Battery Dance Festival – Part 1
New York, New York
August 17, 2023: Miserere Nóbis (Jennifer Muller/The Works); Isadora Duncan: Under a New Sky; Valse Brillante, Prelude, Grand March (Catherine Gallant/Dances by Isadora); American Elm and Piece for a Northern Sky (Jody Sperling/Time Lapse Dance); Excerpts from “Denishawn”: Floor Plastique, Incense, Chouer Danse, Waltz/Liebestraum, The Cosmic Dance of Siva (Denishawn dancers); Tribute to Ukraine (Lori Belilove/The Isadora Duncan Dance Company)
So … I was out of town for most of this year’s Battery Dance Festival, its 42nd incarnation, but on my return decided to catch the final two of the seven programs presented. But as was the case last year, I was unable to see the performances live. Although I miss the fresh air and sense of shared experience that accompanies a live outdoor performance, as well as the ability to identify certain individual dancers, the livestream that was provided proved to be a highly suitable alternative.
The two programs I watched couldn’t have been more different. The first, to a large extent, was a look into the origins of modern dance, while the closing night program was more consistent with the eclectic assortment of dance that I discovered in last year’s programs.
I’ll consider the pieces in date and presentation order (with one exception), but due to the number of dances presented, as well as my usual verbosity, it’s prudent to divide this review into two parts. The first part proceeds below, the second will be in Part 2 of this review.
The August 17 Performance
When the Joyce Trisler Danscompany presented a program in the 1970s called “The Spirit of Denishawn” at Riverside Church, it was such a huge success that the company repeated the program at subsequent venues, to sold-out houses. It was as if Trisler, who died far too young, and her group of dancers had uncovered buried treasure. But memories fade. Two years ago, publicist Audrey Ross assembled another program of Denishawn pieces to equivalent success. As I then wrote, everything old is new again. Again.
To Battery Dance Festival’s credit, the spark that Ross rekindled was revived, and expanded, on the April 17th program. In addition to reprising several of the pieces from Ross’s earlier production (though not always with the same dancers), the Festival added dances that revisited the choreography of Isadora Duncan and a lesser-known modern dance pioneer, Loïe Fuller, and also included a tribute to the late Jennifer Muller, using one of her finer pieces as an homage, as well as an assemblage of Duncan pieces re-envisioned as a tribute to the heroic efforts of the people of Ukraine.
The program began with Muller’s company, The Works, dancing a piece created by Muller in 2014: Miserere Nóbis. I’ve seen only a small fraction of Muller’s output, but of those I’ve seen Miserere Nóbis is by far the finest.
Muller created more than 150 dances over the course of her career, including seven evening-length dances, and, according to the information provided by BDF, was known for innovations in dance theater, multi-disciplinary productions incorporating spoken word, media, and unusual production elements. In 1974 she created her company, Jennifer Muller/The Works, which is expected to reassemble to present a celebration of her life and works in the near future.
I’m not aware of the impetus behind Miserere Nóbis (“Have Mercy on Us”) but, consistent with its title, in its initial incarnation it was seen as a plea for mercy for both the dancers and the departed. That it remains. But in addition to being a beautiful dance, it also makes for a beautiful tribute to Muller. With all the nine dancers costumed in black, including what appear to be knit black head coverings and skirts that loosely hug each from just below their waists down to the stage floor (with the three men shirtless) but that are fluid enough to stretch when the dancers squat in apparent prayer, frustration or lamentation, the piece is an expression of grief, but also of reverence and hope. And, choreographed to Samuel Barber’s “Allegeri: Miserere. Op. 11,” the dance Is very much a group piece: there’s a rhythm to it: the dancers move forward and back, upstage and down, to the background choral music (performed by Richard Marlow & the Choir of Trinity College), giving the impression of being part of some animated church service.
The dance begins with the group assembled together, from which one, then another, etc. breaks out into individual expressions of grief and anguish, quickly evolving into a demonstration of mutual support, and then coming together in collective supplication. Eventually, as a group, all face the horizon, then angle upward in apparent prayer, finally culminating by slowly sinking (but not falling) to the stage floor in reverential prayer.
Miserere Nóbis is similar to other such dances, but that doesn’t diminish its power (which the gradually darkening skies amplified). And the dancers (Tara Bellardini, Rayan Lecurieux-Durival, Duane Gosa, Mathilde Guerrero, Caroline Kehoe, Isaac Kerr, Anna Levy, Shoshana Mozlin, Cassidy Spaedt) executed it very capably.
But perhaps the best part of Miserere Nóbis wasn’t choreographed. Toward the piece’s end, as the dancers stood gazing toward the Lower Manhattan horizon, a flock of birds flew over the stage toward the same horizon, as if emphasizing and joining the emotion on stage – and as if Muller herself was adding additional emphasis to the presentation.
Per the evening’s program note, Dances with Isadora was founded by Catherine Gallant in 1989 to keep the work of Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) vital and relevant. Here, under the overall rubrick “Isadora Duncan: Under a New Sky,” her company presented three Duncan pieces: Valse Brillante, to Chopin’s eponymous composition; Prelude (aka Prelude 7), to Chopin’s “Prelude Op. 28 No. 7,” culminating with Grand March (also spelled Grande Marche and aka Slow March) to George Theophilus Walker’s “Lyric for Strings” (also known as Lament) replacing the Franz Schubert music that Duncan originally used. All three dances reportedly were created by Duncan between 1901 and 1914.
Performed by four of the company’s dancers barefoot and in flowing pastel-colored tunics (two in green, two in blue) – a la artistic renderings and photographs of Duncan herself and the portraits of women on Greek vases and bas reliefs that Duncan had seen in the British Museum and that reportedly inspired her – Valse Brillante encapsulates Duncan’s style: free-flowing and natural-looking movement that appears random and spontaneous but obviously isn’t, and to be both grounded and airy in an unregimented way without overemphasizing either quality. Unfortunately, because of the nature of the initial Chopin composition, what came across was a “theme and variations” type of display, where the four dancers changed their movement patterns as the piece progressed but not the movement itself to any appreciable degree. Consequently the dance presented as repetitious despite the movement freedom. That being said, the dancers’ occasional minor timing errors helped avoid any sense of strict regimentation.
Gallant herself danced Prelude, a solo that begins in silence but segues seamlessly into the Chopin composition. The piece augurs something of huge significance, and fits neatly into the more substantial Grand March. It’s something of an invocation: Gallant slowly walks onto and parades around the stage as if carrying a massive weight or message of critical significance for which she seeks blessing, then stares out at the same Lower Manhattan horizon that was a focal point in the previous Muller piece.
That weight that Gallant seems to carry in Prelude can also be seen as the mourning or grief that is the focus of Grand March, which Duncan choreographed following the death of her two young children in 1913. [The deaths were caused by an accident: the children’s nanny, driving somewhere with Duncan’s children, drove the vehicle into the Seine. All drowned.] Six dancers, each dressed in a simple off-white gown that might be appropriate for a church service, enter the stage and are followed by another in the same style gown, but this one appears distinctive from the others (the gown is a more “pure” white), just as its wearer is distinctive from the other dancers in the piece. The initial dancers thereupon serve as a sort of Greek chorus echoing Duncan’s grief, as well as a frame for that final dancer, who represents Duncan, to mourn.
As powerful as Grand March is (most any dance mourning the death of a child is powerful by definition), and it most definitely is, it suffered by comparison to the Muller dance that preceded it, which is unfortunate.
In 1902, while Duncan was in Europe, Loie Fuller invited Duncan (who eventually became Fuller’s rival with respect to attracting dance school students) to tour with her. Fuller was already established in Europe, to which she had emigrated in 1892. Like Duncan, she’s recognized as a modern dance pioneer, but she’s also (and perhaps more so) lauded for her innovative theatricality, including using more creative lighting. Indeed, Fuller held many patents related to stage lighting (including chemical compounds for creating color gel and the use of chemical salts for luminescent lighting) and stage costumes. She did not, however, succeed in obtaining a copyright to her most famous dance style, called a “Serpentine Dance,” which resulted in many imitators of lesser choreographic and performance quality, which in turn prompted her departure for Europe. There she achieved great success. Fuller’s movement focused on maneuvering her long silk skirts and the way light played off them as she directed their movement, and nothing like it had been seen there previously. [It’s far more complex than, say, Marilyn Monroe standing atop a NYC subway grate.]
Although she captivated European audiences, Fuller’s reputation paled in comparison to Duncan’s, but in the late 1990s and beyond there came to be a resurgence of interest in her. Spearheading this was (and is) Jody Sperling, who both recreates Fuller’s dances and creates new ones using the technique that Fuller developed with her Serpentine Dance.
As I understand it, the Serpentine Dance was simply (actually, not so simply) the choreographed process of moving an oversized, billowy skirt worn by the dancer (think prairie skirt on steroids) made of silk or similar easily maneuverable fabric such that it assumes multiple forms based both on the direction given by the dancer’s body (particularly her arms) and the light or other projections that may be reflected off it. It sounds gimmicky and to some extent it is, but in the right hands, or arms, it can be an arresting visual display of motion. And since its free-form movement contrasted with the rigid appearance of ballet, it proved quite popular.
At least as presented here, the generic serpentine dance clearly is in the right hands. The two dances Sperling presented are not Fuller recreations, rather they’re Sperling’s own creations based on Fuller’s style, which has been updated to appeal to contemporary audiences. One of Sperling’s focal points, she said in introductory remarks, is the environment, and her first piece, American Elm, is intended to emphasize that.
The skirt Sperling wears in American Elm is decorated with images of tree limbs or branches crisscrossing the skirt. As Sperling dances and manipulates her skirt, there’s an impression of tree movement. But although the dance was interesting to watch, it had no special reference to the environment (the protection of which was an inspiration for the dance) beyond the movement of her skirt and the tree limbs that adorned it.
Her second piece, which followed the Denishawn program discussed below, was Piece for a Northern Sky. It’s a compelling piece, brilliantly executed.
According to the program note, the dance is a whirling meditation on planetary motion. Also according to the program note the accompanying score, by Matthew Burtner (who also composed the music that accompanied American Elm) here creates vortices of sound with vibraphone rhythms based on Fibonacci sequence patterns. [The Fibonacci sequence, named after the most prominent mathematician of his day, is a set of integers (the Fibonacci numbers) that starts with a zero, followed by a one, then by another one, and then by a series of steadily increasing numbers.] I have no idea what that translates to in musical terms, but the score does have a cosmic sense to it.
Lending further emphasis to the piece’s celestial sense is Sperling’s skirt. [Mary Jo Mecca is credited with the costume’s construction here, as she was in Sperling’s other dance.] Instead of being decorated with images of tree limbs, here the skirt features concentric circles of different widths from bottom to top. With Sperling whirling at its center and concurrently varying the positions of her arms, the piece looked something like a moving galaxy flying through space. The non-stop movement is mesmerizing – as was the effort she made not only to control the movement of the skirt, but also to compete with the blustery gusts that occasionally threatened to carry Sperling and the skirt into the cosmos.
In between the two Sperling pieces were excerpts – not parts of dances, but selected components from the larger Denishawn program that Ross presented a couple of years ago. I reviewed that program, and won’t repeat all my observations. Suffice it to say that it was, and remains, a marvelous program.
It began, as did Ross’s prior program, with Floor Plastique, originally choreographed by Ted Shawn for students of the Denishawn school in Los Angeles. As was the case in the program two years ago, it was presented here by members of Limon2, although the specific dancers here were different. Also as was the case two years ago, the piece serves as an introduction to Denishawn technique, which directly or indirectly fueled much of the Modern Dance that was to come, including Martha Graham (“contraction”) and Humphrey/Weidman (“fall and recovery”).
As the dance progresses, all seven dancers perform various movements emanating from positions on the stage floor, in unison, As presented here, however, Floor Plastique didn’t convey the same sense of greeting a new day as it did when originally presented, but this was because at the time of the outdoor presentation the day was, literally, ending. Instead, it appeared as more reverential, as if the dancers were seeking approval and blessings for the new dance form being created – which effectively served the same purpose. The young Limon2 dancers (Mikey Comito, Danielle Goodman, Eduardo Hernández, Madeline Jones, Jasmine Presti, Mirai Shinde, and Ryan Tucker) did fine work executing the movement in tandem or sequentially as the choreography required; and, although one young man was consistently slightly off beat and position, they came across as engaging as the prior group.
In the 2021 program, the next piece on this program, Incense, was performed by Valentina Kozlova, a former Principal Dancer with both the Bolshoi Ballet and New York City Ballet. Here, the solo role was assayed by Katherine Crockett. Although each danced the role superbly, Crockett brought her experience with the Martha Graham Company (where she was a Principal for 22 years) to the role, and the result was movement that seemed to come naturally.
Created by St. Denis in 1906 (and reportedly inspired by a cigarette advertisement), Incense is based on a Hindu ritual in which one worships the deities with a variety of offerings, including incense. While Crockett’s performance didn’t display the balletic references within the choreography as Kozlova’s did, her sparkling delivery perhaps was more akin to St. Denis’s. It was a masterful presentation.
Denishawn technique also includes, in part, the fluidity and musical visualization of their contemporary, Duncan. This was clearly reflected in Choeur Danse, which Shawn choreographed in 1926 in Singapore. The dance features a group of three young women costumed in Grecian-looking loose-fitting white tunics, frolicking as if having been released from a Greek vase or a Greco-Roman frieze and allowed to move freely through space, with no discernable emotion beyond the palpable joy of the lyrical movement. The piece was performed by Kathleen Caragine (who appeared in the 2021 Denishawn presentation), Colleen Edwards, and Bethany Chang, each of whom did admirable work here. All three are members of Dances We Dance, a company that includes in its repertory dances by Duncan; its Artistic Director, Francesca Todesco, staged the piece.
If this Denishawn program had a highlight, it would have been the next dance, Waltz/Liebestraum, which premiered in 1922 in Virginia, but was reportedly initially inspired by St. Denis’s spontaneous dancing at a party to the Brahms waltz that was being played. Reportedly the pianist segued without pause to play the Liszt piece, which allowed St. Denis to continue dancing without pause. Even though it was memorialized as a concert dance when it premiered, it retained its essence as an intimate and spontaneous display of dynamic and exquisite motion to music.
And that’s the way it was danced here, as it was in the 2021 program, by Christine Dakin. A Principal with the Martha Graham Dance Company from 1976 to Graham’s death in 1991 and beyond, Dakin delivered the exquisite performance that the piece required. There’s something about her performances, still, that’s a combination of purity, conviction, invention, and joy, and that’s as fresh now as it was when I first saw her dance with Graham in the 1970s and 80s. If there’s another opportunity to see her perform in just about anything, I’d encourage one to do so.
Concluding this part of the program was The Cosmic Dance of Shiva, which premiered in 1926 in Manilla. It was performed here, as it was in the program two years ago, by Antonio Fini, and his performance was as superb now as it was then.
Of all the dances on this program, this one would appear to the average dancegoer to be the most representative of what a piece choreographed by Shawn looked like. Although it has relatively minimal movement, it conveys a sense of mysticism and spirituality, as well as an oriental ambiance. It’s also extraordinarily difficult to execute: it requires standing in place mostly atop a pedestal for a considerable period of time while moving the upper torso and arms, and looking regal and godlike throughout. Although obviously having to fight the strong wind that blew across the stage, Fini, Artistic Director of Fini Dance New York and special guest with the Martha Graham Dance Company, did as fine a job a here as he did two years ago. In a sense, and although the movement here is far more deliberate, he was the Bronze Idol in La Bayadere, seen differently.
The evening concluded with a commanding performance by Lori Belilove and The Isadora Duncan Dance Company in a piece with the overall title “Tribute to Ukraine.”
I’ve previously seen Lori Belilove’s choreography (in Dances of Isadora, a piece she choreographed for NYCB’s Sara Mearns) and was impressed by the choreography as well as Mearns’s performance of it. Here, Belilove adapts Duncan’s choreography and style to a contemporary issue, paying homage to the Ukrainian people.
According to the program note, the suite was inspired by two of Duncan’s heroic dances: March Heroique created at the height of WWI (ca. 1916) and Varshavianka, which according to the program note was created after the Russian Revolution of 1905, and was directed against the Tsar, nobility, and the ruling class. I’m not sure that those dates are correct as to Duncan’s choreography of the two pieces (I’ve seen dates from after her arrival in Russia in or about 1922), but in this case such accuracy doesn’t really matter, since here Belilove, who is of Ukrainian descent, has re-choreographed the dances and added additional choreography of her own. The irony of Belilove’s dance is that the Duncan dances reportedly were originally created to celebrate the triumph of the Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik victory, and here a celebration of Russia is not in any way intended.
Regardless of all this, the presentation is a unity, and one dance inspiration flows seamlessly into the next, through to the Ukrainian National Anthem. And there’s no question that, as a whole, the dance is a powerful piece: a moving tribute, and a perfect example of how a style of dance created more than a century ago can be relevant to today’s issues.
The piece begins with seven dancers, all women, clad in blue tunics a la Duncan, appearing on stage and executing strange-looking finger-pointing (similar, in hand movement, to one of the fairies in The Sleeping Beauty) as each “introduces” herself, thereafter continuing with each dancer singly crossing the stage horizontally audience right to left and exiting thereafter, then returning to regroup. As the dance progresses, the choreography becomes more martial (it is, after all, a victory commemoration, albeit a Russian victory) – and there’s something at once unsettling and uplifting to see Duncan’s fluid, upward, free-form movement adapted to a triumphant victory march, complete with high-stepping and simulated gun-toting.
From here, the piece segues into a somber requiem for the fallen, and Belilove herself, dressed in a blood-red cape with a black kerchief covering her head, mournfully carrying flowers, one of which she places in front of each of the blue-tunic-clad dancers. Then, after all exit, five of the original seven dancers return, with one carrying a Ukrainian flag, and dance to the uplifting Ukrainian National Anthem.
The result was a stirring tribute, and a fitting conclusion to the program.
The Festival’s August 18th program will be addressed in Part 2 of this review, which should appear below this one (or above it, depending on the platform used).