American Dance Platform
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
January 3, 2019
Stephen Petronio Dance: Excerpt From Goldberg Variations; Hardness 10
Martha Graham Dance Company: Woodland, Chronicle (excerpts)
American Dance Platform is an annual series of programs at the Joyce devoted to demonstrating the vitality and variety of contemporary dance, and to providing companies with exposure to visiting producing organizations who have gathered in New York to see what they might not otherwise be able to see. This year the series presented three programs, each of which focused on two companies. I was able to attend the first of them, which featured Stephen Petronio Dance and Martha Graham Dance Company, neither of which are strangers to New York audiences. Each company presented two pieces (or excerpts therefrom), and two of the four were new to me.
By far the most interesting piece on the program was Hardness 10, a dance created by Petronio to music by Nico Muhly that premiered last March during the company’s Joyce season. While there are too many of its disparate ingredients that don’t gel – or which create confusion where there should be none, overall it’s a very interesting piece of work.
Presumably the dance’s title is a reference to the Moh’s scale of hardness, which ranks a diamond as the hardest of minerals, a “10” on a 1-10 scale, unable to be “scratched” by other minerals of lesser degrees of hardness.
Hardness 10 represents the third collaboration between Petronio and Muhly, but that fact isn’t particularly informative. The music was created but unreleased prior to the choreography, with the name “Long Phrases for the Wilton Diptych,” but perhaps the title was changed since I saw no reference to it in the program. Be that as it may, the electronic sound is characterless, somewhere between a refrigerator hum and a car engine in need of an oil change – maybe closer to the sound of a drone at a higher than normal pitch. It adds nothing to the dance – it has no melody or exclamations (which, granted, allows Petronio to create his own framework, or to ignore a framework altogether) – but it also doesn’t call attention to itself or detract from the choreography. It’s just there, constantly, like background noise. [Save your emails – it’s probably a fine example of the genre that I’m not competent to recognize.]
But there’s another ingredient to the dance that is intrusive. The costumes for the seven dancers, designed by Patricia Field ARTFASHION and hand-painted by Iris Bonner/Those Pink Lips (as the credits are indicated in the program), from my viewing position initially appeared as intricate designs emblazoned on two sets of differently colored unitards (one set black; the other off-white or light tan). But as the dance progressed, I realized that the thick lines and angles were letters that had been painted onto the base-color of the unitards to form words, and the words to form phrases that are repeated over the entire costume. The phrases varied from dancer to dancer (there’s no gender-specificity to the phrases, or even to the unitard base colors), and were difficult to see in full, but what I could decipher ranged from: “Look Don’t Touch,” to “He Says She Says,” “Working Woman,” “Her Story (or Herstory),” and “The Boss (or He’s The Boss or She’s The Boss).”
So … this is a topical dance with a message. Except the message of Hardness 10, if there is one, fails to match the intensity of the phrases. There’s no confrontation here, at least none that I was able to discern as confrontation. There’s no avoidance, no alienation, no community divisiveness, no attempt at the dance equivalent of chit-chat or anything deeper. So maybe the dance (which, given the title and the phrases, must have some intended meaning) is simply about “hard”-edged human entities calloused by the polarizing political/sociological orthodoxies of the time, willing to risk limited contact but never really getting involved because of the pervasive toxicity inherent in relationships.
But there’s more to this dance than what might or might not have been its intended meaning. Despite (or maybe because of) the drone-like ambiance and the confusing costumes, the movement that Petronio has crafted, though limited in variety, is in a strange way dominant and engrossing.
The piece begins somewhat postmodern mechanically, with five dancers aligned in what might be an overall diamond-like shape (though from my viewpoint it looked relatively non-specific), moving in lock step forward and back and side to side and, dramatically, diagonally. Gradually the steps begin to vary, and eventually one “facet” of this “diamond” breaks free, does his own movement thing, and then returns, and then another does the same. But soon the communal entity is fractured entirely, with each “facet” entity dancing solos, in pairs, or in small groups. Despite that description, the effect of the movement variety within this overall form is mesmerizing.
While primarily angular, Hardness 10 is never didactic, and simple steps and street-movement (walking, running) yield to mirror-like replication to the unique and inscrutable qualities that make facets of a gemstone in some way unique, including movement of great complexity and inherent meaning, even if that meaning is difficult to discern. These facets of the whole (if that’s what they were – it’s not clear since two dancers seem to join the original five as if the original shape had a gravitational force) have individual characters, if not personalities, with hard edges. They can’t do anything lasting with each other, but they can’t live without each other. So my conclusion is that if one ignores the costumes (the struggle to read the phrases and to find their meaning in the choreography is far too distracting) and the annoyingly soporific background sound, Hardness 10 is well worth seeing for the intriguing movement and the impeccable execution by the company’s dancers: Bria Bacon, Jaqlin Medlock, Tess Montoya, Megan Wright, Ernesto Breton, Nicholas Sciscione, and Mac Twining.
The other piece new to me was the program’s third piece, Woodland, choreographed by Pontus Lidberg and co-commissioned by the Graham Company. Perhaps because of its genesis, the piece looks like it might have been created by a Graham acolyte. The music (Irving Fine’s Notturno for Strings and Harp) sounds a little Copland-ish, with the feel of a prairie or woodland clearing. Even the costumes (by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung) have a “prairie” feel – with all but one of the women wearing flared skirts that had they been denim might have been “prairie skirts” (as the style was recreated in the 70s) and the other woman wearing pseudo denim overalls.
The dance itself, which premiered in 2016 at the Library of Congress, appears to be “about” one woman’s encounter with other denizens of the ‘hood. A woman initially appears to scout the area, then others join, including the one who is different, who either wants to figure out who these people are or wants to join them. Sort of Appalachian Spring meets Dances at a Gathering meets every dance about an outsider trying to fit in.
But aside from being pleasant but not particularly inventive, the piece is done in by a weird diversion. Long after the dance begins, one dancer (Lloyd Knight) emerges from the wings wearing an animal mask. As he begins to dance with the central woman in overalls (Marzia Memoli), all I could think of was Little Red Riding Hood. But soon other dancers, who had appeared like perfectly normal humans earlier, emerged from the wings wearing animal face masks (the men wore wolf masks; the women cat masks). And then, not long after they appeared, the masks are removed (out of sight) and the “human” faces reappear. Why?
These masks can’t be irrelevant, but their meaning is either uncommunicated or simply a trite brief commentary on the way these strange people appear to the central character. In the end, it’s simply a “big” statement” that, as presented, is relatively pointless, and it has a negative impact on the dance.
The balance of the program consisted of pieces I’d previously seen. The evening opened with Sciscione repeating his star turn in excerpts from Steve Paxton’s Goldberg Variations. [The piece’s title may now incorporate the excerpts culled from the original into a separately-named dance. It’s identified in the program as Excerpt From Goldberg Variations, rather than Goldberg Variations (excerpts), so maybe these excerpts have now assumed a life, and an existence, of their own.]
Paxton’s choreography here is dated, but less so than other postmodern components of Petronio’s “Bloodlines” series that celebrates lasting contributions of postmodern choreographers. I saw Sciscione dance this piece at a 2017 Fall for Dance program, and although the opening section is not one I recall, the rest of it, whether identical to the FFD program or not, arouses the same sense of wonder at the choreography and Sciscione’s execution of it. His body appear rubberized, with movement controlled by outside forces that twist and pull his limbs out of balance and then whiplashes them in an opposite direction (still seemingly off balance), with the torso following where the limbs direct. I wouldn’t want a steady diet of this choreography, but, as he previously demonstrated, Sciscione is a master of it.
The Graham Company’s excerpts from Graham’s Chronicle closed the program. As much of a masterwork as Chronicle is, this iteration of excerpts from it didn’t work nearly as well as did the piece when I previously saw it – and is further evidence of why I find the presentation of “excerpts” from a larger piece, unless they can pass as standalone dances, to be almost inevitably disappointing.
Graham created Chronicle in 1936, and as Artistic Director Janet Eilber explained during a break between the two Graham Company pieces on this program, followed Graham’s rejection of Hitler’s invitation to perform at the Olympic Games that year, and was a response to Nazism’s growing menace.
I saw Chronicle for the first time in 2012, as the final piece in a Gala celebration at City Center in honor of the company’s resurgence, and found it to be a shattering anti-war ballet.
The piece’s opening section in that 2012 performance, titled “Spectre-1914,” was a solo during which one woman, following the war to end all wars, senses the calamity to come in nascent fascism. Clad in a black garment infused with red (designed by Graham), the woman moves as if tortured, and eventually the red in the garment overtakes the black, foreshadowing the bloody war still to come. The section bears a superficial similarity to Graham’s Lamentation, but is far more galvanizing, and it led clearly to the second section of the piece, “Steps in the Street,” which appeared to metastasize the suffering by the solo dancer in the “Spectre-1914” segment to the entire cast (the ballet is danced entirely by women).
To my eye, the only defect in Chronicle as I initially saw it was the overly martial third segment of the piece, “Prelude to Action,” despite the excellence of the performances. I thought Aristophanes (Lysistrata) had a better idea. But without the opening segment to influence “Steps in the Street,” “Prelude to Action” loses any connection to suffering. Instead, the martial aspect is intensified. Indeed, while I described Fang-Yi Sheu’s performance in this section in 2012 as akin to Spartacus leading a charge against warrior /slave-owning oppressors, here Xin Ying, equally strident and powerful, appeared as a revered, inspirational, and megalomaniacal leader inspiring the troops to a triumph of the will – as totalitarian an image as the totalitarianism that the dance was supposed to condemn. While the performances of Ying and the ten other women in the piece were all very good (except for more “stiffness” among the supporting dancers than I recalled from the 2012 program), it left me feeling uncomfortable, and wondering whether this was the sense that Martha intended to convey.
ADP’s two other programs that I was unable to see featured Raphael Xavier and BalletX, and, on one program, companies led by two of this year’s Dance Magazine Award winners: Ephrat Asherie Dance and Ronald K. Brown / Evidence (with Arturo O’Farrill and Resist).