Ariel Rivka Dance
New York Live Arts
New York, New York

March 7, 2024
Unorthodox, If I Forget You, She, (Un)Coupled (world premiere), Variations on a Box

Jerry Hochman

Everybody experiences a journey in one form or another during their lives. It’s such a common experience that the word “journey” is already passé, if not trite. That being said, Ariel Grossman, the Artistic Director of Ariel Rivka Dance (“ARD”), has been through a personal journey of her own, one that’s reflected in her choreographic journey. But the “journeys” don’t always mesh well, as I’ll elaborate on below.

It’s difficult to believe that the choreographer I first saw in her fledgling company’s The Book of Esther: The Journey of Queen Vashti and Queen Esther is the same person who choreographed the dances on the program she and her dancers presented at New York Live Arts last weekend. The program included Unorthodox, which premiered virtually in 2020 but which I’d not previously seen, and (Un)Coupled, which had its world premiere that night. Although they’re very different pieces, both are powerful expressions – feminist manifestos of sorts, but with different choreographic outcomes. Also on the program were She and Variations on a Box, each of which I’ve previously reviewed, and If I Forget You – all dances that are displayed through a feminist lens.

Ariel Rivka Dance in Ariel Grossman’s “Variations on a Box”
Photo by Jonathan Pellow

Of the pieces that were new to me, Unorthodox is a great success; (Un)Coupled less so, perhaps because with a subject that significant in Grossman’s personal trajectory, a different choreographic methodology might have fit better.

I’ll address the dances in program order following a brief introductory summary.

Ariel Rivka Dance, which Grossman founded in 2008, is an all-female company (including its resident composer, Stefania de Kennessey). Its mission, as described on its web-site and in the evening’s program, is to champion female creatives through original choreography, commissioned music, and curated family and educational programming. Through movement, the program continues, ARD creates a community of vulnerability and acceptance, providing opportunities for hope and connection.

That kind of highfalutin mission statement is not unusual. But, digging deeper, it appears that the company’s repertory roughly tracks Grossman’s personal journey, together with her existing commitment to feminist issues – or to seeing matters through a feminist lens (which goes back to Esther). I don’t feel comfortable describing that journey, but one can see it in the trajectory of her dances.  What came first, however, was her choreographic trajectory – the evolution of her style that made great leaps forward with two of the dances on this program that I’d previously seen.

I should note here that neither the dances nor the photographs provide the identities of the dancers for each dance. I’ll identify the entire company at the conclusion of this review.

Ariel Rivka Dance in Ariel Grossman’s “Unorthodox”
Photo by Jonathan Pellow

The evening began with a dance that premiered virtually in 2020 but which I’d not previously seen. Unorthodox is a superbly revolutionary work. The title is inspired by a book of the same name, since adapted into a Netflix series, about a woman who leaves a strict Hasidic sect. While Grossman’s dance (all of the program’s dances were choreographed by Grossman in collaboration with the ARD dancers) doesn’t track the book, it’s a revolt that, in its way, is equally powerful.

Ariel Rivka Dance in Ariel Grossman’s “Unorthodox”
Photo by Jonathan Pellow

The dance starts as vaguely reminiscent of stereotypical all-male dancing at orthodox Jewish weddings. Four women first appear in a square shape, then to the more common horizontal line, and dance in unison. They all are costumed in black, as Hasidic orthodox men would be, and dance in tight synchronization, which is what the orthodox men would do as well. Even deKennessey’s composition adds “orthodox” authenticity by incorporating the sound of Klezmer music.

But the sense that they’re simply doing what the orthodox men do (which would be a statement of its own) quickly evolves into something else. The women begin pounding their feet into the stage floor, not only dancing, but in the process revolting against the very regimentation that they’re initially replicating, coupled with a new strength to make their own statements.

Ariel Rivka Dance in Ariel Grossman’s “Unorthodox”
Photo by Jonathan Pellow

And then something even more revolutionary happens. While still dancing in unison, the women lift their skirts – maybe not as salaciously as can-can dancers, but in context, combined with changing formations, it’s revolutionary. Such acts would never be permitted. Soon thereafter, as the dance further evolves with solos interspersed with the group dances, the women begin baring parts of their bodies (e.g., skin on their backs or around their waists and legs), showing themselves off, and moving in a way that is another revolutionary form. And all through this the women continue to stomp their feet into the floor, demanding to be treated as individuals rather than appendages, and to have a purpose beyond birthing babies.

Unorthodox isn’t a parody of a typical orthodox wedding; it’s an effective counter-statement.

Ariel Rivka Dance in Ariel Grossman’s “If I Forget You”
Photo by Jonathan Pellow

The evening continued with If I Forget You, a 5-minute piece for two dancers that Grossman also choreographed in 2020. It’s somewhat a condensation of an uncharacterized relationship, with two women acting and dancing through events the memories of which they share – from agreements to disagreements to fights to making up to ultimately recognizing how much they depend on, and need, each other. According to the program note, the piece was originally created in memory of a friend’s spouse, but it has more universal appeal than that. The two dancers did a nice job with this understated piece, which serves as a temporary respite from the more aggressive statements made in some of the program’s other dances.

Ariel Rivka Dance in Ariel Grossman’s “If I Forget You”
Photo by Jonathan Pellow

In She, which I saw at its 2018 premiere, Grossman’s focus is on motherhood and the various emotional currents that flow through a mother from pregnancy through birth and beyond. In it, Grossman visualizes anguish and joy, depression and aggression, and communal bonding. And the musical force that drives the dance, as well as the emotional expressions within it, are the sounds of a breast pump.

Ariel Rivka Dance in Ariel Grossman’s “She”
Photo by Jonathan Pellow

At this particular performance, since I didn’t have the correct program, I thought that this piece was something else. But as soon as it got going, I recognized immediately that it was She, and not what I thought I was going to see. I mention this not just to show how discombobulated things can sometimes be, but, more importantly, to note my recognition of She on sight. She is that idiosyncratic, and that instantly recognizable: even though many of the contortions that form part of Grossman’s choreography are present in other Grossman dances as well, no other one includes lanes of movement (formed by stage lighting) as might be seen on a race track.

Ariel Rivka Dance in Ariel Grossman’s “She”
Photo by Jonathan Pellow

Like most of her dances, She is an abstract dance, with little movement that makes obvious narrative sense. But what Grossman appears to be doing is not only all an effort to abstractly visualize the referenced activity (She was choreographed during or soon after the birth of her second child), but the much more serious subjects of body ownership, fullness and emptiness, possession and abandonment, and looming over it all, postpartum depression.

Ariel Rivka Dance
in Ariel Grossman’s “She”
Photo by Jonathan Pellow

Most of what I describe below was written following the dance’s premiere, but those observations apply equally to this performance.

The movement throughout She is virtually non-stop and frenetic, and although intentionally repetitive, it’s actually quite complex.

One dancer is seen examining her belly, and soon thereafter the sound of the breast pump begins. Suddenly, all five women in the cast explode out of the stage wings, racing horizontally to stage left (audience right), and then one or more of them, display violent images of what I saw as absence and loss – and mental anguish and struggle – after which the process is repeated. Relentlessly. Like the breast pump sound. The result is more than deja vu – it’s a psychological and emotional Groundhog Day.

The sense of abandonment, of loss; the vision of the agonized women seemingly concurrently thrusting arms out and up, and pulling them back in (as if almost simultaneously trying to get rid of the source of the pain and to push things back the way they were), propelled forward by equally relentless windmill arms, is not so much numbing in repetition, but contagious in its impact.

Ariel Rivka Dance in Ariel Grossman’s “Variations on a Box”
Photo by Jonathan Pellow

The evening’s world premiere dance, on the other hand, is a difficult piece to characterize – although I suspect that it too, on subsequent views, will be instantly recognizable. It’s also a difficult piece to like – nothing about it seems designed to make the audience feel comfortable, much less entertained. Rather, it’s intentionally raw and painful – appropriate for its subject of women who’ve been uncoupled (perhaps suddenly and unexpectedly) from a relationship.

According to the program note, the piece “explores the aspects of yourself that are discovered and rediscovered when a partnership ends.”  I didn’t see that; rather, to a score by deKennessey (played by her live), I saw persistent and enduring pain coupled with dogged resolution to conceal this misery from anyone other than herself or fellow sufferers. Maybe those are the “aspects of yourself” that Grossman wants the world to be aware of, since they’re usually hidden behind a façade of coping – or perhaps her intent is to awaken the viewer to the wrong that’s been done and the damage that’s been caused.

Ariel Rivka Dance in Ariel Grossman’s “(Un)Coupled”
Photo by Jonathan Pellow

The costumes for all six dancers are the same – relatively dressy dresses, almost as if they were out of some fifties TV show (Donna Reed; I Love Lucy). However, and although there’s no indication that (Un)Coupled has the same target as Unorthodox, it crossed my mind that these costumes (except perhaps for the bare sleeves) may have been a reference to dresses worn in public by married Orthodox (Hasidic) women. The only differences among the dancers are the colors of the dresses – solid, with a hint of artificial-looking gloss (like sharkskin for a man’s suit). I suspect the choice of costume was not accidental, and that intentionally or not it’s a comment, and part of the ambiance within which (Un)Coupled should be viewed.

The dance begins with three company dancers standing upstage center, facing the audience. Almost immediately they begin to walk (it’s more like a regimented march) downstage toward the audience, each step and arm sway executed in tandem (implying they’re all in the same emotional place). Before they get very far, they turn and exit audience-left. At that point three more dancers emerge from the audience-left wings, walk toward center-stage, then walk down toward the audience and exit audience-left. All six of them wear immobile faces that are best described as a cross between angry and resolute.

Ariel Rivka Dance in Ariel Grossman’s “(Un)Coupled”
Photo by Jonathan Pellow

After the second group exits, the first reappears, but after reaching upstage center, they break the regimentation, briefly hold hands, then move downstage a bit, and pose after wiping their brows and make-believe over-dramatizing that they’re depositing sweat on the floor, as if to say: “Whew, glad I got rid of something” (I took the “something” to be “him”), followed by poses that appear to display each of them showing how free and happy they are. It’s all just what it appears to be – a fake front. They take feigned bows – and then, free from whatever outward-facing obligations there may have been, fall apart. Literally.

That, in a nutshell, may be what Grossman intends to visualize here, since the rest of the piece consists of variations on the same theme, with a few different positions representing areas of anger or loss added, but they’re more sensational than enlightening.

The women pull themselves together, put on another brief fake show, and then exit. After that, except for continuing references to anger and misery, the piece lost me.  Two women from the second group emerge from the wings, followed by two from the first. The first pair stops with their backs to the audience, the second faces front, but one walks backward and stands alone, roughly ten feet behind the others. While the others remain in position, this one acts out expressions of pain, including grabbing her abdomen and lifting her dress up. My guess is that she’s reliving the past relationship, emphasizing things that took place that, in hindsight, she feels uncomfortable about (or, alternatively, that she now misses). This same movement sequence repeats as she moves downstage, broken by what appear to be pleas to the heavens for help or an answer, and then she lifts her dress up to her waist before falling, inconsolable, next to the other three.

Ariel Rivka Dance in Ariel Grossman’s “(Un)Coupled”
Photo by Jonathan Pellow

Throughout this, the other three remain immobile, maintaining their expression of non-expression. The dancer who was in motion throws herself toward the stage floor in front of the audience, seeks more help from above, and then picks herself up, dusts herself off, resumes her stoic demeanor and moves back into position, except now with her back to the audience. There’s no indication why some women face the audience and some have their back to the audience, although it could simply reflect that the woman facing the audience is the one, at that moment, who must put on a serene public face – which she can’t do.

After what seems an eternity, the woman next to her (the only one now facing the audience) holds the first one’s hand briefly, then begins to dance herself. Her actions are a little different – she too lifts her dress, but she also gyrates her hips – almost in “bump and grind” manner, as if playing at seduction. It’s obviously another, but different, sexual reference. She then falls backward into the arms of two of the others, pulls herself up, and then repeats the same set of motions – but this time the dancer on the right end of the array steps aside from her position and joins her, after which both of them fall into the arms of the remaining women. The second woman than pulls herself up again, grabs her groin in apparent pain (or sense of loss), then plops herself down, spreads her legs moving her knees up, and rotates left and right repeatedly. This is followed by more groin grabbing and legs apart swaying, but adding another ingredient: moving herself up and down while grabbing her groin. Then, suddenly, she freezes and returns to her public-facing pose – which she cannot hold, and quickly returns to the floor in apparent pain.

Ariel Rivka Dance in Ariel Grossman’s “(Un)Coupled”
Photo by Jonathan Pellow

At this point the four on stage are joined by the other two, and each activates one or another sexual trigger – groin grabbing, hip-swinging, abdomen clenching, and generalized arm-flailing. Eventually, the piece picks up steam to reflect the increasing tempo of deKennessey’s score. All six dancers gather together in a mid-stage scrum, and together bump their hips and sway. They break apart again (without an indication of why they all came together in the first place), and, most with increasing looks of desperation (or, strangely, an appearance of no concern at all) grab their groins, sway their hips, roll upside down on the floor briefly raising their legs up. There’s also a continuing motif of the women vigorously shaking their hands as if trying to shake away the unrelenting memories. Finally, with all but one of the women on the floor; the other in the “sitting-up, legs spread, knees pulled up” position, swaying left and right, the lights, and the curtain, go down.

I’ve gone into this much detail to demonstrate how little there is here to hang on to. If one takes (Un)Coupled literally, for a woman life after uncoupling consists of endless self-punishment grounded in anger and loss. Indeed, this may be all that Grossman intends to say here. And I’ll admit that the display of mature women suddenly grabbing their crotches as if either looking for or missing something, with its constant repetition, burns in the memory.  But the conclusion that these women are essentially destroyed by the uncoupling, or, alternatively, that they “discover” or “rediscover” aspects of their lives – sensuality and the need for it – is difficult to reach when all there is to base it on are bumps and grinds and crotch-grabbing. It may be an accurate description of Grossman’s (and other’s) personal journeys, but the choreography doesn’t rise to the same level. Maybe I’ll revise my opinion on subsequent viewings, but to my eye (Un)Coupling needs something more.

Ariel Rivka Dance in Ariel Grossman’s “Variations on a Box”
Photo by Jonathan Pellow

The evening ended with Variations on a Box. The 2016 dance is the earliest of those on the program, but it’s as fine a dance as anything else that Grossman has created. I’ve already reviewed it twice previously, and won’t repeat everything I’ve written before here. Suffice it to say that it’s an abstract dance with boundaries either imposed (by overhead lighting) or inferred that are fluid and porous, and that form the background architecture for Grossman’s seemingly simple but complex brand of moving images.

The eclectic group of ARD dancers, each of whom did fine work in the pieces that they appeared in, were Asia Bonilla, Abriona Cherry, Kristin Licata, Casie Marie O’Kane, Kyleigh Sackandy, and Hana Ginsburg Tirosh.

Overall, and notwithstanding my concerns about (Un)Coupling, the program displayed the trajectory that Grossman’s creations have followed over the years, both choreographically and personally. If it’s repeated, it’s a program worth seeing.