“6,000 Bobby Pins Later”
A Program of 6 Dances by 6 Choreographers

Actors Fund Theater
Brooklyn, New York

February 3, 2017
Six Degrees Dance: Balancing Abstract
Nikki Manx Dance Project: Wasser
Kristina Bermudez: Gravity
Robin Aren: Working Title
Joe Monteleone: Samvega
Lauren Beirne Dance Works: The Principles: Part 6

— by Jerry Hochman

Dance programs I’ve seen that feature multiple pieces choreographed by multiple choreographers performed by multiple sets of dancers can sometimes be vehicles for showing to friends and family what the participants have been doing with themselves for umpteen months. Sometimes such program can also be vehicles for egocentric displays of movement or content that might not pass muster in any other context, and/or for testing movement or content theories. I don’t doubt that to some extent both qualities were present in the sold-out, multi-faceted event presented last Saturday under the heading “6,000 Bobby Pins Later.” But although not totally successful, the program was on a considerably higher level than similar ones I’ve seen.

Produced by Lauren Beirne Dance Works (Lauren Beirne) and Six Degrees Dance (Cecly Placenti), the evening’s title, even though it sounds meaningless and silly, actually says a lot: that what’s being presented is the product of preparation, creation, and rehearsals that required a significant investment of time and thought and muscle – and bobby pins. The effort doesn’t impact a critical evaluation, but maybe it should be remembered before dismissing anything out of hand.

Be that as it may, “6,000 Bobby Pins Later” displayed various levels of promise and accomplishment. With one exception, I’ll consider them sequentially.

The one exception is Joe Monteleone’s Samvega.

Monteleone’s contribution to the evening had little to recommend it in advance – at least to me: I had not previously heard of him (although I’m aware that there are lots of well-respected and well-traveled people in the New York dance community that I’ve never heard of); I’m prejudiced against solos in general and male solos in particular (though there are exceptions and I try to keep an open mind); and the movement quality I anticipated – jerky, twisty, contorted, seemingly pointless except for demonstrating how well the dancer can jerk, twist, and contort – is usually like chalk on a blackboard to me.

I was right about the movement quality, but wrong about everything else. Even though I’m not sure I understood what he was trying to communicate, Monteleone’s performance was extraordinary.

It started out as I’d anticipated. Dressed in two shades of black, much of it leather-looking, Monteleone had his back turned to the audience in front of a projection of the front of an automobile with its brights on. He turned, and while standing in the same location and looking vicious, and to music that he had curated from “various artists,” began to move slowly, angularly, jerkily, twistingly, contordedly…and at increasing speed as the score’s noise level seemed to get louder and faster.

But as the speed increased, so did the level of control amid the apparent movement chaos that I was seeing, to the point that the man, the sound, and the projected automobile were one: a lean mean machine. And although he never stopped moving his body or some part thereof, he never strayed from his location on the stage. In the end, he blew me away – not by any spectacular ending, but by the sheer confined explosive physical force and emotionless motion-filled movement variety that he displayed.

I tend to intellectualize what I see, and I’m certain that the movement, his appearance, the projection, and the sound were intended to be as much a unity as they appeared to me to be – even having no clue as to what Samvega means (a Chevy Vega named Sam?). Maybe he was making some “man and the machine” commentary; maybe he was mimicking a car’s engine; maybe he was “being” the car’s engine; maybe he was trying to transmit the sensation of what it looks/feels like to be engine-like to the audience. Maybe all of the above – or none of it. Whatever it was, it was an amazing demonstration of movement and command that left me feeling, if not engine-like, as if I’d been trapped under the hood of a car and injected with adrenalin. Or maybe it was just gas.

Cecly Placenti has this “thing” about art and dance. The first piece of hers that I saw was a program she choreographed in 2011 titled “Michael in Motion” – a tribute to her visual artist father. One of the program’s dances then performed by her company, Six Degrees Dance, featured paint brushes attached at various locations to one of the dancers (Kristen Klein), with other dancers positioning a hand-held piece of canvas such that Klein could dip the bristles and “paint” a stroke or two on it. Even though it was well done, I remember thinking that she may not have seen the potential negative implication of the creation of “abstract” art by chance.

Placenti has now refined this idea, and in Balancing Abstract has done something similar, but lots better. Klein is still the insouciant black-clad mannequin-like creative centerpiece with taped-on brushes at various locations on her extremities. Other company dancers (Emily Relyea-Spivack, Rachel Russell, Diane Skerbec , and Placenti) bring jar-like objects filled with paint to her, the brushes are dipped in the paint, and a stroke is drawn onto a held piece of canvas. Behind them all is a large abstract painting.

But it’s not the process so much as the connection and relationship between the movement and the art that’s important. The choreography, generally balletic and lyrical, appears to be executed in more “broad strokes” of movement than previously. The differently colored but otherwise identical costumes on each dancer match the five colors evident in the painting. But perhaps most significantly, the dancers movement occasionally, and intentionally, mimics the direction of color in the painting (a dancer moving in the same softly arching angle and flow as a stroke in the artwork).

The image snapshots in time are not overused, but they underscore Placenti’s point – not so much that the dance inspires the art or vice versa, but that abstract movement in dance is akin to abstract “movement” in visual art. It’s not a unique observation, but here the exploration of it is subtle, which makes the recognition of it more of an awakening. The painting, incidentally, is the same one that was used in the previous program seven years ago, painted by Placenti’s father.

Nikki Manx’s Wasser is another matter: it’s maybe too obvious. Her subject, not surprisingly is “water,” or, more precisely, the imminent or actual lack of it – although it’s a mystery why she uses the German translation as the dance’s title.

The dancers that comprise Nikki Manx’s Dance Project (Jenna Familletti, Alyson Monaco, Nicole Bruno, Beirne, and Manx) essentially beg for water from a bowl passed (or seized) from one to another. The five dancers are first seen spread across the stage, each squatting behind what appeared to be a dish or shell illuminated by a candle or pinpoint of light, with each dancer eerily (or hopelessly) trying try to draw something from the floor beneath. It soon became apparent that the “floor” is some drying waterbed from which the dancers are making a futile attempt to obtain water. The dancers then regroup, with one dancer obtaining what appeared to be an urn or bowl or oversized cup filled with water (which later is seen to have a “shell” inside it – perhaps some indication that that character has acquired a surplus of water via the same process by which the others’ shells came up empty), and the others beg the dancer with the bowl to deposit some of the water into their “shells.” Initially, I thought the reference was to some religious ceremony in which the dancer with the bowl was acknowledging and blessing supplicants, but that notion quickly evaporated when it became clear that those without were begging, and then starving, for the water that the dancer with the bowl was dousing them with (literally – it was real water that was strewn onto the stage floor). And as if to hammer the message that water was scarce and people were starving for it, a film was projected onto the upstage wall of the downspout of a gutter from which an overabundance of water was being deposited onto the soil below.

Manx’s heart is in the right place – water is a precious resource, and too many people lack sufficient amounts of it. And sure, there’s a lot of waste. But whether the imagery of the dance was an optimal way to represent this is a different matter. Regardless, the choreography itself isn’t bad at all – the guarded but flowing movement of dancers initially attempting to summon water from a dry river bed and the moving around the stage in various stages of starvation and frenzy displays a somewhat lyrical and romanticized style that’s as accessible as its message, the struggles over the water bowl are staged creatively, and the dancers are an engaging group. I’d like to see Manx assay something that’s perhaps less didactic in the future – but I understand that the company is dedicated to presenting environment and socially sensitive dances, so I suspect that dances with a message will continue to be emphasized.

The ensuing two pieces on the program were tougher nuts to crack, and the choreographers appeared to have considerably less experience. But they were interesting pieces nonetheless.

Gravity, choreographed by Kristina Bermudez to the familiar but luscious The Quality of Mercy by Max Richter, and danced by Tanner Myles Huseman, AJ Tasley Parr, and Bermudez, presents the three dancers on a darkened stage as shadow-like figures, initially with Huseman holding one of the women horizontally above his head. The spatial divisions between the three dancers are not fixed, but I had the impression that Bermudez’s character was distinct from the other two, who, with some exceptions, seemed a fairly constant pair – although I do recall moments in which all three were together, as well as a solo for Huseman, and a point at which Bermudez lifts and carries him (no small feat).

Perhaps Huseman’s character is Bermudez’s dream/memory/desire, and maybe Parr represents who she was at a previous point in time, or someone she wanted to be. Regardless, the choreography is lovely and lyrical – and a little sad, but the best part to me is the carefully complex partnering that Bermudez has choreographed for Huseman and Parr. This was choreography far more intricate and advanced than I had reason to expect, and, except for one maneuver that was insufficiently secure (but which the dancers covered for and recovered from well), the dance was very well presented, and well executed by all three of them.

Working Title is a puzzlement – but, again, it shows promise. Given the piece’s title, the program’s notation that this dance is a work in progress is not surprising. And it looks that way. But choreographer Robin Aren has ideas here that may ultimately coalesce, and a quality of movement that is lyrical, gentle, warm, and open. That I’m not yet sure where she’s going with this, or what she’s trying to communicate, isn’t unusual for a work in progress; that I’m intrigued by it is. For example, it’s not unusual to integrate singing with choreography, but it is when the dancers themselves are the ones singing – and the dance is otherwise performed in silence.

The three dancers (Michelle Lim, Sarah Grace Mariani, and Nicole Nerup) initially are aligned at a slight diagonal, positioning that dominates the piece. The center dancer (I think Mariani) begins to softly sing a cappella. Regrettably, I didn’t catch the lyrics, and they’re not credited, but her demeanor and voice quality (tentative, but sweet-sounding) have an air of wistful sadness to them. The song doesn’t last long – and then the three begin to move somewhat awkwardly – twisting, balancing – but intricately, and in a somewhat subdued way. But the choreography isn’t off-putting at all; on the contrary, like the dancers, it has an overall engaging quality to it.

The center dancer eventually begins to sing again in the same manner, stops, and the dance continues, until a different dancer (Lim) begins to sing – and if I heard her correctly (she sang softly as well), one of the lyrics was “I know I have to go.” Based on that, and the overall tone of the piece, I suspect it’s about (and with songs, I would expect some intended meaning) ended relationships and moving on, but I really have no idea. But maybe I will if I see a finished version. In the interim, and keeping in mind what I wrote at the outset, my notes reflect the observation that “there’s some really neat stuff here.”

Monteleone’s solo was a tough act to follow, but the final dance on the program, The Principles, Part 6, was a valiant effort. And a piece that features six women (Bonnie Bushnell, Ashley Chavonne, Casey Howes, Davida Sam, Bermudez, and Placenti) in what is (or at least clearly was intended to be) underwear gets one’s attention quickly.

The costuming, however, is not intended to be prurient. This, to me, is an angry dance that emphasizes the dilemma, particularly for women, of body image, of body language, of “what do I wear today,” of attempting to conform to societal expectations, and the cruelty of so much hinging on a woman’s appearance to others. That the music, an amalgam from five sources, is interrupted twice by monotonic spoken (from a male voice) advice of the significance of body language and of clothing worn for an interview cements the accuracy of these observations.

The choreography is frenetic and virtually non-stop, with the women at times dancing in pairs, moving in from and out to the wings, crawling, writhing, sliding, occasionally screaming, and staring into an imaginary mirror in fright or frustration. And I saw recurring (but not dominating) images of hands brought up to cradle a face as, as if communicating “omg, what am I going to do” – or, alternatively, “omg, this is craziness.” Beirne’s message isn’t sugar-coated, but it doesn’t beat the audience over the head either. She gets the message across in a dramatic and exciting way.

There were no program notes or explanations of any kind with these dances. My observations are what I came away with on my own, and I don’t know if I’m right. There was a reception after the performance during which the audience was invited to ask the dancers / choreographers what they intended their dances to display, but I didn’t attend – to me, unless the choreographer communicates her/his intention (if there is one) in advance via program notes or through the dance itself, it is what it is. But regardless of whether my observations are what was intended, “6,000 Bobby Pins Later,” a one-night only program, proves that the results were worth the effort.