of darkness and shadow. They’re all integrated seamlessly with Selwyn’s choreography (attributed to “Selwyn and dancers.”
Each of the 16 dances is given a title that roughly corresponds to the movement on stage. In the opening “Five Fingers” six dancers initially move in unison, but gradually separate out as individuals, couples or smaller groups – an idea that is repeated throughout the overall piece, either within individual dances or as the content of individual dances themselves. Using this general theme gave “Renewal” a sense of cohesion; each piece while unique in style and scope sharing a loose structure.
The movement style is fluid, with arms, fingers and the occasional leg stretched to the sky, extended as if trying to grasp a future, or simply to survive. But there’s also a sense of pushing and pulling; of being carried. In the second dance, “Drag and Drop”, the movement quality becomes somewhat more aggressive and primitive, with one couple (Sarah Starkweather and Adam Robert Dickerson) clad in primitive-looking costumes in the upstage background, acting like stereotypical primitive humans supposedly acted; Dickerson, for example, repeatedly drops Starkweather to the floor, and pulls her offstage. Eventually, others in the group (the “Drag and Drop” dance), return to the stage, all now dressed in similar primitive costumes, pair off, and do the same. This segues into the next dance, called “Building”, in which Starkweather dances solo at first, more angularly, as if rebelling or trying to break free. Her feet, at times, seem glued to the floor as she attempts to pull or push herself forward.
These initial images set up a completely different dance, “Reflect”, with different costumes. This is a lovely, wonderful, skillfully executed duet with Torrey McAnena and Dickerson, filled with emotion and relationship growth. At one point, McAnena seemed to lose all physical limitations, all bone structure, as she melted into Dickerson’s arms – a brief but complex movement sequence difficult to make look ‘real’, but McAnena pulled it off like an accomplished ballerina dancing a romantic pas de deux.
The focus of “Renewal” then shifts to Emily Pacilio, in “Dream”, initially a solo dance that expands into a duet (“Interlude”) with Randall Smith, and then a small group dance (“Echo”) with Manon Halley, Robert Moore, and Sarah Buscaino. These dances all present lovely, gentle images, with Pacilio first imagining, perhaps dreaming, of something (a relationship; her future?) as she moves down a diagonal shaft of light toward a tiny glass-enclosed lantern. After her duet with Moore (another example of the skillful, seamless partnering present throughout the piece), the other dancers join her and repeat the images of dancing with the lantern in their hands – as if Pacilio’s search, her dream, was theirs as well.
Suddenly, the element of time seems to shift to a more ‘liberated’ era; where the movement is slinkier, feisty, at times funny, and the costumes a contemporary imagining of the free-spirited sixties. But even here, with the dancers wearing identically colored costumes, the attention to detail is extraordinary. “Clockwork”, features four dancers forming a diamond shape, with Starkweather, Smith, and Dickerson at the rear and center points, and McAnena at the downstage tip. For the first three, the tie-dyed costume colors run (top to bottom) blue, purple, orange. For McAnena, it’s orange, purple, blue. There’s no particular significance to the color order – it just provides a more interesting, more dramatic visual presentation. The movement is quirky, fun and of a higher, lighter energy and mood than the previous sections, a refreshing cleanse for the emotional palette!
The final dances, with the dancers costumed in almost regal looking, exotic/futuristic outfits (and accompanied by African/techno music) is a panoply of movement that combines a robotic sense of angularity with an overall non-aggressive framework. The piece concludes with the dancers returning to a semi-cohesive group reminiscent of the way the evening opened, still searching, still wandering.
While “Renewal” is too long (with no intermission or pauses between dances), and a few of the individual dances seemed superfluous, because the movement quality and production values create and maintain rich visual engagement, and because of the superb quality of the dancers (which can’t be overstated), we were never bored. And although there’s nothing in terms of movement vocabulary or theatricality that’s really new here, there doesn’t need to be. Successful dance creativity doesn’t necessarily mean doing things uniquely or differently, and successful expression isn’t limited to seeing how far one can stretch the limits of a dancer’s endurance, or an audience’s patience. Sometimes it can simply mean doing things very well. Amanda Selwyn Dance Theatre’s “Renewal” does things very well – with each element working to create a visual montage of well-crafted movements and an overall aura that is coherent, entertaining, and meaningful.