Peter Norton Symphony Space
New York, New York
April 29, 2022
Encounters, In C, Humanism
Some dance programs, especially those presented by small, “emerging” companies (even if they’d been emerging for a substantial period of time), are surprisingly good. Some aren’t. It happens. But every once in awhile you come across a program by an emerging company which is not only good, but which demonstrates convincingly that that small company has already graduated to “Big-Time” status.
This is the case with MorDance, a New York-based, female-run, and ballet-oriented company founded by dancer and choreographer Morgan McEwen in 2013. Its New York season, scheduled for two nights last week at Symphony Space on the Upper West Side, was, to put it mildly, a knockout.
I first saw McEwen when she danced several years ago with Tom Gold Dance, and I filed a mental note to keep her and her relatively new company (at least to me) in mind. A couple of years later, I learned that MorDance would be presenting McEwen’s version of Romeo and Juliet: R+J Reimagined. I went, and found it to be unexpectedly well done and original, even on its small scale.
Now, two years later, MorDance has returned for its first post-pandemic New York season with a suite of dances originally intended to be presented in 2020. The only thing disappointing about it was that it took two years longer than anticipated to be seen.
The program’s first piece, Encounters, is remarkably good on multiple levels.
I’ve written about Polina Nazaykinskaya, the Russian-born composer and musician who graduated from the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow and received her Masters Degree from Yale School of Music. Now based in the U.S., she has composed several pieces for ballet. One of them, Nostalghia, premiered on a program by Rioult Dance NY roughly five years ago, and I found her composition for that dance not only to be a fine piece of music, but also to be contemporary without being tethered to any current stylistic orthodoxy. [Nazaykinskaya conducted the ensemble at that premiere.] Less than two months ago, I crossed paths with her music again. Her composition, If I Had One More Day, was similarly heartfelt and enhanced that particular dance.
Now, with “Encounters,” Nazaykinskaya has composed another beautifully crafted score, which McEwen has crafted into an equally beautiful dance. At this performance, Konstantin Soukhovetski, one of Nazaykinskaya’s frequent music associates, played the piano with exceptional panache, including when he was joined by the dancers. Literally, as I’ll explain below.
By itself, however, the music is only one component of what makes Encounters as good as it is.
Many choreographers create ballets, particularly piano ballets, in which the dancers interact with and / or personify the instrument. But these interactions are emotional; if there’s a physical connection, it’s only to the extent one or more dancers may approach, or surround, or in one case I vaguely recall, momentarily sit on the bench next to, the pianist. McEwen here takes the interaction several steps further.
I suspect that McEwen’s intention in Encounters may also have been simply to demonstrate, more physically than usual, how music inspires dancers. If that’s what she wanted to show, she succeeded in creating a lovely little ballet that does exactly that. But to me, as fine as that alone would have been, there’s more here than that. In Encounters, the music and the dancers are physically, and inextricably, connected.
As the music begins, the eight dancers gather around Soukhovetski as he plays. Immediately, and as a group, they are visualized breathing – physically as well as metaphorically inhaling and exhaling – in tandem with the music, and with each other: the music is oxygen being pumped into the dancers’ collective lungs. It’s a beautiful image that McEwen promptly repeats to provide two deep inhales. Then, so enlivened, the dancers separate. But as they do, a couple of them pull Soukhovetski’s right arm away from the piano and toward them (while he continues to play with his left hand), then release it. As I recall, the image is repeated later – with the pianist’s left hand. And at various other points, dancers actually play the piano. To further add emphasis, at one point the dancers pull Soukhovetski away from the piano, he briefly becomes a part of the dance, and while he’s moving, a dancer sits at the piano herself and plays. The dancer-playing isn’t much – at most a couple of fingers pushing a couple of keys – but the point is made. All this visualizes not just the music inspiring the dancers, but the dancers inspiring the music.
As unusual as this seems, it’s not an unusual concept. Choreographers, dancers, and musicians collaborate all the time, and the collaboration often doesn’t end until all aspects of the dance are completed. What makes Encounters unusual is that McEwen emphasizes it, and visualizes it as she does.
Encounters wouldn’t be as successful as it is unless McEwen’s choreography was itself memorable beyond the physical interactions with the pianist or his piano. It is. The choreography is in constant motion, the action on stage is varied and staged interestingly (at times all four pairs, at times one, two or three), the ballet vocabulary is reasonably and sufficiently extensive (including lovely soaring lifts peppered throughout the piece, as well as unusual partnering “holds” – some, though, that look a bit awkward), the costumes (uncredited, as is the case with the other dances on the program) are unusual and add texture to the piece, the dancers are capable and engaging, and it’s highly enjoyable to watch.
As the dance and the composition end, the dancers return to the piano, and appear to collectively exhale. It’s a magical little dance.
Halfway through Encounters, I sat back and grinned through the remainder of the piece. When it ended, I was sure McEwen couldn’t offer anything else in that program to equal it.
I was wrong.
In C is choreographed to an eponymous composition by American composer and musician Terry Riley, who is well-known for his pioneering minimalism. Created in 1964 (and made into an LP in 1968), his “In C” is an early and influential example of minimalist technique. In gross summary, the technique is based on improvising through a series of modal figures of different lengths. That is, “In C” consists of 53 separate modules, or fragments, of roughly one measure apiece, each containing a different musical pattern but each, as the title implies, in the key of C. One performer beats a steady pulse of Cs on the piano to keep tempo. The others, in any number and on any instrument, perform these musical modules following a few loose guidelines, with the different musical modules interlocking in various ways as time goes on. Its sound is repetitious, like many contemporary compositions that followed it. The first quartet to play the piece included Steve Reich.
McEwen’s dance takes this and expresses its building blocks in her dance. Her In C utilizes backdrops layered throughout the piece to represent the overlapping musical phrases. She then plays with this layering and the music’s constant C note played in repeated eighth notes to personify pulse, ephemerality, and the entropy of life. With a classical allegro vocabulary juxtaposed with pedestrian snapshots, this fast paced and mathematical premiere shines a light on the ensemble’s virtuosic technique.
The two paragraphs above are taken, respectively, from a footnoted article in Wikipedia, and a MorDance press release, neither of which I read before seeing MorDance’s program. I say this to emphasize that knowing the basis for McEwen’s In C is not essential to understanding or appreciating it. Without knowing this information, I nevertheless found In C to be another original and complex-looking dance, and one far different from Encounters.
The first thing one notices when the curtain rises on In C is a group of tan-colored minimally textured panels that span the stage, hanging vertically without quite reaching the stage floor, but staggered horizontally such that they hang downstage on the ends and gradually taper toward mid-stage. Under “normal” lighting, they look like huge unfurled beach towels, or monochromatic magic carpets. The panels themselves rise and fall during the course of the dance, adjusting to a variety of stage positions and lengths, including down to the stage floor. These panels are the piece’s “set.” And as the dance progresses, the audience becomes aware that the panels are translucent.
At various moments, dancers, most often as couples, will appear in front of the panels, in the spaces between the panels, in shadow from behind the panels, and at times partly in one space and another concurrently – much of the time with all eight dancers appearing at different places (vis a vis the panels) at the same time. There are frequent poses, but more often than not such “poses” animate. Indeed, most of the time the dancers are in motion, either individually (as couples) or in groups. McEwen’s use of light and shadow and depth is entertaining enough by itself, but the choreography as a whole reflects and illuminates the music. That In C is also entertaining to watch evolve is an extra gift.
This sort of thing has been done before, either with various on-stage constructions, or by colors of light projected against a rear curtain that change in horizontal width as the dance progresses. But I don’t recall seeing anything done this way, with the dancers seemingly becoming enmeshed within the set. There is no credit for the set, but lighting was designed by Becky Heisler (who designed the lighting for each of the dances on the program), and perhaps the simple but striking set here (including anticipating the way it would be used) was a collaborative effort between McEwen and Heisler. Regardless, In C is ceaselessly interesting, and its eight dancers executed flawlessly.
After In C concluded, I didn’t make the same mistake I made before, but I didn’t expect much. Based on the program’s brief note, I anticipated that Humanism would be a “social consciousness” dance that, like so many others I’ve seen, stridently and loudly hammers its point home as it preaches to the choir.
Once again, I was wrong.
Humanism is indeed a social consciousness dance, but it needs no hammer to make its point. Although it’s not subtle (its targets are made crystal clear by the use of spoken-word excerpts from five well-known speakers and social activists each addressing and highlighting a particular issue, from women’s rights to the environment to racism to sexual prejudice to rampant starvation), it comes across that way – to its credit.
What dancing there is (to unidentified music by J.S. Bach, as well as during the spoken-word excerpts) is continuous, but it’s done sotto voce, and, as if to remove any sense of pretention, it was the only piece on the program in which the women didn’t wear pointe shoes. The stage lighting is relatively dim, and the choreography, as much as I could tell, was intentionally understated so as not to detract from the words being spoken – sometimes just showing a mass of couples dancing with each other and moving slowly, apparently indifferent to, and unaffected by, the words spoken. There’s more to Humanism‘s choreography than that – there are occasional duets that highlight … something, but nothing that to me seemed directly related to the words spoken. Consequently, a viewer could focus both on the many human problems that need to be addressed, as well as the shameful length of time it’s taken humans to address them. [Although the spoken words are not identified as to time and place, it’s clear that significant time has passed since the words were spoken.] With its understated approach, Humanism ended up accomplishing more than preaching to the choir ever could. It was another brilliant, and unexpected, idea.
I haven’t mentioned MorDance’s dancers yet, because with one or two exceptions, all of them participated in all the dances. They’re a highly competent and proficient group, and they made McEwen’s dances sparkle. The company dancers are: Amy Saunder, Jace Coronado, Emily Cardea, Claire van Bever, Lauren Tweat, David Hochberg, Brian Gephart, Tevin Johnson, Christian Paris Blue, Ayaka Kamei, and Ethan Huffman.
This program was MorDance’s seventh New York season. After a program like this, I regret not seeing so many of the earlier ones, but I look forward to its eighth New York season and beyond, and to what McEwen can come up with next, knowing full well that she can’t qualitatively equal or exceed what she did here – and also knowing full well that she will.