Battery Dance
New York Live Arts
New York, New York

March 8, 2023
Battery Dance NOW Program: It Goes By Quick, Grey (film; world premiere), The Liminal Year, A Certain Mood

Jerry Hochman

Battery Dance, a lower Manhattan presence since its founding in 1976 by Artistic Director Jonathan Hollander, moved slightly uptown this week for its first performance at New York Live Arts. The four-evening run of dances created by women choreographers not so coincidentally coincided with Women’s History Month, and its opening night with International Women’s Day.

Under the program heading “Battery Dance NOW,” the evening consisted of three pieces and a brief film: It Goes By Quick, choreographed by Ana Maria Lucaciu, a Romanian-born choreography now based in New York and Antwerp, Belgium; Robin Cantrell, a former dancer with Battery Dance with ballet background who now choreographs and creates dance-related films, was represented by The Liminal Year; and A Certain Mood, created by dancer, choreographer, and teacher Tsai Hsi Hung. The film, Grey, was directed and edited by Barry Steele.

The first dance, and the only one with a discernable meaning, was It Goes By Quick, which premiered at the 2021 Battery Dance Festival, a well-respected multi-faceted series of dances drawn from companies world-wide. It’s meaning, a little too obvious, is that it doesn’t have a meaning.

(l-r) Razvan Stoian, Amy Saunder,
Vivake Khamsingsvath, and Jillian Linkowski
in Ana Maria Lucaciu’s “It Goes By Fast”
Photo by Steven Pisano

Actually, It Goes By Quick is kind of sweet (albeit with an edge), the only dance describable as such in the program. It’s also accessible to an audience that isn’t only interested in how fast dancers can move to a thunderous score. The lead character is an ersatz potted tree planted downstage left that carries on an intermittent oral conversation with itself (it sounds like a male tree, but its gender, if it has one, is irrelevant). Some of that conversation repeats comments it hears from some invisible presence – a vocal stand-in for the choreographer perhaps, or observations/ questions that an audience-member might silently ask relating to the unfolding dance. The essence of that conversation is that the tree/ viewer should stop trying to think (or overthink) the meaning of the dance, but simply to watch it, see it, and maybe feel it. Reluctant at first (in a previous life the tree must have been a lawyer turned dance critic), after repeated attempts he/ it is finally persuaded to do just that.

It’s a gimmick, and at times annoyingly intrusive, but the tree serves its purpose – to focus on what’s happening rather than why what’s happening is happening. Since nothing in particular is happening, it’s good advice.

Actually, that’s not completely true. A lot of things are happening; it just doesn’t gel into anything more than the action that you see. And, as the tree’s repetition of what’s being told to it urges, “you have to pay attention to details” because when it’s gone – and it goes by quick … ly – it’s gone.

The choreography isn’t particularly inventive, but it doesn’t try to be, and doesn’t need to be. It’s not telling a story as much as it’s highlighting snapshots in time that may (or may not) mean something, and then they’re gone. Certainly there are personal interactions of varying depth and degree, and there’s the overarching significance of time passing – but these aren’t meanings as much as observations. Although there’s nothing earthshattering about it, its series of dances for pairs and subsets of the five-dancer cast, sometimes in tandem, sometimes not, is curiously interesting. And It Goes By Quick is the most balletic of the three on the program, with a sense of simple underemphasized lyricism that flows throughout.

To an original score by T.M. Rives that includes, or is interwoven with, music by Artie Shaw, AGF [Assume Good Faith], the five dancers interact with each other in various combinations, but there’s an overall pleasantness to this peace, as well as a sense that something else is going on notwithstanding the tree’s proclamations – an undercurrent that doesn’t always jibe with the lightness. This seems true particularly in the portions of Artie Shaw jazz/ swing music used (like the entire score, not identified). It’s relatively relaxed overall demeanor was a fine evening introduction, and, as it turned out, an equally fine counterpoint to the other two dances on the program.

(l-r) Jillian Linkowski, Sarah Housepian,
Vivake Khamsingsvath, and Zaki A’Jani Marshall
in Robin Cantrell’s “The Liminal Year”
Photo by Steven Pisano

It Goes By Quick was choreographed as the country was emerging to the pandemic, and, according to its choreographer, was created as a response to the Covid response; that is, the sense that life/ time goes by too quickly, and consequently that there’s a need to slow down and pay attention to the world and each other. The Liminal Year, which also premiered at the 2021 Battery Dance Festival, was created during the pandemic and touches on similar issues, but in a completely different way.

The title of the piece is somewhat opaque. Most of the time, if one looks up “liminal,” one finds references to “subliminal”: that quality of suggestion or influence that runs beneath the surface; a message that one doesn’t see but that is intended to have a certain effect, and does. One would think that “liminal” would be the opposite – a message that one clearly does see, but it’s not as simple as that. Liminal has another meaning relating to “spaces,” with the word “liminal” meaning a space between spaces, or one that spans spaces – and, in certain situations, a time/ space within which ideas grow. I suspect that that’s the meaning intended here – the dance explores the Covid pandemic space, its impact, and the efforts made to overcome that impact.

The dance’s original score is by Alexis Gideon, who, according to his website, is an American visual artist, composer and performer best known for his innovative animated live video operas and interdisciplinary techniques. That doesn’t say anything about his work here, which was created in tandem with the choreographer. But The Liminal Year is indeed cinematic: a not quite seamless but interconnected series of images – almost like an agglomeration of war battles except the war is against the consequences of Covid. And it succeeds in visualizing the pandemic and its effects, creating a set of indelible images in the process the way a photographer might document a war (e.g., I saw an image of one dancer – Sarah Housepian (an extraordinary combination of feather-lightness and outsized intensity) – running/ crawling her way up an incline created out of the backs of other dancers that brought to mind the iconic photographic image from the battle of Iwo Jima) – except here the images move, and are peppered with a constant display of vivid emotion.

Battery Dance in Robin Cantrell’s “The Liminal Year”
Photo Courtesy of Battery Dance

The overarching sense here is of a world turned upside down, of artificially created boundaries (reflected in floor lighting), of people attempting to escape confinement, of searching or fighting for a way out, of pushing and pulling and discarding confining shirts and, ultimately, succeeding by coming together united in common interest and collective survival. Most importantly, although there’s a measure of choreographic regimentation, The Liminal Year pulses with energy, and is alive with broad movement strokes, some of which are breathtaking.

In between these two pieces (conveniently placed to enable the dancers to change costumes without requiring a full intermission) was the film Grey. It’s a simple but engaging little film (it lasts maybe four or five minutes) that tells of an urban romance between a pair of dancers, Jillian Linkowski and Razvan Stoian, to a score titled “Eventually Epic” (a fabulous title) created by Debarun Bhattacharjya and Sachin Premasuthan. Set in an area (presumably in Manhattan) filled with tall buildings (and, as I recall, a building entrance area), the pair meet, grow very happy together (demonstrated in breezy little dances), but something happens that gets in the way – maybe the tall buildings. When things are fine, the images are in color; but when urban whatever-it-is sinks in, the film’s color changes to shades of grey. Eventually the two appear to go their separate ways – although, given the score’s title, the romance may continue in a different venue or time, eventually becoming epic.

The program’s final piece, A Certain Mood, was presented at the 2022 Battery Dance Festival, and was discussed in my subsequent review of that program as a whole. Accordingly, I’ll keep my remarks here to a minimum.

Choreographed by Tsai His Hung to music by Iggy Hung, the piece reportedly was inspired by Hans Hofmann’s painting of the same name (and was initially presented within a set of three dances for Battery Dance’s 2022 performance season, collectively called “Hofmann Dances”). A highly-regarded German-born American artist, Hofmann’s work is most often described as abstract expressionist.

When I first saw it, all the frenetic stage movement initially looked purposeless and wasn’t sufficiently interesting by itself to make it more than movement for movement’s sake. But eventually I saw that Hung was here attempting to capture Hoffman’s movement by visualizing Hofmann’s brush strokes as he created this painting. With that understanding, and the effective execution by the dancers, I found that to be true: it may look like a jumble of rapid-fire abstract movement, but so is Hofmann’s 1959 painting. Hung here is simply doing exactly what Hofmann’s art does but in a context of visual movement, and she does it well.  Every choreographic movement is intended to express not only brush strokes, but the attitude and animation behind them: a certain mood. And it’s filled with dramatic movement exacerbated by jet-propelled speed.

Zaki A’Jani Marshall in Tsai Hsi Hung’s “A Certain Mood”
Photo by Steven Pisano

I must admit, however, that A Certain Mood looked better to me at the festival than it did at this performance. This is not due to any deficiency on the part of the dancers in any way, but the piece as a whole seemed longer than I recalled, and included what I consider to be a false ending (it appeared to end; the audience started to hoot and applaud, and then it resumed for another few minutes) that I also don’t recall. And the generally apocalyptic score sounded more overbearing indoors. Perhaps what was presented at the Festival was an abridged version of the piece as a whole, and/ or the spectacular sunset that evening seemed to approximate the colors in the painting, enhancing the overall experience. Regardless, and although my opinion of the piece hasn’t changed, I think it suffered by being presented after The Liminal Year in that both emphasize a similar broad-stroke abstract movement. The full-throttle excitement it continues to create, however, is undeniable.

I’ve saved my comments about the dancers for my conclusion, because they all (except one) appeared in each of the three dances, and I didn’t want to repeat superlatives. The three women – Amy Saunder (who I recall from her performances with MorDance), Linkowski, and Housepian – are, individually and collectively, an exceptional group. But here they were equaled by an unusually exceptional group of men: Stoian, who has been with Battery Dance since 2016 and is somewhat of a chameleon, looking different in every role; Vivake Khamsingsvath, a Laotian-American with a magnetic stage presence; and Zaki A’Jani Marshall (the one who did not appear in the first piece), a relatively new company member whose physical presence alone can dominate a stage. With the strong men accompanying the strong women, the company as a whole is unusually powerful as well as capable – a perfect fit for the dances on this program.