Battery Dance Festival – Part 2
Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Park
New York, New York
August 17, 2022
Citizen (Xing Dance Theater); Mémoires Perdues(Lost Memories) (Julienne Doko); Touch – Returned(World Premiere) (Tatiana “Tati” Nuñez); Pacto de Fuga(U.S. Premiere) (Dos Proposiciones Dance Theatre); Kindred Spirit (Ntrinsic Movement); El Toro (Ballet Inc.); Tsu-Ku-Tsu (Alison/Chase Performance)
The Battery Dance Festival is New York City’s longest-running free public dance festival. Each year, the Festival draws a combined audience of over 12,000 in-person and over 35,000 virtual viewers. The annual festival has introduced New York area audiences, and more than a few island visitors, to over 350 dance companies in its 40 year history. Since it’s been around so long and is by now universally recognizable to anyone in the New York area and beyond, it’s no wonder that somehow I’ve managed to avoid it.
I intended to remedy this void this summer, but various issues arose which again made it virtually impossible for me to attend this year’s 41st annual incarnation. But, as things turned out, it was virtually possible for me to see some of the programs virtually, since each of the eight programs was to be livestreamed.
So although I don’t have the ambiance that would have come with attending the performances live, I selected three of the eight programs to watch via YouTube, so at least I could see a sample of the dances presented. I selected those programs I did for no reason other than that something on each program’s roster, which was different for each evening, intrigued me. Otherwise, I had little advance knowledge of only a few of the presenting companies or the dances, many of which were world premieres.
Given the nature of the programming, which includes a world-wide plethora of companies and choreographic works of varying quality and experience levels, I won’t be considering the programs in order of presentation. Rather, the reviews will focus first on those pieces that I found particularly intriguing and want to highlight, which happen to be the final pieces on each program, and then go back and comment on the other dances I saw in performance order. That’s not to be interpreted negatively against the other companies and dancers on the program in any way.
Generally, I found the choreography and dancers to be of a high caliber, and the dances look as polished, if not more so, than many similar programs presented in other venues. There may be little in the way of star power, of dancers or companies, but that absence is not missed.
And credit should be given to the Battery Dance officers and staff who regularly put all this together, including specifically Gabrielle Niederhoffer, the Battery Dance Festival Manager, who, along with a curatorial panel, selects the participating companies.
Alison/Chase Performance: Tsu-Ku-Tsu
Alison Chase has a noteworthy artistic history. She co-founded Pilobolus Dance Theater and MOMIX, creating more than 50 works for stage. That alone might be sufficient for a commendable career. But in 2010 she established Alison/Chase Performance (AC/P) in 2010 to continue to pursue her creative vision of bold collaborations with the arts community.
According to the program note, AC/P is a multi-media and athletic dance/theater company “dedicated to the development of dramatic forms of physical expressions by breaking down the barriers between the fields of dance, theater, performance art, and technology.” I can’t comment on her other creations, since I hadn’t seen the company previously. Clearly, however, with Tsu-Ku-Tsu she has succeeded.
Tsu-Ku-Tsu begins with a visual bang. Six dancers, three male and three female, are positioned upstage right, motionless, with each of the women crouched and perched atop the crouched backs of each of the kneeling men, facing the audience in a close-knit triangular display. They maintain this position for an unusual length of time (though probably only a minute), then one pair at a time, the man moves slowly forward and, as he does, the woman couched over him rises to a standing position – while still balanced atop his moving and elevated back. With the Japanese-style costumes (designed by Angelina Avallone), it’s a startling and other-worldly sculptural display that also, somehow, is serenity in motion.
After approaching the opposite corner of the stage, the men return to their kneeling positions, and the golden-robed women descend to the stage floor. They separate, roll backward, and end up in a bridge position. Suddenly, the tempo of the music (by taiko drummer Leonard Eto), which had been muted percussion, increases tempo, and, as if a button had been pushed, each of the six dancers jump up and down creating a cacophany of physical movement that seems completely antithetical to the dance’s introduction.
What follows is a remarkable display of agility and physical body control, of contemplation and action, and of weight-shifting and balance. At one point, all the dancers run toward each other and, hocus-pocus, four of them adhere to the two others and hang sideways at different levels. In another segment one standing man lifts another on his head (not just his shoulders), and the lifted man then extends his body upward and stands on the man’s head – while he’s still standing upright – and that’s just the beginning of a remarkable physical interaction involving balance and weight-shifting between these two men, all while the other performers watch, crouch or kneel around the stage perimeters ready to spring into action.
The action continues as the dancers pair, run at each other, atop each other, under, over, around and through each other, stopping briefly in mid-physical knot or dropping precariously to be rescued at the last moment. To document all this couple by couple, action set by action set, and the variety of sculptural shapes created would be pointless. And all this is accomplished while Eto’s rhythms echo at varying tempos (action stops when the percussion stops, and starts again when it resumes), and while maintaining the aura of ritual and ceremony, and not a little sensuality and circus, that permeate the piece.
It was an exhilarating way to end the night’s programming.
My only criticism of Tsu-Ku-Tsu, which Chase choreographed, is that it ended too abruptly (and too soon), and that the “dance” part of it (as opposed to staging) is minimal (though not missed), leading me to suspect that perhaps it’s an excerpt from a larger presentation. Regardless, the action is breathtaking, and the performers – Ricardo Barrett, Jessica Bendig (the company’s co-Artistic Director), Paris Cullen, Connor Dealy, Colin Holbrook, and Jillian Linkowski – merit both accolades and combat pay.
Xing Dance Theater: Citizen
Allen Chunhui Xing, a dancer and choreographer located in Baltimore, founded Xing Dance Theater in 2016, and since then he has accumulated a respectable number of dances, and his company has travelled to festivals all over the world. The organization is described as a movement research-based company that combines Chinese and Modern Dance.
The program note is somewhat dense and pedagogic: “Citizen interrogates the labels we receive – foreigner, immigrant, gay, white, black, Asian, poor, old, young. Standing on the stage, after the dancers share their stories and expose their inner selves, what labels do you actually see?” To some extent, these qualities are there, but the subject might have been explored in a more accessible way.
The dance, for five men (each dressed the same in black shirt, pants, and jacket), begins with one of them standing on a stool downstage left, and the others gathered in a sort of dumped pile upstage right (at first one of the four carries another). I don’t know the function of the man on the stool, but in view of the dance’s description conclude that he’s an immigrant viewing the mess of humanity that he’s about to jump into. Literally.
After navigating slowly to a position upstage center, still in a pile of sorts, the four men gradually separates out. First one, then another, rises from the pile and executes a brief, rapid-fire dance (solo), then all four dance together. They appear to be moving in tandem and performing the same movements they did when they first separated themselves from the pile, but one can discern sometimes subtle, sometimes less so differences between each dancer’s presentation, presumably describing differences in their backgrounds (one of them being more significantly different from the others, but that doesn’t appear to be a fact that’s explored). The four then return to floor upstage center, as if taking their places in some continuing moving urban existence. Eventually they again separate and dance together (where both the slight and the more obvious differences are more clearly shown). Then, finally, the man on the stool joins them by carrying his stool to the center of the group, plopping it down, and then standing on it at which point the other four men examine him as he had examined the group: from a distance, and superficially. After briefly leading them through what appears to be some identification process, he jumps in, establishes himself and the joins the group – which, inexplicably, becomes coherent, with each dancer moving in tandem, until one (not the one who initially stood on the stool) drops down and out.
The choreography here is expressive and generally angular, but it holds together the way its subjects do. The subject’s been explored more clearly in other pieces, and the ending made no sense to me, but the dancers (Jovannie Aranzamendi Nieves, Luis Medina Velez, James Thomas Esquilin, Abraham Texidor Aguilera, and the choreographer, who I suspect played the man on the stool) were accomplished, the music (by Steve Mazzaro and Max Richter) was appropriate, and the choreography succeeded in applying Xing’s particular style to the subject. Citizen is a respectable entry from this emerging choreographer.
Julienne Doko: Mémoires Perdues (Lost Memories) (NYC Premiere)
Julienne Doko is a dance performer, teacher and choreographer, currently based in Denmark but with roots in the Central African Republic. Taking inspiration from her homeland, she reportedly creates her dance vocabulary by drawing from an array of dance styles that includes African-contemporary, Afro-Brazilian, and African contemporary movement, although the program does not indicate her choreographic history, although it does reference an international performance background.
The program note describes Mémoires Perdues, a solo that Doko choreographed and performed here, as questioning “the notions of collective memory and progress: Do we really learn from the lessons of the past? The piece is an emotional response to this seemingly endless repetition of pain. It is a cry for the urgency of memory for our future.”
There are certainly indicia of pain here, but what I gleaned from the piece wasn’t quite as targeted as that. But at certain points the dance was accompanied by spoken commentary that I couldn’t understand because the volume was too low: I could barely discern that it was spoken in English, but that’s about it. Had I been able to hear this, I might have seen exactly what the program describes. Without it, the pain is obvious, but I saw it as the pain of leaving one culture for another, and of the painful process of assimilating them both. The dance opens with Doko off-stage, slowly rising and climbing the stairs to the stage, step by weary step, with her body bent over as if hunchbacked, or carrying a burden – like the burden of the culture being left behind. Throughout the dance, in addition to the obvious pain she suffers, are indications of gathering, like the gathering of memories. And the dance eventually ends, following the agony visually described, with Doko standing erect and stalwart centerstage and bringing her arms slowly together until the one finger on each hand touches a finger on the other, indicating to me ultimate resolution and acceptance.
This is not an unusual subject, but here the matter was delivered in a very different and unusual way because of the Doko’s chosen style. The program reports that the particular style she utilizes here is African-contemporary drawing from Afro-Brazilian symbolism. I can’t comment on that because as of now I lack sufficient exposure to it. But what was clear to me were repetitions of a variety of images and poses, obviously intended to inherently convey some emotion or event – much like classical Indian dance, except here there isn’t the same movement discipline – here the briefly posed images involve my dramatic movement and, at least overtly, more of the body.
In any event, I found Mémoires Perdues to be an interesting dance, one that might have been more interesting had I been able to hear the spoken word.
Tatiana “Tati” Nuñez: Touch – Returned (World Premiere)
Tatiana (Tati) Nuñez is yet another performer on this evening’s program that I didn’t know of, but one who I anticipate that I will hear of in the future. She’s a compelling stage presence, described in the program note as “recognized for her profound physical instrument that articulates at the highest level in the techniques of contemporary, ballet/pointe, and tap dance.” I can’t comment on her tap dance ability, but the rest is accurate. Born in South Florida, based in New York, and a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts with a BFA in Dance, she has performed in venues all over the city.
It appears, however (since I’ve seen nothing to indicate otherwise) that her choreographic experience is limited. To an extent this shows in this duet, but there are other factors at play that make that observation unimportant. Simply put, when Nuñez is on stage doing her choreography, the quality is sufficiently accomplished that it doesn’t interfere with the stunning images she creates.
Touch – Returned is described in the program note as exploring “how physical touch can create both an internal and external presence in space around you, exposing both vulnerability and humility as the dancers experience one another.” Told another way, it shows bodies in space, first in a solo, and then in a duet where they respond to each other and to their impulses – about as simple a description of a basic pas de deux as one can get. But it works. And although the dance isn’t ballet by definition (she wears no pointe shoes), it’s highly balletic and lyrical, with her (and his) feet frequently in demi-pointe, with her body extended to the sky.
Nuñez initially appears in a solo, displaying her performing attributes, and her seemingly six foot long legs and the immaculate way in which she articulates every bone and muscle in every movement and pose. She’s soon joined by Brenan Gonzalez, who suddenly joins her as she promenades around the stage perimeter, draws toward her, touches her and she touches back. They proceed to dance a reasonably intricate duet, but at first in bits and pieces in which they appear to be measuring each other’s movement qualities. The segment concludes and Gonzales dances solo (perhaps deciding whether to take this relationship to the next level), and when the two touch again, the duet becomes more committed and mildly passionate, although there’s little if any display of emotional affection; it’s more an awareness of physical admiration and compatibility. Shortly thereafter, they become a pair, she climbs onto his back and they slowly walk off into (actually, away from) the sunset.
But the dance is about more than this description. It’s two people preoccupied with themselves, maybe demonstrating their physical abilities to themselves as if looking into a mirror, who find that they have many qualities – movement qualities – in common. So it’s not surprising I suppose that in a vague sense and on a far less exalted level Touch – Returned brought to mind Jerome Robbins’s Afternoon of a Faun. So although the choreography isn’t highly complex, it displays a promising choreographic as well as performing future.
Dos Proposiciones Dance Theatre: Pacto de Fuga (US Premiere)
Dos Proposiciones Dance Theatre, a Spanish company based in the Andalusia region of Spain, was founded in 2005 by Raquel Madrid, the company’s Artistic Director and choreographer of the piece presented here, Pacto de Fuga.
The rough translation of Pacto de Fuga is “escape plan.” With that title, the dance has a leg up on others: it promises an interesting experience at the least.
Unfortunately, at least to me, the Pacto de Fuga doesn’t deliver on that. The program note also states that the dance is an “answer to the choreographer’s concern for exploring the coexistence between contemporary dance and urban landscape,” and that it’s based on “its three dancers’ research and immersion in a concrete public venue – a popular traditional square in Seville, Spain.” But to the extent the piece is intended to replicate or comment on what they observed in the square, or something relating to the coexistence between contemporary dance and an urban landscape, even on an impressionist level, it didn’t succeed. And if there was something to escape from – perhaps life in the square in Seville is more tiresome or mundane than I would expect – it fails there too in communicating what they’re escaping from and how they’re doing it.
I’ll concede that perhaps Pacto de Fuga just went over my head; the audience did appear to receive the piece enthusiastically. But I have nothing particular to say about it except that it was both dull and dense: a fatal combination. Indeed, the only part that was of moderate interest was when the three dancers (Anna París, Sandra Ortega, and Madrid) changed from dresses to black outfits while on stage (placing the new costume on top of the old), stopping the dance in its tracks. Perhaps these new outfits were some sort of “disguise” to enable them to escape from the banality of life in the square and the sameness of the dresses (perhaps representing the same thing), but beyond the fact of the change of costume itself, there was nothing else to support even that possibility (or it was too obtusely presented to decipher).
Ntrinsic Movement): Kindred Spirit (NYC Premiere)
Co-Founded in 2014 and based in Brooklyn, and under the leadership of Artistic Director Michelle Isaac, NTrinsik Movement’s goal is to blend various Afro-infused styles with Modern and Jazz to create and produce original works. They also have established their own Pre-Professional Program, called IFE The Movement.
I had not previously seen Ntrinsik Movement’s work, but based on this piece, their efforts succeed admirably.
Kindred Spirit is an excerpt from a multi-disciplinary production entitled “House of Love” that reflects African culture and heritage. The excerpt begins with the entire cast of nine spread across the stage swaying and jumping and stomping to the musical beat (the score is “Wailers” by: Bobby McFerrin), arms held high and the bodies moving in a coordinated frenzy, thoroughly enlivening the open-air theater – and probably anyone within hearing distance – with its infectious and celebratory ambiance.
Also striking to a viewer, or at least this one, and besides the wide range of body types (short, tall, thick, thin) that, in this case helps spread the universality of the message, are the uncredited costumes. The stage is alive with color (primarily orange, blue, and black) and form, and this enlivens the dance still further.
After the ensemble beginning, dancers gradually exit the stage and this introductory segment focuses on brief solos, several of which are especially powerful. Although there’s a tribal sense to it, this segment is more a fusion of different dance styles applied to an African base.
After completing his top-flight solo, this dancer invites the six women back on stage with a beckoning finger. The women walk back up the steps and onto the stage single file, the break into a circle. While that male dancer occasionally interjects, the ensuing women’s dance is at a lower sound and movement decibel, with some of the women carrying what appear to be bowls and placing them onto the stage floor, then retrieving them and repeating the process. This portion has a ceremonial air, but I suspect it’s also related to the traditional preparation and service of food for the family and the giving of thanks that culturally accompanies it. If gospel were a somewhat secular (including cultural roots) dance, it might look like this.
The skilled dancers were Kaylyn Alston, Sarah Barratt, Paul Charles, Ashlyn Christina, Brianna Deceus, Kijana Jumo, Fréyani Patrice (who also is the company’s Associate Artistic Director), Michael Peterson, and Imani Nzingha.
While I’m unable to conclude anything about the overall presentation, this excerpt is speaks volumes. Kinetic Spirit is wonderful.
Ballet Inc.: El Toro
Founded in 2012 by Executive Artistic Director Aaron Atkins, Ballet Inc. specializes in providing a platform for diversity, and prides itself on providing opportunities to individuals “regardless of race, ethnicity, body type or traditional dancer ‘limitations’.” The works that Ballet Inc. present are intended to combine an eclectic and accessible range of genres of dance to create an individual contemporary ballet aesthetic that showcases each artist’s uniqueness and prowess.
However, the dance presented here has nothing to do with this. It’s a decent contemporary duet told mostly in an interesting and unusual way (see my concluding paragraph), but not in any way that addresses diversity or individual differences: the unidentified dancers, who perform well, are not physically different from what some may consider “normal” stereotypes. That’s not a criticism of them in any way, just a commentary on the choice Ballet Inc. made to present this duet as representative of its goals.
Choreographed by Atkins, El Toro is set to music by legendary French chanteuse Edith Piaf and Lhasa de Sela, an American-Canadian singer-songwriter who divided her adult life between Canada and France, and who died in of cancer in 2010, at 27.
The piece begins with a female dancer wearing an orange leotard (with ruffled rear trim) standing upstage center facing the audience, barefooted, legs apart and head bowed. Soon after Piaf’s internationally recognizable song kicks in (“La Vie en rose,” sung by a man), a male performer attired in black enters the stage – with a flashlight between his teeth. After sitting in silence downstage center contemplating something, he rises and approaches the woman, still standing, and circles around her while examining her with his flashlight (still between his teeth), to music unfamiliar to me (presumably by Lhasa). After awhile he discards the flashlight (presumably finding her acceptable), and dances around her (still in a circle, but with more distance between them), with occasional aggressive movement (of his body, and also his arm – as if pounding something). He then resumes circling her as he had before without the flashlight and touches her hands from behind. His touch “awakens” her, she unstiffens herself and gradually begins to dance somewhat seductively in front of him – who now appears as comatose as she did – gradually circling and positioning herself downstage from him, exposing herself to his presumably now sightless eyes. Her movement, generally, is lyrical, interrupted by occasional Apollo-like rotating arm movement. Eventually she returns to her original position, she touches his hands, he “awakens,” and the pas de deux begins.
What follows is a relatively unusual relationship dance. They proceed to dance together, including rolling over each other, and in tandem. She raises her leg ballet-like up to the sky; he circles her as if mesmerized by her, but also like a crouching wolf preparing to attack. They push each other, she wraps his legs around him, he separates from her in some sort of post-coital fugue, she approaches him – and he then wraps his arm around her neck as if killing her (or at least ending the relationship). She falls to the floor.
El Toro is interesting and well-executed, and different enough from the typical “relationship dance” to be distinctive.
But there’s more. There’s one aspect of this dance that may be considered highly unusual. “El Toro,” translated, means “the bull.” What this dance really is is a relationship dance metaphorically presented as a bullfight. They circle each other, attempt to outthink each other, parry and retreat, and do what bulls and matadors do. She’s the bull; he’s the matador.
Part 3 continues in the next review.