Lydia Johnson Dance
New York Live Arts
New York, New York
September 15, 2022
Glide (premiere), For Eli (premiere), Time … and again (premiere), Undercurrent
Founded in 1999, Lydia Johnson Dance (LJD) has garnered a plethora of positive notices during the course of its performance history. Somehow I’d missed this little company until Thursday night, which, based on this program, was my loss. The company has a nucleus of very fine dancers, and Johnson’s choreography is not only commendable, but noteworthy.
That being said, the four dances on this program, marking its 2022 New York season and its first since the pandemic, display something more than can be described by such platitudes. Each of the dances (three premieres, including one that featured former New York City Ballet Soloist Craig Hall, and a knockout closing piece) is enviably polished and executed – an expectation with any dance performed in New York that isn’t always fulfilled.
As dance continues to evolve, some choreographers attempt to focus the audience’s attention on the complexity and the apparent difficulty of the movement they’ve created. Others rely on speed – or the intentional absence of it; still others on the contemporary message they try to convey, or on the novelty of unusual effects. And still more insist on creating their own dance /ballet language that they can understand but that might be a chore for an audience to comprehend.
Johnson, the company’s Artistic Director, goes in the other direction. Her dances are models of unemotional simplicity. That’s not to say that the dances she creates are not complex or emotionless. Rather, it’s that those qualities are not emphasized. Her choreographic palette looks limited, but that’s because it’s her choice to not draw attention to it. Instead, the audience is empowered to focus on what she’s trying to communicate, on the predominantly ballet-like movement that packages it, and on the dancers who deliver it. There’s no overt display of emotion because histrionics are as unnecessary as they are unwelcome. Simplicity is a virtue, and Johnson’s choreography enables a viewer to see the forest and the trees.
Each of the dances on this program reflects these qualities, as well as a pervasive musicality that follows the accompanying score but isn’t bound by it.
By far the most noteworthy of the three program premieres is For Eli, perhaps because there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about it beyond its concise, exquisite nobility.
The program description (that the piece was commissioned by Laura Lou Levy in honor of her son, Eli Levy Utterback) tells everything the viewer needs to know about For Eli, but that alone – that it’s about the death of a child – says nothing about the dance. [I confirmed via web search (it’s not mentioned in the program) that he died in 2011 of an unspecified accident at age 22, while a senior at Tulane University, where he studied neuro-pharmacology, was a skilled musician, and composed electronic music.]
The subject of the death of a child, young or not so young, is hardly unusual – Sir Antony Tudor’s Dark Elegies, about the death of a child, and Jerome Robbins’s In Memory Of…, which relates to the death of 18 year old Manon Gropius (as well as, to many, George Balanchine) come immediately to mind, and there are a plethora of others that deal with the subject. But For Eli is not like these others. The Tudor ballet might be closest to it, but where Tudor’s masterpiece elaborates on the emotional / psychological consequences of the death, Johnson’s piece eliminates overt emotional response to a child’s (or anyone’s) death without disregarding it, and distills the movement to its essence. So simplified, Johnson converts a worthy but tired subject into a thing of simple truth and transcendent beauty.
The only props in For Eli are folding chairs, one set upstage audience left and four audience right. When the piece begins, Katie Martin-Lohiya, Chazz Fenner-McBride, and Willy Laury are standing in front of the chair on the left, and four of the other dancers in the piece (Laura Di Orio, Minseon Kim, Michelle Lauren Siegel, and Michael Miles) are seated in the chairs on the right. I suspect that the dance’s unnamed characters represent real people – those on the left being members of the young man’s nuclear family (a mother figure, the visualized memory of the son, and another figure who may be the father who predeceased him and whose death may have continually haunted the son); the others being surrogates for relatives, neighbors and friends. But that doesn’t matter; the subject is a universal one, and, indeed, the characters may have a fluid identity (e.g., at one moment the “son” might be the brother of the one who died). Regardless, there’s certainly a pervasive sense of pathos, but it’s more implicit than explicit; borne by the movement that communicates the tragedy, the loneliness, and the community of loss with no extraneous steps. Instead, the sadness is conveyed as if it were a blanket of sorrow.
The evidence of mourning is minimal, but distinctive and more than sufficient. The music (five Chopin piano pieces) goes from the enveloping emptiness of loss (Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor) to muted acceptance (12 Etudes, Op. 25: No. 1 in A Flat Major), punctuated midway through by turmoil (12 Etudes, Op. 10: No.1 in C Major). As is the case in each of the program’s dances, Johnson’s choreography echoes the emotional tenor of Chopin’s music without in the least bit being confined by it. While seated, dancers act in stunned disbelief; one dancer will hold another’s hand, both looking melancholy; another will straddle, helpless, across a chair. These are brief moments, but they’re indelible because they do nothing more, or less, than they’re supposed to do as the choreography moves cyclically from stunned disbelief to the grief and anger of an unexpected death to ultimate, muted, resolution and acceptance.
Despite the emotional and choreographic clarity evident throughout the dance, what most moved me was the section (each of which flows seamlessly for one to another) that relates the anger of the unexpected and untimely death that inevitably, and invariably, boils over. Included in the middle section of the piece is a struggle of sorts between the two men who initially are seen in the “nuclear family” section. To me, it was a wrestling match of sorts between the son and the deceased father whose death precipitated a crisis and the son’s subsequent academic direction, although it could also have been between the son and his surviving brother. But as I watched, I saw not only the son wrestling with the memory of his father, but also the son, like Jacob, wrestling with God.
Fenner-McBride, a company Principal and seven-year veteran, and Laury, a relatively new company member with a wealth of performing experience, do superb work here as the two men who are initially audience left. As the “mother” character (who might also be extracted universally as a wife or companion) Martin-Lohiya, who has been with LJD for nine years and is a company Principal, would be the dance’s center of attention even if the choreography didn’t mandate it. Her natural and balletic grace melds empathetically into Johnson’s choreography.
Notwithstanding its minimalism, or perhaps because of it, For Eli is shattering, and one of the finest new dances I’ve seen since the pandemic ended. It’s also genuine; a memorial that lives.
The other two premieres were equally well-crafted and executed, but didn’t share the patina of significance that was evident in For Eli.
The evening opened with Glide Path, choreographed to music performed by ETHEL, a New York-based multi-genre string quartet known for its innovative melding of styles, its frequent collaboration with other artists, and the sense of community it attempts to foster, and pianist Vanessa Wagner. A “glide path” has a multitude of meanings. With respect to aircraft, it’s the approach path of a plane while landing; in finance, it’s the varying allocation of assets in a target fund designed to achieve a desired result. More generally it’s usually considered to be a path of action that leads smoothly to a particular or desired outcome. I don’t know if Johnson had any of these definitions in mind when she titled her piece, but “pathways” appears to be a recurring visual thematic reference point in the dance.
Glide Path is an abstract dance in which form follows music. Frequently this would likely produce an uninteresting dance, but in the case of Glide Path, that’s not so because the forms are never exactly the same. The dominant images in my mind are the lines (singular or compound; standing or floor-based) formed when the dancers coalesce as a group; transition points from which dancers peel off, leaving smaller groups to execute more varied combinations and/or more intimate albeit unemotional duets. I particularly noticed here Johnson’s use of arms, either positioned upright and spreading down incrementally, or giving the image of unfolding fans as dancers emerge from the wings. At times this continuous upward flow was remindful of images I recall from choreography by Paul Taylor.
This description may make Glide Path sound relatively static, and it’s true that there are many points at which dancers appear to pose in place. The overall impression, as is the case with the other dances on the program, is lyrical and smooth-flowing. Gliding, if you will.
Similarly lyrical is Time … and again, the programs third premiere. Choreographed to a variety of unspecified music by Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, and George and Ira Gershwin, as performed and interpreted by Canadian-born and multi-award-winning jazz pianist and composer Oscar Peterson, Time … and again is a breath of fresh autumnal air and a pleasure to watch.
Although at one point or another Time … and again highlights each of its eight primary dancers (there are a total of 12), the pas de deux with Hall and company veteran Laura Di Orio are central to the piece. There’s an initial duet midway through the dance, and then another one later (perhaps the “…and again”). Like other members of the company, Di Orio, another LJD Principal, has significant ballet training and experience, and it shows. She proved to be a good choreographic match for Hall; the two of them breezed through their duets with panache, a touch of elegance, and palpable pleasure. And Hall, whose NYCB performances I recall well, has lost none of the engaging quality that made him an audience favorite.
Company newcomer McGee Maddox, who, like Laury, brings with him a wealth of prior performing experience, stood out, particularly in his partnering of Martin-Lohiya. In addition to those previously mentioned, company dancers Catherine Gurr, Emily Sarkissian, Ali Block, and Lindsey L. Miller added essential texture to the piece.
There’s nothing unusual about Time … and again; one can see similar frothy pieces in major contemporary ballet companies. But that also is another noteworthy aspect of Johnson’s choreography. Even though Time … and again may not have the bells and whistles of many such contemporary ballets, Johnson’s uncomplicated choreography holds its own with them. It’s not the tricks or the acrobatics; it’s the creativity that makes this and other Johnson dances as crystalline-looking and entertaining as they are.
Notwithstanding the overall success of the three premieres, they didn’t prepare me for the evening’s concluding piece, Undercurrent, which Johnson choreographed in 2018. Although it has the craftsmanship, musicality, and deceptive simplicity of the others, its theatricality is off the charts.
Undercurrent is choreographed to Polish composer Henryk Górecki’s Three Dances. I’m not familiar with Gorecki’s work, but reportedly Three Dances is emblematic of his later Romantic and highly expressionist style, including what some have described as “sacred [or holy] minimalism,” and at this stage of his career he’s been compared to Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartók. The music is repetitive, seemingly with little variety of tempo or melody; consequently, it would seem to be right up Johnson’s choreographic alley. But Three Dances builds inexorably, with an enveloping mysticism and spirituality that provides a feast for Johnson’s uncomplicated movement palette and seamless stagecraft. To an extent the music brings to mind Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, though it’s far more minimal, as well as parts of Liszt’s Totentanz and Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” (from Peer Gynt). Imagine Ravel’s Bolero if it had been composed by Philip Glass.
Johnson takes the Górecki score (she may have modified or reordered it) and grafts onto it an Eastern-European folk dance base (but festive rather than ritualistic), a Middle-Eastern sensibility, and an undercurrent of the spirit of Balanchine’s Walpurgisnacht, while echoing and amplifying the score’s repetitive but increasingly thunderous score.
Initially I didn’t know where Johnson was going with Undercurrent; the visual imagery looked predominantly Greco-Roman/Egyptian. But the dance evolved into a revelry of flaming red and black costumes (conceived by Johnson) gilded with a pas de deux danced by Di Orio and Fenner-McBride and a solo performed by Siegel (who I remember from several programs at Dixon Place on the Lower East Side). And it exploded when it integrated a baker’s dozen students from the Lydia Johnson Dance School in Maplewood, NJ. [From my vantage point I was able to see some of the young dancers in the wings while the piece proceeded. One might have expected them to be transfixed by the action on stage while they awaited their entrance. Not so. Those I saw where chatting nonchalantly as if they were veterans, concerned primarily with the fit of their costumes. Performing in front of a full house in New York? – not a biggie.]
That Undercurrent’s choreography itself was as minimal in variety as the score mattered not at all; the dance is undeniably exciting to watch. And the combination of alternating lines of student and company dancers streaming from the wings horizontally across the stage seemingly at breakneck speed and coming together into one community as the dance concluded prompted a well-deserved standing ovation.
This was a remarkably well-balanced and accomplished program, and Lydia Johnson Dance will now have my attention whenever it returns.