Norte Maar: CounterPointe10
The Mark O’Donnell Theater at the Actors Fund Arts Center
Brooklyn, New York
March 24, 2023
Unraveled Rhythms: Eryn Renee Young with Amanda Browder; Out of the Vessel: JoVonna Parks with Jeanne Verdoux; Sideslip: Amanda Treiber with Marcy Rosenblat; Message Other Than Duration: Shannon Harkins with Sarah Pettitt; briefly gorgeous: Tiffany Mangulabnan with Etty Yaniv; Cradle: Sarah Yasmine Marazzi-Sassoon with Alejandra Seeber; COLIBRI: Julia K. Gleich with Tamara Gonzales
A year ago I attended my first performance of a series titled CounterPointe. I found CounterPointe9 to be impressive, which proved, yet again, that I don’t know what I don’t know. Now I know better. Consequently, I was pleased to addend its subsequent incarnation – Counterpointe10.
I was not disappointed.
As was the case last year, the dances in this year’s program were not all of the same caliber. But the overall level of expertise, originality, and entertainment value of the dances in this year’s incarnation was quite extraordinary.
The CounterPointe series is produced by the Brooklyn-based non-profit organization Norte Marr, co-founded in 2004 by curator Jason Andrew and choreographer Julia K. Gleich, which encourages and supports collaborations in the literary, visual, and performing arts. The series itself was co-founded in 2012 by Gleich. It’s focused on the presentation of new choreography for the pointe shoe (performers are required to wear pointe shoes) in order to expand the ballet concert vocabulary, investigate new and historic territory, encourage discussion, and create a forum for women to take artistic risks. Indeed, as Gleich stated in her brief introductory remarks, “The whole thing is about risk.”
Another major component of the series is pairing a choreographer with an artist (most often visual) so that the artist’s work appears in or provides inspiration for the piece. This isn’t particularly unusual – lots of dance pieces are inspired by art, or have artwork be an integral part of the presentation, but the clear requisite integration of the two in this format is distinctive. My understanding is that dances are selected by submission, and the choreographers and visual artists have roughly two months to get acquainted and begin and complete their respective dance and artwork.
And in case it isn’t already clear, all of the choreography is created by women, all the connected visual artwork is created by women, and nearly all of the dances were performed exclusively by women. All choreographers and dancers have considerable “under-the-radar” experience, including in most cases extensive ballet backgrounds, but, except for some of the choreographers whose work I saw last year (and one who I knew from her prior performances), I was previously aware of none of them. The visual artists involved were all different from those who participated in last year’s program.
Instead of considering the dances in order of presentation, I’ll first address the program’s two solos, then the ensemble pieces.
Out of the Vessel is a little gem of a piece choreographed by JoVanna Parks, which, according to the evening’s program, originated from a short animation created by Jeanne Verdoux. The dance is choreographed to unidentified music by Jon Hopkins.
Parks, a native of Philadelphia, is trained in ballet, and Horton and Graham technique, and graduated from the Ailey/Fordham BFA program with a degree in dance. She’s appeared with many dance companies, and now is a freelance dancer who also teaches ballet, modern, and contemporary techniques in the New York area.
The dance she created last year for CounterPointe9 was also a solo, but it wasn’t as focused or as dramatically intense as this one. Part of that focused sense is a consequence of Verdoux’s focused art. A French-American artist who now lives and works in Brooklyn, Verdoux specializes in drawings and ceramics, but to that one can now add film.
After reading the program, I anticipated that Out of the Vessel would relate to some genie and the “bottle” to some Aladdin’s lamp. Well…no. The “bottle” in the film and as recreated on stage is more akin to a pitcher or teapot, and there’s no magical “genie” other than Parks.
There’s no particular meaning to Out of the Vessel beyond what the title says, but there doesn’t need to be. The stage vessel is seen first, upright roughly center stage. Soon after the dance begins, an almost identical-looking vessel is displayed on the projected film. There’s a slight color difference between the two vessels, which I don’t think is meaningful; and the vessel on film displays a heart-shaped form that seems embedded into it, which possibly is intended to reference the existence of life within it. The film shows the bottle tipping over on its side, and out comes Parks’s image, along with images of body parts (face, limbs, etc., to which, at times, Parks’s face is attached). Quickly thereafter, the vessel on stage is tipped over, and Parks herself slithers out from “within” (behind) the tipped vessel.
My description may make the piece sound cute, but it’s more than that. The film is, necessarily, somewhat flat and filled with body parts that seem to fly out from the bottle (although at certain points to film’s background image changes to reflect some urban scene, for reasons I don’t understand); Parks, on the other hand, slides out from the stage vessel as if waterborne, and much of her subsequent movement emanates from the stage floor in a seeming effort, ultimately successful, to rise. The added spatial texture is welcome as an amplification of the film, but Parks stuffs an extraordinary amount of varied movement into her choreography (particularly for a solo); a complex and powerful blend of visual imagery that meshes well with film that Verdoux created, even when not matching body part to body part. The end result, Out of the Vessel, is memorable, and motivated the full house to roar with approval.
The other solo, briefly gorgeous, a collaboration between Tiffany Mangulabnan and visual artist Etty Yaniv, is quite different. According to supplemental information not included in the written program (and consequently not known as I watched it), Yaniv’s artwork “coalesces material fragments—photographs, paintings, scraps from previous installations and found materials—into textured clusters which seem like abstracted landscapes from afar and reveal narrative vignettes from close-up.” Had I known in advance, I’d have had a better idea of what her artistic images were, but the piece overall is so clearly communicated in Mangulabnan’s choreography that it wasn’t difficult to discern a meaning.
Mangulabnan is a New York-based Filipino dancer and choreographer and a founding co-artistic director of Brooklyn-based contemporary ballet company “konverjdans.” Born and raised in Manila, she performed as a principal dancer with the Philippine Ballet Theatre before moving to New York City in 2012, where, in addition to her company she’s freelanced as a dancer with a wide variety of contemporary ballet companies.
I’ve previously seen dances that visualize reconstructed memories – or anticipated memories – but nothing quite like what Mangulabnan presents in briefly gorgeous. Here, the stage is set with a large, closed, somewhat unfinished-looking rectangular box, and hanging from center stage is what appears to be a closet clothing rod (without the closet), to which empty metal clothes hangers are appended. Soon after the dance begins (to impeccably chosen music by Chopin that helps set the emotional context for the dance: “Waltz in A Minor, B 150. Op. posth” and “Nocturne No. 6 in G Minor, Op. 15 No. 3”), Mangulabnan, who at this point is barefoot, walks toward the box, opens it, and pulls out a large, tattered, “something” that seemed made from fabric or paper scraps and had the form of an oversized kite – or a person. She carefully hangs it up, then returns to the box, picks up another scrap object that seemed similar to the first. She places it on the stage floor, circles it (after first bending down to closely examine it), and then carefully hangs that one too.
Then she returns to the box, and removes a pointe shoe, which she places on one of her bare feet and laces it up. She waltzes back to the box (one foot in the pointe shoe, the other bare), pulls out another tattered kite/ person.
Then it clicked. As has been established many times, I’m a little slow.
There are probably many permutations to this, but what I saw was a dancer reflecting on a past life, and pulling garments (e.g., dresses or gowns, either intentionally tattered over time or the artistic representation of that) out of the box – a memory box (or, looked at a different way, a hope chest or toy chest) that she’d previously worn either for real or in her memory. And, as she continues to pull objects from the box and hangs them up, the piece grew from being strange to being touching. Whatever specifically it was supposed to be, it represented her character at a time of looking back and remembering what it felt like to be briefly gorgeous.
As the dance ended, the tattered garments/ objects are returned to the box, the pointe shoe is removed and also placed back to where it had been stored, and Mangulabnan kneels next to the box in simple but heartfelt reverence. What initially seemed strange turned out to be a unique and quite beautiful little dance.
The evening began with Eryn Renee Young’s Unraveled Rhythms. Created in collaboration with visual artist Amanda Browder, the piece featured the evening’s most imposing set.
A Montana native who now lives in Brooklyn, Browder specializes in fabric artwork, producing large-scale fabric installations all around the world. For this collaboration she has produced a huge, multi-colored “quilt”-like work that spans the width of the stage. The piece isn’t comprised of squares or rectangles of fabric, but with rows of different fabric types and colors layered around its perimeter. Before the dance begins this giant “quilt” is hung by a hook such that the sides of it cascade to the floor, forming a sort of triangle. Downstage from this is a smaller circle of fabric.
According to the program, the purpose of the artwork (the only artwork that’s explained in the program) is to visualize the power of undervalued and underpaid work that is typically done by women, work that is often symbolized in the delicate and intricate pattern of doilies, but which here is amplified (with some doily references) into the imposing huge fabric – a product of hundreds of volunteer women interested in learning to sew and producing large-scale projects such as this. Within the larger piece is at least one “row” that appears to include doily-like images (it may also have been within the other round construction, but I couldn’t tell).
Young’s dance, which is choreographed to music by Debussy, Rafael Krux, and Kevin McLeod, also is symbolic of women’s work through the intricacies of her choreography and the skillful execution by the three participating dancers (Margot Hartley, Katherine Potz, and Danielle Rutherford), though the connection is somewhat tenuous, especially at its outset.
But Unraveled Rhythms is structured in separate segments (apparently corresponding to the accompanying music), and gradually, as the dance progressed, I saw the dancers moving independently to different rhythms; and later one balancing atop the others in an expression of mutual reliance and collective worth; and still later connecting physically with the installation. At one point they stand at the base of the large hanging “wall” of art, and stretch it out somewhat as if to express some manner of creative pride. At another, each of the three hold a scarf-like multicolored swatch of yarn or fabric (I don’t recall whether each carried her own, or it was a single piece carried by all three) that seemed to unravel as each was dancing.
I’m sure there were other connections to the artwork and its theme that I missed. Regardless, Unraveled Rhythms features varied and interesting – and well-executed – choreography. It stands on its own, and was a fine way to begin the program.
Following the invigorating Parks solo, the next program piece was Sideslip, choreographed by Amanda Treiber with artwork by Marcy Rosenblat, a Chicago-born visual artist now based in Brooklyn, who, according to Norte Maar’s online description, specializes in paintings with content often determined by the interplay between the forms and the surface pattern.
Treiber is a principal with New York Theatre Ballet whose performances with that company I’ve seen and reviewed many times. She’s now begun to add choreography to her artistic resume; per information on her website, this is her fourth choreographed piece (with another in process), and the first that I’ve seen. Based on this dance, I look forward to seeing more.
At NYTB, Treiber has excelled in dances choreographed by Merce Cunningham (as well as many other choreographers), but Cunningham’s austerity and minimalism, with rare exception, is not my cup of dance tea. Based on its opening minutes, I was afraid that Sideslip would be too much Cunningham. The music was Spartan, and the initial visual impact consisted of seconds-long posing – mostly, to my recollection, while standing in place. Even the dance’s title evoked memories of certain similarly-titled, and similarly ascetic, Cunningham pieces.
Rosenblat’s artwork, again according to the information available online afterward, contains enigmatic shapes that blur the boundaries between abstraction and figuration, which is the case with her artwork here. When the dancers (Julian Donahue, Giulia Faria, Jonathan Leonard, and Mónica Lima – all colleagues of Treiber at NYTB) start moving the painted structures around, the dance quickly picks up steam and morphs into something far more than simple posing – as if each had been inspired by the vaguely human shapes. In the process, Sideslip became akin to those few Cunningham pieces I’ve liked.
It must be emphasized that Treiber’s choreography went beyond being imitative or reverential to Cunningham. After that first minute or two, even with music that at one point sounded like “Chopsticks,” everything about Sideslip was fun, but fun that leaves a distinct impression. There’s no meaning to it; it’s pure abstraction and not easily deconstructed – at least not in words. And the actual dancers’ movement, although I didn’t consider it while I was watching it, might have consisted of slips and slides (Rosenblat’s artwork certainly was slipped or slid as the dancers’ moved it). Maybe there’s an allusion I missed to Paul Simon’s “Slip slidin’ away.” Regardless of how much one might overthink it, Sideslip works brilliantly, and turned out to be one of the evening’s finest pieces.
Measures Other Than Duration followed, choreographed by Sharon Harkins with artwork by Sarah Pettitt to a curated score by the electronic music band Neon Indian and by Yelle, a French band whose music has been described as electropop. Harkins danced in the piece, as did Jaya Collins and Rosalia Saver.
The dance isn’t described anywhere, but, based on its title, it’s intended to convey the sense that duration, the length of time that an artwork (or anything else) survives, whether limited to public viewing time or, for material things, actual existence, is not the only measure of a work of artistic validity or value. That should be readily apparent, but it’s doubtless a counterpoint to the thinking that the older something is, or the longer it remains in public “view” (e.g., a song, a Broadway show, a dance, a dance critic’s reviews) the better it is. There are other measures by which to evaluate the merit of a work of art (or anything else). That, of course, is a true statement. Also, of course, Harkins may not have intended her dance or its title to have that meaning, or any meaning, at all.
The artwork that Pettitt has provided here is unusual and not focused on anything in particular. There are a number of set pieces of different sizes and shapes some (box-like objects angled at the top that are covered with an intricately-designed fabric or canvas) with intricate color variations scattered about the stage, but, with one exception, they’re just there (although for several moments dancers may be placed behind them, with only parts of bodies – hands, for example – visible to the audience). The one exception is a hung object that looked like a pair of upside-down jeans, but instead functioned as a portal (in the space between its two upside-down legs) through which the dancers moved.
The dance also contains very nicely presented but equally strange lighting (not credited, but the lighting design for the entire programs is credited to Saul Ulerio) that produces a distinctive series of artistic moods as the light reflects off the sets, the dancers, or provides a background. As a result, the dance at times registers as something like a cacophony of light and, with the music, of sound. Add to that the dancers’ costumes, variations on a theme of basic black augmented by swatches of color and short skirts (intended to mock tutus?), and the highly energetic and dynamic choreography, and the end result, despite the fine execution and obvious commitment of the dancers, can be visual overkill.
Perhaps there’s more here than I saw; some bit of action that adds a connection between the title and the art. But I didn’t see more here than a strange and fun dance featuring non-stop movement, apparently performed with the requisite level of exuberance, but that didn’t amount to more than a visual good time. Measures Other Than Duration features a great variety of images, and was well executed, but it doesn’t prove it’s point, at least not the point that I’ve given it via its title. When it ended, it was gone.
After Mangulabnan’s solo, Cradle followed. Choreographed by Sarah Yasmine Marazzi-Sassoon with artwork by Alejandra Seeber, the piece is a duet for dancers Sasha Gologorskaya and Ethan Schweitzer-Gaslin.
The score is a curated potpourri of music by Laurie Anderson, Terry Riley and the Kronos Quartet, and Mitski. Even with that range of styles, the piece somehow presents it all as something of a unity. Marazzi-Sassoon, who presented at last year’s CounterPointe9, is a 22-year-old recent Barnard College graduate, but her choreographic experience is already extensive.
Relationship dances are not unusual – indeed they’re somewhat of a cliché, and, although I haven’t counted, I suspect in one sense or another are a component of most contemporary ballet creations – even abstract dances that limit any “relationship” to emotional gloss. As George Balanchine reportedly said: “Put a man and a girl on stage and there is already a story.” What makes this relationship dance a bit different is the realistic emotional component inserted by the dancers, Marazzi-Sassoon’s ability to relate a story through choreography (she did the same thing last year, but this one is more focused) – and, in this particular case, the intersection of an exuberant albeit somewhat fragile relationship and child’s play.
The “cradle” here is the ebb and flow of the relationship between the two dancers, abetted by the “cradle” that Seeber created. It’s a yellowish empty skeleton of a cradle, formed out of something that looks like the soft, straw-like objects that children can bend and twist into different shapes, which hangs from the ceiling downstage audience like a swing. Embedded into its skeletal arms are various “things,” two of which, as I recall, are pulled from the yellow cradle skeleton and used like “play” objects. At one point, after Schweitzer-Gaslin pulls out a scarf, he covers Gologorskaya’s head and upper body with it. Then, seamlessly, he cradles her in his arms, and she wraps herself around him. Subsequently, Gologarsky pulls a scarf from the cradle and covers his head. It’s quite magical, and quite lovely. Eventually they waltz back toward center stage, where they begin to play a children’s “hand slap” game (also known as “red hands” or a myriad of other descriptive names) in between expressions of love. As I recall, during this time lyrics from Mitski’s “I Want You” are piped in, and at one point Gologarskaya screems “I love you” echoing a lyric from Mitski’s song.
There’s an obvious tension in Cradle between the sense of children playing like adults, and vice versa, together with the ebb and flow of a relationship between the two, but it doesn’t come across as something to be particularly sad about (although perhaps that’s an emotional quality intended to be beneath the surface). In any event, Cradle is an engaging, multifaceted work, with an equally engaging pair of dancers, that I hope to revisit at some future time.
The evening concluded with Julia K. Gleich’s COLIBRI, a complex dance that’s deep and dense and ultimately fascinating the way a scholarly treatise can sometimes be, but, unlike such a treatise, it’s never boring.
Apart from her connection with Norte Maar and the CounterPointe series referenced at the outset, Gleich, a Brooklyn-based choreographer and teacher, has been making highly-praised ballets, including for her own company, Gleich Dance, for over 30 years. Here she is partnered with visual artist Tamara Gonzalez. Also Brooklyn-based, Gonzalez reportedly works with a variety of painted patterned motifs.
When the dance began, I was drawn immediately to Gonzales’s artwork – what at first appeared to be a strange sculptural piece with a variety of colors together with “lines” indicative of some sort of language. And all I knew of it later during the course of the dance was that the sculpture’s component parts separate, and could be (and were) carried and rearranged by the dancers. And it seemed to me that Gleich’s choreography was an amplification of Gonzales’s work; an expression in dance of the same qualities that are in the artwork. Once the original structure was taken apart, to me the “language” markings that I initially saw looked more like hieroglyphics, and, sure enough, at some point in the dance I saw one or more dancers briefly posing, I thought, as if the poses had been lifted from ancient Egyptian stylized depictions of people and/or gods.
Well, I was almost right, but not quite.
I later ascertained via Norte Maar’s online information that Gonzales has been highly influenced by travels to Peru over the past 10 years, and by her visionary experiences and friendships with the Shipibo (an indigenous people who live in the headwaters of the Amazon River, on the eastern slopes of the Andes). So inspired, Gonzales has developed her own visual language, a mixture of exuberant color, energetic line, and archetypal imagery. It’s that archetypal imagery that I immediately saw in Gonzales’s work, and that was amplified in Gleich’s dance.
After the performance I also ascertained the meaning of the dance’s title. “COLIBRI” (I don’t know why it’s capitalized) is Spanish (and French) for a certain particularly colorful species of hummingbird that is prevalent in Peru. With this knowledge, I reimagined my initial view of the assembled structure and realized that it looked somewhat like a very colorful bird. Gleich’s dance comes at the viewer in multiple expressions of the impressions in Gonzales’s artwork, which explains the difficulty I have singling out any one thing as being dominant or particularly memorable – it’s an entirety, including somewhat birdlike movement at times, some tribal-like circles (e.g., of contemplation or worship) at times, and, at times, physical replications of the archetypal imagery, what I saw as hieroglyphics – and why the original score by Amery Kessler included an assortment of drumbeats and sounds that might be describable as tribal.
And it’s not that Gleich simply adopted Gonzales’s art. COLIBRI’s choreography stands on its own merits, with movement (including a sequence of leaps across the stage toward the piece’s end) that is fascinating to watch even without knowing anything of the dance’s artistic inspiration. The piece’s five dancers (Mikalla Ashmore, Margot Hartley – the same dancer who appeared in the program’s first piece, Sara Jumper, Timothy Ward, and Dianna Warren) did commendable work.
Overall, this CounterPointe10 program was somewhat more successful artistically than last year’s incarnation, but that kind of assessment doesn’t really matter. What does is that the evening demonstrates a collaboration between women choreographers and women visual artists that results in something to be celebrated – particularly during Women’s History Month. Echoing what Gleich stated initially, for these skilled choreographers, visual artists, and dancers, the risk was worth it.
The performance I attended was sold out – word gets around. So for CounterPointe11, get your tickets early.