Cherylyn Lavagnino Dance
Paul Taylor Dance Company’s Sam Scripps Studio Theater
New York, New York
November 27, 2021
Tales of Hopper (excerpts), Mythologies (premiere)
Just before the pandemic hit New York and the rest of this country, I had the opportunity to see Cherylyn Lavagnino Dance for the first time. That performance was revelatory for the choreographic ability and quality execution displayed. The only thing that kept Tales of Hopper, one of the pieces presented, from showing up on my “Tops of New York Dance” that year was that there was no Tops of New York Dance that year.
So it was with great expectations that I attended a performance by the same company at the Paul Taylor Dance Company Studios (the Sam Scripps Studio Theater) on the Lower East Side last Saturday. The performance, which included excerpts from Tales of Hopper and the premiere of Lavagnino’s Mythologies, wasn’t quite the knockout for me that the prior program was, but it’s still worth seeing if and when it returns.
Based on what I’ve seen, Lavagnino is a master not just of choreography, but of storytelling. But unlike storytellers who often bite off more than they can chew, the stories she weaves are limited in terms of scenic time and apparent scope, like a collection of independent but related short stories. This makes them more succinct, which translates as tighter, which is a good thing.
The excerpts from Tales of Hopper that opened the program were three scenes from the original piece, which overall is a collection of dance stories that used paintings by Edward Hopper as inspiration. Lavagnino groups the three excerpts here as components in a continuing story – essentially, a story within the greater “story” of bringing life to all the lonely people in Hopper’s paintings.
For her illumination of Hopper’s “Sunlight in a Cafeteria,” Lavagnino assumes that the man and woman pictured will begin a conversation that becomes increasingly friendly: the beginning of what might grow into a relationship. Eventually, the woman gives the man a tiny note, presumably with her phone number or address. The note is written on blue paper. For “Nighthawks,” Lavagnino sees the same man as in “Sunlight in a Cafeteria” and a different woman, presumably one with who he’s already in a relationship, begin a conversation that becomes increasingly heated, with the woman angrily showing Faircloth that same piece of blue paper. Then onto that same scene comes the woman from “Sunlight in a Cafeteria,” and there’s a confrontation among the three of them. The trilogy ends with the woman from “Sunlight in a Cafeteria” sitting alone in an automat (corresponding to Hopper’s “Automat”), with the wrinkled blue note in her hand, alone, and in despair – and looking exactly like the woman in Hopper’s painting.
The three characters here, in order of appearance, were portrayed by Claire Westby, Justin Faircloth, and Corinne Hart, the same dancers I saw in these roles previously. Also as before, the connected excerpt as choreographed and executed is masterful. But that ambiance of pervasive loneliness inherent in Hopper’s paintings is lost when parts, even connected ones, are excerpted from the whole.
The difficulty I had with Mythologies is primarily a consequence of my expectations that it would be similar to Tales of Hopper, except that the unifying theme would be Greek mythology or a continuing story in that context. It sort of is, but it sort of isn’t, in large part because the apparent connection between the semi-independent scenes themselves is disposed of relatively early in the piece. That is, although I thought the dance, overall, is another fine piece of work by Lavagnino and her company, at some point the narrative became blurry and somewhat superfluous, and the dance ends without an ending. But as I’ll explain further below, there is a connection that holds these stories together that has little to do with the fictional connected mythological stories themselves: Lavagnino’s real “story” may involve a different set of mythologies.
According to the program note, Mythologies is “inspired by the stories of Ancient Greece in and around the Trojan Wars,” and is a “historically fictional” new work consisting of “historically fictional characterizations.” Fair enough. The characters are groups of Sirens and Amazons, and a Band of Thebes. I don’t consider Sirens or Amazons to be fictional characters even if they’re not real, since at the time of the Trojan War they were considered real – but why quibble. The Band of Thebes didn’t appear in Greek mythology until considerably later than the Trojan War, but I don’t doubt that stories about them or a similar group may have preceded any subsequent written record of them.
In very brief summary, Sirens were sea temptresses who lured men to their deaths; Amazons were warrior women who lived solely with other women (but who allowed themselves to copulate with nearby men in order to procreate, leaving any male children to be raised by these men); and the Band of Thebes (called the Sacred Band of Thebes in Greek mythology) were a group of warrior men selected to be primary defenders because their loyalty to each other (the group was comprised of pairs of male lovers) and to the cause could not be broken.
Mythologies is divided into four parts, which are not delineated: instead, the thrust of the separate but connected parts, and of the accompanying score, changes from a focus on one group to another as the dance progresses.
The viewer is first introduced to the Sirens. The choreography that Lavagnino provides for them is spectacularly vivid and comprehensive in its depiction of beauty, seduction, power, and evil – qualities executed to perfection by Gwendolyn Gussman, Emma Pajewski and Westby. They’re at once temptresses and tigresses, growling and clawing as they prepare not only to seduce, but to capture and devour their prey.
The Sirens’ seductive smorgasbord includes not just sexually suggestive movement of arms and torsos, but legs that lure when, with their bodies “under water” on the stage sea, they perform upside-down slowly-seductive bicycle-like leg movement in tandem, like synchronized swimmers. And of course the Sirens’ portrayal includes enticing potential prey with their luring songs – their occasional open-mouths keyed to the commissioned score composed and performed live by Scott Killian on keyboard, Jacob Lawson on violin, and sung from the stage by vocalist Carol Lipnik). [Note that if the score included words that might have explained the evolving actions, I was unable to decipher them – the score came across to me, perhaps based on my seat location, as a series of variable and interesting sounds that tracked the ebb and flow of what was happening on stage.] And then there are those leering, magnetic eyes that seemed to widen when they spotted potential victims.
Each of the three did spectacular work, with Pajewski and Gussman, most of the time closest to the audience, acting particularly feral. All this was abetted by Christopher Metzger’s costume design – manifested in a variety of blue / green / turquoise / light brown sea colors, and Frank DenDanto III’s lighting design, which illuminated them and those tiger eyes like lanterns.
After introducing the Sirens, the piece turns to the appearance and capture of one of the Band of Thebes, out reconnoitering or simply succumbing to the Sirens’ temptation. Eventually (and somewhat sequentially) all four men (Barrington Hinds, Jerard Palazo, Noah Wang, and Philip Strom) appear, then the Amazons intervene, and somewhere along the way the first man is rescued. Whether this is a separate “part” or connected to the initial part is unclear.
This opening segment is so comprehensive and visually entertaining that it overshadows the remaining sections of the dance that focus on the Men of Thebes and the Amazons. This is unfortunate because the choreography for the Amazons and the Men of Thebes is more varied than for the Sirens: since they’re not tethered to a stage floor sea, Lavagnino has more freedom to move them around. On the other hand, the individuals in these groups appear relatively monochromatic and earth-bound (somewhat similar to pictorials of warriors in Greek friezes), especially in contrast to the Sirens, who are always in liquid motion.
The costumes for both groups are structured similarly (like different sides of the same coin, which essentially is what they are) and completely black – because, well, they’re warriors, not seducers.
Lavagnino has the warrior women (Dervla Carey-Jones, Dorothea Garland, Erin Gallagher, Sarah Schiffhauer, and Hart) dance en pointe, reportedly (according the program note) to emphasize that strength, grace, and femininity can coexist, but except when visualized rescuing the captured man, the Amazons, at least initially, move purposefully, like guerilla warriors (one of whom, Carey-Jones, occasionally poses as if armed with a bow and arrow preparing to shoot). Perhaps a more aggressive demeanor, and/or leaps into feigned battle (think Hippolyta and her Amazon-hounds in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, on a much, much, much smaller scale) might have helped here. The Men of Thebes as a group appear more stolid than the Amazons; more linear and single-minded, and leaden – like cogs in a machine doing what they’re trained or programed to do (akin to the “Unsullied” in “Game of Thrones”).
However, Lavagnino’s choreography goes beyond the strident for the Amazons and the stolid for the Men of Thebes when they interact with each other within their own groups. Here her choreography comes alive with interesting individual or collective movement variety, including surprising sequencing shifts (e.g., when you expect Lavagnino to have the interaction proceed one way based on the way the movement is building, she shifts visual gears and has it go a different way, keeping things interesting).
There’s a reason for this increased animation beyond the groups’ simply not being in battle mode.
The program note says the male and female warriors are intermingled “into combative, ardent, and tender coupling, congruent with the fluid sexual practices during this period.” Obviously, given their mythological genesis, what’s meant is male / male and female / female coupling. Although I saw a lot of that, there was little that to my eye displayed sexual activity – to the extent it’s there, it’s suggestive, and far more tame than what is now fairly common. Not surprisingly, the interactions among individual pairs or trios of the Men of Thebes appear more aggressive and dramatic than that for the Amazons, but also less interesting choreographically, where the interaction is more subtle.
But at some point the piece seemed to lose potency as each side goes its separate ways. The dance ends with the men crossing the stage floor by themselves, presumably out for an evening’s battle.
After I left the theater somewhat disappointed that there were ideas here that weren’t developed as fully as they might have been, and that perhaps the piece was in fact a work in progress, I thought of a different way to approach and evaluate the piece that placed the mythological stories within a greater context, and that made it more similar to Tales of Hopper than I’d initially thought.
Maybe Lavagnino’s real intent here is to have the Sirens, Amazons, and Men of Thebes act as metaphors, convenient mythological symbols for contemporary “myths” of gender character traits. The Sirens and Amazons present the myth of the singularly seductive female (or femmes fatales) and the singularly strong, independent female. But both groups are in fact multi-dimensional, and one-dimensional stereotypes don’t neatly fit (essentially, what Lavignino seemed to be trying to do with the Amazons alone, which to me didn’t work). That leaves the Men of Thebes as either superfluous, a mechanism to simulate some sort of plot, or as myth-busters themselves – pairs of same-sex lovers, like the Amazons (and also like the Sirens, who were frequently visualized as writhing around or atop each other) who were also great warriors. But they’re clearly integral, not superfluous.
If this way of seeing the dance is right, than Mythologies is a collection of stories that individually and collectively debunk contemporary myths, which is the dance’s overarching real subject – and the narrative of Sirens capturing and the Amazons rescuing a Man of Thebes is just a convenient cover for Lavagnino’s real target.
Regardless, more important here than what she may have “really” been trying to say is Lavagnino’s story-telling and choreographic abilities. It may necessarily be on a small scale, but those two qualities together are rare, and valuable. And I’ve noticed an uptick in dances that actually try to tell a story, with or without any underlying “real” meaning. So maybe Lavagnino and similarly motivated choreographers are the vanguard of a reaction to choreography that, regardless of quality, says nothing. I suppose we shall see.