New York, New York
August 23, 2019
kamrDance: Everything is taken care of; Are you or do you?, hard to swallow
Lauren Beirne Dance Works: the principles, part 6
mignolo dance: Paradox in Translation, Translation Study No. 3
Inclined Dance Project: groupthink
When you attend performances by a group of choreographers described as “emerging,” you often get a mixed bag of results. This was the case with the recent incarnation of “inQUAD,” a program of dances by emerging companies coordinated and presented by Kristen Klein, Artistic Director and Choreographer of Inclined Dance Project (IDP). This program, the fifth in the series, was a step or two above many other such programs, with a smashing introduction to one company (mignolo dance), and another fine piece performed by IDP. The pieces by kamrDANCE (making a repeat inQUAD appearance) and Lauren Beirne Dance Works were executed well, but to my eye were less successful, if only because I’ve seen many prior efforts addressing the common dominant theme.
I’ll discuss the program in the above-referenced order.
Many choreographers claim to have invented a new dance language. Most often, that phrase relates to a step or combination, or use of a particular part of the body, in ways that have, allegedly, not previously been seen or emphasized. Marco Goecke’s choreography is a well-known example. Another, related example is more literal: movement sequences that uniquely reference the moment’s musical or thematic pulse or subject, not so much miming it as describing it, so when the action repeats, the movement repeats. While it may involve some aspect of the former, mignolo dance’s choreographers, sisters Charly and Eriel Santagado, focus on the latter. The result is intriguing, not so much by what the result says as how it says it.
The company was represented by two pieces: Translation Study No. 3, subtitled “A movement translation of Chopin’s ‘Nocturne’,” and, earlier in the program, by Paradox in Translation. The latter, according to the program note based on previous Translation Studies No. 4 and 5, was a more complete dance, but Translation Study No. 3 is a more crystalline indication of what’s being accomplished.
It’s easier to explain what this movement is not. It’s not dance / ballet mime; it’s not a substitute for speech used to describe a situation or condition. It’s not acting in a particular way: there’s little discernable story, and there’s no emotional display. And it doesn’t use the music (or, in the case of Paradox in Translation, the accompanying poetry) as background or inspiration on which to choreograph movement, whether in connection with some narrative or not. What the Santagado sisters appear to be attempting to do is to choreograph the music or the poetry itself, but in a different artistic medium. It doesn’t so much allow one to see the music or the words in a different way as it enables a viewer to see the music or poetry in visual terms, without mimicking it. That may be a distinction without a difference, but they’re not choreographing to the music or the poetry, they’re choreographing the music or the poetry itself.
As fine as Isadora Duncan’s choreography to Chopin is, it takes the music in a natural direction that she chose. And as wonderful as Jerome Robbins’s pieces to Chopin music are (Dances at a Gathering, Other Dances, In the Night), they add a narrative of sorts or emotional gloss inspired by the music. In Translation Study No. 3, Eriel Santagado dances to music by Chopin (not specifically identified), reflecting every movement nuance in the composition (if there’s more than a single piece, it’s been stitched together seamlessly). The result is as beautifully crafted as the music. Every movement fits every sound, every timbre, and every tempo.
And while I often criticize choreography that slavishly follows the musical accompaniment (every sound has to be matched by a movement), this is different; this is the sound itself visualized. The music, and the movement that represents it, is all there is; but it’s enough. Watching Translation No. 3, and Santagado execute it, is magical.
Paradox in Translation is choreographed by Charly Santagado to poetry by her and Matthew Menchaca, and includes music by a variety of composers, including Steve Reich and the Books. But it’s the poetry (unfortunately, not identified, and the words were not included in the program) that moves the dance. As I watched the piece evolve (the dancers were Emory Campbell, Frances Fuller, Karolina Holmstrom, and Charly and Eriel Santagado), I became increasingly fascinated by what was happening. This isn’t just the repetition of themes, but of the words and phrases in the poem (it may have been more than one poem), and these visualizations were repeated whenever the poem repeated the words. In simplistic terms, the movement assigned to each refrain is the same – but here it’s more than just a series of refrains. It sounds repetitious and boring, and there’s no question that it’s been done to one extent or another before, but here it was all strung together so well, within an overall sense of love and loss, that the sensation was less repetition than quality craftsmanship. The phrases translated into movement create a whole that’s more engrossing to watch than the poems are to hear.
The Santagado dancers have reportedly been choreographing for roughly ten years, but mignolo dance was formed only in two years ago (possibly to accommodate their choreographic concept to produce a multi-dancer piece like Paradox in Translation. Based solely on this initial exposure to the group, the only thing about it that disappoints is the affectation of using the small initial letters in the company’s name, which to me only draws attention to what appears to be an attempt to minimize attention. But I’ll grant that doing so may have a purpose here: mignolo means small finger or pinky, so having small letters instead of initial caps fits. I don’t know the origin of the group’s name beyond that (thumbing their pinky at established forms of dance?; mocking the “raised pinky effect” in ballet?), but if they can expand this to more than a curiosity, they may be on to something.
Klein’s latest piece, groupthink, closed the program. It includes Klein’s characteristic indescribable combination of movement (angular, quirky, floor work, all assembled in such a way that it’s more a descriptive style than an imposition of an idiosyncratic movement quality alone), except here Klein appears to include a measure of lyricism that enhances the overall quality.
Choreographed (and conceptualized) by Klein and the dancers, the piece relies upon music, not specifically identified, curated by Klein from an eclectic variety of contemporary and mostly obscure (at least to me) sources. Obviously, here the sound of a particular portion of a composition is more important than the composition as a whole: the dance is about the concept. And that concept is not difficult to discern, even without the descriptive subheading: “When conflict, decision making, conformity, and group dynamics affect individual creativity and independent thinking.” Those components are all there.
Structurally, there’s a definitive opening and closing, and in between are episodes reflective of aspects of the situations described. Initially, individual dancers appear, soon becoming enmeshed in a whole. The way that Klein structures this opening is a wonderful introduction, encapsulating the lures and the hazards of attaching oneself (or becoming attached) to a group of others. Like most of Klein’s pieces, this is urban choreography, but the references are non-specific: representing people at a subway station; on a street corner; in a building lobby; in a bar – or just people walking down a street assembled in one’s mind to escape the sense of being isolated or alone.
The intermediate segments represent a variety of aspects of “groupthink,” sometimes by the group as a whole enticing a lone observer, but mostly among two or three dancer groups – but there’s considerable overlap, as Klein and her dancers don’t allow a particular sequence to conclude in isolation. Visions representing the urge to conform, and the reluctance to conform, dominate. And although subgroups exemplify various efforts to conform, an individual’s reactions to situations is also a focus. For example, one dancer may have a cautious or bemused affect before she succumbs to behavior that another dancer may advocate – I particularly remember Maria Gardner’s face before she allows herself to be hoisted and manipulated (physically, but the implication is emotionally) by another dancer or two (e.g., Amy Campbell, and Dominique Dobransky). And at times this individual in a group (of two or more), with the focus on limited expression as well as movement, was remindful of wide-eyed anime.
All in all, this was a very accessible dance. In addition to those mentioned, Sara Erickson, Margaret Jones, Shannon McGee, and Jillian Pajer completed the cast.
In addition to IDP, I’ve seen both kamrDance and Lauren Bierne Dance Works before in various emerging choreographer programs. At this performance, kamrDance was represented by three pieces: Everything is taken care of, which opened the evening, Are you or do you?, and hard to swallow.
Created four years ago, the company bills itself as a fusion of dance and tap, with a measure of humor occasionally added. All three qualities were represented in the most engaging piece of the evening, Are you or do you? Here, Alexis Robbins, the company’s Artistic Director and Choreographer, and Luiza Karnas successfully convert a brief skit into something more than that. It begins with the pair percussively tapping their hands on a covered box, creating the appearance of a miniature stage with the pairs of hands illuminated. It’s remindful of puppets or marionettes, with the detached dancers’ hands rather than puppets being loosely camouflaged extensions of the dancers’ hidden bodies. The tapping hands match each other or gently compete with each other.
After a brief period, each pair of hands sequentially retrieves a pair of shoes, and the process continues, with one pair of shoes (within which the dancers’ hands have been inserted) matching or good-naturedly competing against the other. One pair appears akin to a tap shoe, the other more embellished. This is an introduction to the main part of the dance, in which Robbins and Karnas emerge from behind the mini-stage, and tap on boards previously placed on the stage floor, and wearing the shoes that had previously appeared disembodied, essentially extending the initial capsule competition into a complete dance, with Karnas being the “real” tap dancer (in the “real” tap shoes), and Robbins, wearing the fancier shoe, the one who the audience recognizes as not being quite sure which category of dancer she fits into. All of this is displayed within an aural framework that consists of the repetitions of the title: Are you or do you? – as in, are you a tap dancer, or do you tap? The difference is obvious, but this isn’t in any way pejorative. On the contrary, it’s cute and funny and sincere, and displays both dancers’ genuine tap-abilities – and of course the concept is not limited to tap.
In addition to being is a highly capable tap and contemporary dancer, Robbins’s dancing is also highly expressive, with motion that explodes with powerful, almost furious punctuations. All this is evident in Everything is taken care of, which is choreographed to a poem, “The Funeral Director,” written by her sister, Sarah Robbins, who also reads or screams the lyrics. The thrust of the poem, and the dance, is that the subject’s funeral has been taken care of by someone else. By extension, it’s also a commentary on aspects of a woman’s life being “taken care of” by a man. The distinction is a little blurry, particularly when Alexis Robbins ascends to a platform above and to the left of the stage, as if she’s died and gone to heaven, but is still expressing her frustration, through movement, that her funeral, and her life, and presumably her death, have been “taken care of,” without her having any input, and consequently not having been taken care of at all. It’s an angry dance, but the dance component, as delivered, makes it somewhat unusual.
Even angrier is hard to swallow. Another piece choreographed to a poem by Sarah Robbins, who also provided the music and appears in the dance (in a non-dancing role) together with her sister and Karnas. I admit to not getting this dance at all, beyond Sarah Robbins’s virulent lyrics (which I often couldn’t decipher) that sounded like continuous lamentations about rejection in various forms and for various reasons, and delivered, via Sarah’s singing, at pitch levels and ranging from emotionally emphasized to what sounded like wails of anger. The dancing was far less significant than the sounds that accompanied it, as Sarah Robbins frequently follows the dancers (or perhaps leads them), or stands as they dance or tap to her vocals. In a sense, Sarah Robbins’s function here, aside from the force that moves the dance, is as a solitary Greek chorus (akin, I thought as I watched, to a single Trojan Woman, but instead of wailing about loss caused by war, subjugation, and sexual domination, as in the play by Euripides, the wails here are, to the extent I understood the words, about rejection and loss in various forms related to being objectified and judged inadequate.
However meritorious that position is, as delivered here it left me unmoved, and unimpressed – admittedly because the thought of a “Trojan Woman” brought back memories of a far more compelling demonstration of power within powerlessness: the production of The Trojan Women by La MaMa Experimental Theater that I saw in or about 1974, with lyrics by Elizabeth Swados, directed by Andrei Serban (and which included a teenaged – or maybe preteen – actress named Diane Lane), that I remember vividly to this day. They’re apples and oranges, but the message isn’t the problem with hard to swallow, nor is the need that attention to it be paid: it’s the communication of the message.
I felt similarly about the principles: part 6, performed by members of Lauren Beirns Dance Works. The dance seemed a reincarnation of a piece I saw over two years ago. I checked – and it was the same dance, sort of.
As I wrote then, the sight of women parading in underwear gets one’s attention quickly, but here it’s not intended to be, and isn’t in the least, prurient. Rather, it’s intended to focus on the dilemma of body image, of attempting to conform to societal expectations, and the cruelty of so much hinging on a woman’s appearance. And the cast, reflecting both the universality and individuality of body types, was nearly the same as the one I saw previously: veterans Kristina Bermudez, Bonnie Bushnell, Ashley Chavonne, and Cecly Placenti, joined by Georgina Bate and Kristi Cole.
But to the best of my recollection, some of the material in the principles: part 6 has now been changed, and although there’s still quite a bit of frenetic movement, it didn’t seem to hang together as well, or make the same points as clearly, as it did previously. And the musical accompanied seemed to be modified – at the very least, I heard no male voice advising how best to appear for an interview – although the words and delivery by this point may have become so familiar that it failed to register. Or maybe, having seen the same issue expressed so many times in so many different ways, I’ve grown somewhat immune to the message. Stridency is commendable, but it can also be hard to swallow.
The pieces presented by kamrDance and Lauren Beirne Dance Works reflect a dilemma faced by many choreographers, whether emerging or established: whether to continue to focus on a recurrent theme or process that is particularly meaningful to them, or to broaden their thematic or stylistic scope. There’s no simple answer, but moving in the latter direction may open the door to renewed and invigorated revisits to the themes these choreographers find most compelling.
Overall, inQUAD 5 was a laudable program. I look forward to its next incarnation – and to again not having to take special notice of the fact that the program consisted entirely of choreography by women, executed by women. Times are changing, and this isn’t unusual anymore.