Ariel Rivka Dance
Manhattan Movement & Arts Center
New York, New York

May 20, 2022
Ori, Convergence, Mossy, Her, Lead Me, What You Want (world premiere)

Jerry Hochman

Ariel Rivka Dance resumed its annual New York season after a two-year Covid hiatus, this time at the Manhattan Movement & Arts Center. The program I saw was an assortment of pieces choreographed by Artistic Director and Choreographer Ariel Grossman before the pandemic began (including several I’d reviewed previously), and dances created during or post-Covid.

The most interesting dances on the program were the final two: Lead Me, which arose out of pandemic necessity, and What You Want, the premiere piece, a commentary of sorts on current events and, perhaps, on the nature of protest. I’ll consider these two dances first, and follow with the remaining dances in performance order.

Lead Me isn’t really a dance. But it’s a dance. By that I mean that there’s a limited amount of what one might consider to be dance, but it’s definitely choreographed, just in a different way. It’s one of the most unusual and fascinating pieces I’ve seen in long time.

With the bare stage illuminated, dancers walk onto the stage and form a rough circle shape. They all carry laptops, which they place on the stage floor as they take their positions. At that point, the individual laptop-camera captured images – all of them – are projected against the stage’s white backdrop. The nine dancers (the entire company) move back from the laptop screens a few feet, and then began to pose, as if testing to make sure everything works. Effectively, the audience sees two different views of the same dancers doing the same movement concurrently.

Ariel Rivka Dance in Ariel Grossman’s “Lead Me”
Photo by Brian Billings

This sort of thing has been done before, particularly as a way to communicate dance during the pandemic (which is how this particular piece had its genesis). Live dancers performing against a filmed version of the same or similar dance has been done before too. But I’m not aware of this exact type of performance presentation having been done previously.

At first it takes a bit of getting used to, but when Grossman’s frequent collaborator Stephania de Kenessey’s music (titled “Lead Me Alone”) begins, the fun begins.

The projections aren’t just simple projections: as the piece evolves, the number, location, order, and size of the projected images change, along with the realization that some images may be projections from small cameras positioned near certain of the laptops (which the dancers had also brought with them on stage and positioned; I just hadn’t noticed). There may even have been pre-recorded snippets of movement inserted among the projected images just to keep the audience on its collective toes. Over the course of the dance the movement, though still limited to what can be captured within the laptop camera’s view, expands to include far more active, even lyrical, steps. And at times the dancers rise from their prone positions and move (barefoot; occasionally in tight movement bursts similar to bourrées from one position to another) – eventually, perhaps, “connecting” with a different screen, enabling different points of view of any given dancer’s movement.

The dancers themselves participate in the process: they can be seen changing the positions of the laptops and cameras, and at times actively inserting instructions (i.e., pressing buttons) that yield a result that can be seen in the projections. It’s also quite possible, given the dance’s title, that one laptop image “leads” to another, and/or that the laptop images impel in some way what the dancers do next, but that’s not something I observed.

The result of all this is a constantly changing kaleidoscope; an art house fun-house populated by dancers and enhanced by de Kenessey’s electronic (or electronically augmented) music – which in a way, as the piece began, was remindful of the music by Erik Satie that Sir Frederick Ashton used in his Monotones I and II, except here the complementing moving objects are a group of independent dancers rather than ersatz celestial bodies.

Eventually the score grows louder and more percussive – and the dancers’ movement (and consequently the projected images) become more varied and agitated. But as the dance nears its conclusion, the Satie-like music returns, and the dancers return to the initial circular group position.

The somewhat sterile description above doesn’t do the piece justice. In effect, Lead Me is far more interesting than electronically regimented, with the audience (e.g., me) wondering what might happen next. Indeed, it’s highly cerebral, requiring the viewer to think about what’s happening rather than just to watch it happen.

The downside? There’s little in the way of “standard” choreography. The dancers’ movement and range consists primarily of whatever can be captured by the nearby laptop screens or camera lenses (though that’s not as limiting as it sounds). But the trade-off is worth it, and the dance is as much a product of calculated, pre-determined electronic input / output as anything else. That is, the dance is what the audience sees: both what happens on stage and what is shown in the projected images, including decisions made as to what to show and when to show it (the way in which the projection of this movement is captured, organized, and re-presented) – and in that respect the piece is in fact significantly choreographed.

I don’t know whether I’d like a steady Lead Me diet, but as a viewing Event, it’s brilliant.

The evening’s final piece, the world premiere of What You Want, is difficult to pigeon-hole. It’s consistent with what Grossman has done previously, but … it’s also a significant departure from it. And although I’m sure there’s a purpose or theme to it despite its abstract form, I changed my mind several times during the course of the piece as to what that is – or if there’s a purpose or theme at all. My tentative conclusion is that What You Want is a sort of protest dance, visualizing an intention to change or do something about … something – but it can also be viewed as a sort of protest of mass protest. I’ll try to explain below.

(l-r) Kyleigh Sackandy and Caitlyn Casson
in Ariel Grossman’s “What You Want”
Photo by Brian Billings

The score, commissioned by ARD and created by Summer Dregs (with de Kenessey) is interesting on its own – as is the description of the collaboration among Dregs, de Kenessey, and Grossman (described on Dregs’s web site) that resulted in the performance piece. He writes: “The process began with Ariel sending over videos of movements, the only sound was feet hitting the floor and the breath of the dancers. Stefania and I would then create musical sketches based on these movements. Ariel would work the movements into dance sketches and then Ariel and I would work together to create the final piece. A true conversation between music and movement.”

The composition, which Dregs played live at the performance, is divided into relatively clearly delineated parts, which are given broad identifying titles on Dregs’s website (Body Armor, Tremors, A Feint Toward Peace, Undercurrents, Storm’s Return). These titles accurately summarize the musical ambiance of each section, but they’re not referenced at all in the program, perhaps because, visually, the dance is both more specific and more ambiguous than the composition’s sub-titles might lead one to believe. A viewer can discern bits and pieces of “things” that can be seen as something someone wants [e.g., self-respect (necessarily, as presented, incorporating racial issues), freedom of sexual decision-making (although this is tempered to a degree by the fact that the company is all women), or, more generally, the freedom just to be], but it’s not clear what the dance, overall, is saying about it. That’s not intended as a criticism; often not showing a clear intent is the best way to handle what might be seen as a controversial subject.

The score begins with highly percussive exclamation points – which the cast of eight dancers echoes largely by raising one arm upward, and with a single finger (or entire hand) thrust against “something” (the powers that be, the status quo, God) as if in blame or demand. It’s a powerful opening, and the image is a continuing motif that reappears at various times during the course of the dance: a vision of wanting or demanding something, first as an individual, and eventually watched by, adopted by, and then advocated by other dancers and eventually by the group as a whole.

There is some repetitious patterning to Grossman’s choreography, but in the overall dance context it’s insignificant. By far the more important consideration here is that the movement is active – the choreography is insistent, rather than passively expectant, which marks somewhat of a departure for Grossman – a technical harnessing and focusing on the power that’s a part of Grossman’s choreographic style.

I think a key to understanding the piece may be found in its title, What You Want, as opposed to “What We Want” or “What They Want” or “What I Want,” which coupled with the choreography, leads me to think that the piece, perhaps negatively, is a commentary on a group’s advocacy of someone else’s cause (but it can also be viewed as an approving commentary on a group’s adoption of someone else’s cause). Regardless, even if one finds no particular theme to work and just considers it as a contemporary abstract dance, What You Want is a very interesting, entertaining, powerful, and exciting piece of work. And its dancers, each of them, performed brilliantly, as if possessed. [And as fine as each of them was, I must single out one – seeing Asia Bonilla’s powerful internal and external combustion engine of a solo was alone worth the price of admission.]

Ariel Rivka Dance in a prior performance
of Ariel Grossman’s “Ori”
Photo David Gonsier

The evening opened with a repeat performance of Grossman’s Ori, which I’ve favorably reviewed twice previously. The performance here was consistent with those I previously viewed – but here Ori, which means “light,” may have had special significance. That is, it’s a fine example of what I described above as powerful but passive, expectant choreography (looking for the light (e.g., God’s beneficence), and it provides an interesting book-end contrast, including upraised arms and hands but in a welcoming rather than confronting posture, with What You Want, the dance that closed the program.

Convergence, the piece that followed Ori, is a choreographically tight dance that says what it says and then, admirably, stops.

It’s tempting to assign some sort of statement or theme to Grossman’s choreography here, and there are a lot of images that might support that. But any such themes don’t appear to be developed, so overall the piece continues to appear simply to be a non-narrative representation of three women “converging” and responding to the music they hear (composed, as was Ori, by Grossman’s husband David Homan): reacting to each other, letting their inner divergent demons (inner characteristics or expectations) control their actions, but ultimately suppressing all that for the benefit of the group.

(l-r) Amy Ashley, Asia Bonilla, and Abriona Cherry
in Ariel Grossman’s “Converge”
Photo by Brian Billings

A benefit here is that the score limits, in time, what Grossman can include. Nevertheless, it provides more than sufficient framework for solos and duets to be interspersed with attempts to converge before the ultimate decision to be a part of the group and move forward is made. And the “fact” of three dancers “converging,” rather than any more cosmic statement, may have been what the group Konverjdans, which commissioned the 2021 piece, wanted.

At Friday’s performance, Convergence was danced by Amy Ashley, Bonilla, and Abriona Cherry.

I saw and subsequently reviewed Mossy previously, but as sometimes happens, this time I saw it differently.

I still don’t know what the title relates to (perhaps it’s the title of de Kenessey’s score). Regardless, this time, instead of being not at all clear on the relationship between the two dancers, I saw that relationship clearly within the dance: a mother / daughter relationship, excruciatingly choreographed by Grossman to provide crystalline images of that evolving and often frustrating relationship, until, in a natural role reversal, the child appears to be the one who carries her mother on her back. Regardless of any specific intent, however, Mossy is a particularly fine vehicle for Grossman’s highly expressive choreography, and works well even if the relationship described is between friends, or if there was no intended relationship at all. It was performed by Caitlyn Casson and Casie O’Kane.

Casie O’Kane and Caitlyn Casson
in a prior performance of Ariel Grossman’s “Mossy”
Photo by David Gonsier

Three years ago, when Mossy premiered, a program note indicated that the piece “reflects the physical, emotional and intellectual consequences of constant interruption,” from a mother’s perspective. I saw it then, with this same cast, as an abstract expression of dependence and independence, but saw nothing that I could connect it to constant interruption from a mother’s perspective. This time, without the program note (and not remembering it from three years earlier), I could see nothing but that mother / daughter relationship. I suppose that’s a statement about dance criticism in general or my mercurial powers of observation in particular, but I suppose also that that’s the nature of the critical beast.

Kristin Licata in a prior performance of
Ariel Grossman’s “For Her”
Photo by David Gonsier

On the other hand, my initial take on For Her, which premiered four years ago, hasn’t changed.

At this performance, as I watched this solo evolve to Grossman’s choreography and music by Homan, I felt that the visual background provided, consisting of projected images of contemporary-looking steel columns, didn’t make any sense in connection with what Kristin Licata was dancing. With her flourishing red dress and relatively stationary position (but with lots of body movement), I saw Licata as maybe a triumphant, unfurling rose – and that the only way the background visual made any sense, was that she was a rose in Spanish Harlem (which is dominated by above-ground subway tracks elevated by steel columns). As I found later when I revisited my earlier review, I made exactly the same observation four years earlier. And as was the case then, Licata’s beautifully executed solo performance was undermined by the inescapable visual context.

In addition to those dancers already mentioned, the following dancers appeared in one or more of the large-cast pieces: Maria Gracia Perez (a new company member), and company veterans Kyleigh Sackandy and Hannah Ginsburg Tirosh, each of whom by now wear Grossman’s choreography like a second skin.

Based on the dances on this program, and particularly by the continuing evolution evident in the newest ones, I look forward to seeing ARD’s next annual New York season – which hopefully will not be delayed by a pandemic.