Ariel Rivka Dance. Photo David Gonsier

Ariel Rivka Dance
Photo David Gonsier

New York Live Arts, New York, NY; May 30, 2015

Jerry Hochman

Ariel Rivka Dance celebrated its 8th Season at New York Live Arts with a collection of dances that took the company beyond the boundaries of its founding choreographer, Ariel Rebecca Grossman, and which also invited visiting dancers into the program. While some of the six dances were more compelling than others, the program was fortuitous for all involved, and the sold out crowd.

Two pieces by company dancer and ‘guest choreographer’ Sean Curran were particularly impressive – as was the skill of the ARD dancers performing them. Study for 3 Women From Bishkek, which received its world premiere during this run (although the program indicated that the piece is a restaging, so I suspect it’s derived from a prior incarnation), is much more entertaining than it should be.

Studies tend to be dry and academic, but this is neither. The interplay between the three women on stage (Allie Kronick, Danita Shaeen, and Hana Ginsburg Tirosh) was more complex than it appeared, and even though it consisted primarily of sequencing variations with swirling movement interspersed with hands resting on their chests in a ‘folkdance’ manner (including a sense of ‘searching’ coupled with prayer and supplication), there was more than sufficient movement variety to maintain interest. Bishkek, incidentally, is the capital of Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia, but there doesn’t appear to be any specific connection between the city and the dance other than an effort to provide the work with a somewhat culturally isolated, nomadic atmosphere. Perhaps these women were from the city fringes. The music, composed by Ensemble Tengir Too (which specializes in replicating and creating innovative Kyrgyz music based on its ancient mountain musical traditions) and arranged by Grossman’s husband, David Homan, added atmospheric authenticity.

Curran’s second work, Desert Dance/Even Here, which received its US premiere during the season (and also is a restaging), is a bigger and more intriguing piece. Here, Curran choreographs to British pianist and composer John McCabe’s Scenes in an American Desert (actually titled Scenes in America Deserta), a piece for six voices commissioned and performed by The King’s Singers, and which is reportedly based on an architect’s written description of the American Southwest. The music provides a haunting musical evocation of stereotypical desert sounds and sensations, aided immeasurably by the music being exclusively vocal (it sounds like variations on desert wind), and Curran’s choreography (aided by Amanda Shafran’s costumes and Marika Kent’s lighting, both of whom also contributed to the designs for Studies For 3 Women From Bishkek), does it justice. In addition to aridity and a sense of emptiness, there is a mystical quality to the desert that McCabe’s work captures, and that Curran’s choreography enhances, buttressed by the sterling performances by the whole cast of seven with Kronick particularly terrific.

With the stage bathed in hot red light, the dancers, in costumes of muted gold (sands of gold), swirl over and onto the stage floor as if sand manipulated by desert wind. The choreography repeats the sense of searching and supplication in Curran’s prior piece, but in a completely different way. The sequencing is skillfully done, and the choreographic vocabulary, primarily lyrical, is woven seamlessly throughout, with the dancers, either individually, all together, or in sub-groupings, hopping circularly in rapid steps and then slowing, as if watching an abstract visualization of thermal variations of air currents swirling and then repositioning the sand dunes. And the choreographic quality, coupled with the a Capella vocalization that sounded somewhat like plainchant (except the sacred quality came not from within a church, but from being seen and heard through the prism of desert sun and heat) provided a mystical quality much like a desert apparition, or non-sectarian call to prayer.

The ARD dancers’ final piece was the world premiere of Rebecca Grossman’s Ori. Although the choreography is essentially similar, it is superior to prior narrative dances of hers that I’ve seen, because, though abstract, it looked more focused, and the orientation of the dance was front-facing, toward the audience rather than directed toward some exterior distant force.

Although Ori has no clear story, Grossman carries over a degree of inspiration from her prior pieces, in which she introduced characters whose names were derived from ‘ora’, the Hebrew word for light. Ori has the same root, and light plays a part in this piece as well – the dancers appear bathed in it, and illuminated from within by it.

Although also for seven dancers, Ori is more group-oriented than Curran’s Desert Dance. It shows a less varied vocabulary, although Graham-like thrusts are incorporated. That’s not to say that the presentation is uniform; at various points the dancers break off into subgroups of three or four, which in turn subdivide such that sequencing is individualized, or one of the group is the focal point and may be physically supported by the others. The choreography pulses with the pulsating music by Homan and which varies with intensity and tempo, but isn’t bound by it. Indeed, at one point the music stops when the dancing continues. It ends with the dancers reaching up as if being inspired not just by light, but by the enlightenment provided by a superior force or supreme being.

The first half of the program also included two solos. The first, by independent artist Katarzyna Skarpetowska, was a knockout, and as exhausting to watch as it appeared to be to dance. Zjawa, which premiered with Buglisi Dance Theater in 2013, is choreographed to Tirzah, by John Zorn, performed by the Cracow Klezmer Band. ‘Zjawa’ is a Polish word that means ‘phantom,’ or ‘apparition.’ ‘Tirzah’ has biblical roots and means “she is my delight,” but is better known as the name of one of the women who first obtained hereditary rights. It’s also the name of Judah Ben-Hur’s sister in the Lew Wallace novel who suffered from leprosy and is cured by Jesus, and a town in the West Bank. Any of these word meanings could have contributed to Zkarpetowska’s piece, but ultimately it doesn’t matter.

Zjawa is a passionate dance that loses none of its force just because it’s not clear what the passion is about. It was performed intensely by Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch, a principal with the Martha Graham Dance Company who has also appeared with BDT, dressed in a somewhat tattered-looking long white dress, with her long hair like a stringy mop, and looking disheveled and defeated. She at first wheels backwards, hunched over, as if escaping from some terrible force. She circles the stage, backwards, before suddenly lifting herself up and standing upright. She sways and stretches with her back to the audience, as if gathering strength, before returning to her slumped over position. She’s looks in a trance, or tormented, or in mourning, or in prayer – all at once. Eventually, she raises herself up again, seems to gain strength, and, back to the audience again, looks hopefully (and perhaps confidently) into the future.

Zjawa it’s an extraordinary piece of work, and was given a performance of extraordinary depth.

WAVES Photo Daniel Hedden

Photo Daniel Hedden

BE’SPOKE(n), by Deborah Goffe in collaboration with Paul Dennis, who performs the piece, is another matter. If there’s a message, I can’t tell what it is. Four musicians walk on playing their instruments. Dennis follows them, dressed in a curious looking stitched together suit. He walks through the musicians, and begins dancing (moving his head, waving his hands, scratching his thighs, gyrating) as if introducing himself to the world. When the musicians take positions behind their upstage right music stands, Dennis moves to center stage, still showing off his natty suit and natty steps. By now, the musicians are punctuating the music (uncredited) with vocal sounds, and at one point stop, take cell phones from their pockets, and then take (or simulate taking) selfies.

BE’SPOKE(n) appears to be poking fun at itself and about performance artificiality, but assigning it some meaning to it probably gives it too much credit. But it’s not dull – and the audience seemed in on the fun.

The program’s second half was devoted to Carolyn Dorfman’s WAVES, which premiered at the NJPAC a few months ago and was having its New York premiere. The piece appears deceptively simple, but is in fact wickedly complex as the Carolyn Dorfman Company dancers perform various permutations of waves. What should have been an extended exercise turns into great fun – particularly when the company interrupt the performance (or continue it, depending on your point of view) and invite the audience to join in and make their own waves. It might have served the function of a seventh inning stretch (the piece runs half an hour – that’s a lot of waves), but it was highly enjoyable. The ten dancers are as engaging as they are skilled, and it was a great way to end a very fine program.