Neville Dance Theatre
Manhattan Movement and Arts Center
New York, New York
March 25, 2023, afternoon
Program: Celebrating Women Composers
Eclipse, Flee Porneia (world premiere), Identities (world premiere), Banter (excerpt), The Pursuit (world premiere), Exposed (excerpt)
I’ve seen many performances over the past few weeks in celebration of Women’s History Month. The program presented last Saturday (I saw the afternoon performance) by Neville Dance Theatre was a little different from others – the fact that the pieces on its program were all choreographed by women (Brenda R. Neville and guest choreographers Lauren Settembrino and Kristen Klein) and all danced by women wasn’t highlighted; this program was specifically promoted as a celebration of women composers, and it filled that void admirably. Of those composers represented (Hildur Guðnadóttir, Helen Jane Long, Molly Joyce, Zoe Keating, Lo Kristenson, Valentina Magaletti, Nkeiru Okoye, Caroline Shaw, and Zamilska), I’d previously heard of only one.
I’ve seen prior NDT programs, and although I may have quibbled a bit about certain dances, overall I’ve been impressed with the choreography created by Neville, the company’s Artistic Director, and by the company dancers’ execution. I’ve found Neville’s choreography to be intelligently uncluttered, and dominated by a sense of classicism that, while not cutting edge or overly complex, is pleasing to the eye.
I’ll address the six program pieces in the order presented.
The program opened with Neville’s Eclipse, which I’d previously seen. On second view, my opinion of it remains the same.
When I last saw it, the piece was accompanied by a program note describing the dance as intending to show the effect of objects eclipsing and obscuring one another. I found this description too limiting. No such description appeared this time; and it’s better for it. Eclipse now stands on its own as a purely abstract piece without being shoehorned into something that, at best, is a tight fit, and consequently a viewer’s approach to the dance isn’t limited. Perhaps for that reason, the piece looks better than I recall from the last time even though the choreography probably didn’t change.
Choreographed to Long’s eponymously-titled composition, Eclipse still features unfussy sequencing initiated, it appears, by dancers briefly standing in a vertical line center stage (the three in the back of the line being “eclipsed” by the one in front) and subsequently breaking off independently and/or into subset patterns afterward. It’s a simple and unpretentious little dance that’s quietly entertaining, and a fine evening opener. The dancers were company members Mackenzie Allen, Cassandra Punzo, Lauren Settembrino, and Amanda Summers (the only one of the four who appeared in the dance when I previously saw it).
Guest choreographer Settembrino followed with a solo, Flee Porneia, to music “Ruin” and “Duel”) by Polish electronic music composer Natalia Zamilska (known professionally by only her last name). Though I’m not usually enamored of electronic music, Zamilska’s music (at least judged by the two pieces presented here) often has a haunting, other-worldly quality, in addition to inherent pulsing drama and sense of rebellion, that enhances Settembrino’s choreography.
According to the extensive program note, “Flee porneia examines the layered process of unlearning traumatic belief systems, explored through the lens of human sexuality. The eight-minute solo progresses through stages of suppression, conflict, and an eventual pleasure in heresy. The question remains whether or not it is possible to fully expel old systems of belief; at the very least, one can proudly defy them.” That kind of dense and self-important program description is an instant turn-off. Fortunately, however, Settembrino’s performance is better than that – and her piece does clearly relate to the description provided. To arrive at that conclusion, however, required knowing the meaning of the dance’s title, which is not provided in the program note.
The dance’s title is a New Testament term that, translated, means, roughly, “flee from sexual immorality.” [Note that the following comments are my own based on limited research, not meant to be absolutely accurate or definitive. So save your emails.] The definition of “sexual immorality” is open to debate, but a consensus appears to be that porneia (from which the English word “pornography” is derived) is the focus of sexual energy and desire on someone other than one’s spouse. [Think, maybe, two of the Ten Commandments, although subject to broader interpretations.] That is, fornication outside marriage – even the lust for it or encouragement of it – is forbidden, as are other indicia of supposed sexual immorality (e.g., any deviation from what’s seen as the sexual norm). The hook for believers is that avoiding porneia is essential to earn access to heaven.
Settembrino’s choreography is filled with movement that radiates anger, anguished frustration, confrontation, and arrogant rebellion (roughly in that order) that eventually displays a sort of counter-offensive of self-acceptance. It could be directed at any constraining force, which is what I thought was happening before I ascertained the title’s meaning. Flee Porneia is a powerful and deeply personal dance that’s impossible to ignore.
Neville’s world premiere dance, choreographed in collaboration with the company’s dancers, followed.
Identities is a very ambitious work. As described in the program note, the dance “invites viewers to witness the dancer’s depictions of their own unique self-perceptions, alongside how observations of others impact, alter, and expand our own identity, and some of the universal desires that cement us together into one connected, human race.”
That’s a lot of ground to cover, and it doesn’t always clearly work. But at the least it’s an admirable effort and a fine example of Neville’s work. To my eye, it’s more than that.
Identities is divided into three distinct parts: “I/ME,” “You/They,” and “Us/We.” The subtitles are projected onto the rear scrim, and each segment is choreographed to music by different women composers.
Part 1 is choreographed to an excerpt of “Courante” from “Partita for 8 Voices,” composed by Caroline Shaw (the only one of the women composers whose work I’d recalled previously hearing), performed by Roomful of Teeth, and an excerpt from “Vridna, vågsång” by Lo Kristenson with the Malva Quartet from the album “Wooden Bodies.” It’s the simplest of the three parts in terms of its visualization of personality traits, but that doesn’t mean it’s simple. Every member of the eight-dancer cast participates in an escalating parade of faces and bodies. It starts slowly, with each dancer introducing herself via her individually choreographed character trait (and I assume that each character trait for each dancer was choreographed with that dancer’s input). Some of the traits are reasonably easy to decipher based on their choreographed component parts; some aren’t. To make it easier, some (or perhaps each) of the dancers shouts out the personality trait that applies to them – although the words aren’t always sufficiently loud or clear.
The development of Part I as a whole in large part is what eventually makes Identities work so well: after the initial period of introductions the pace picks up, the introductions overlap, and after awhile the character traits seem to overlap as well. At one point two of the dancers exhibit the same character trait and dance in tandem. It’s normal for two individuals to share the same character trait, which I suppose is Neville’s intent for displaying it this way. By Part I’s end, the viewer sees, in addition to repeated individual motifs, increasing evidence of overlap and similarity, providing a neat segue to Part II.
The “You/They” part of Identities is choreographed to excerpts of music composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir (“Opaque”), and Molly Joyce (“Shapeshifter”) with Adrianna Mateo and Monica Germino. Here the dancers build on Part I, the groups getting somewhat larger, although most focus on one dancer with others (“they”) forming mini-corps.
The “US/WE” segment, the lengthiest of the three, is choreographed to “Dusk” written by Nkeiru Okoye from album “African Sketches,” played by Maria Thompson Corley; and an excerpt from ‘Exurgency” written and performed by Zoe Keating. Here, expressed in a variety of different ways, society develops, with mutual reliance and group execution, but with a foundation of individuals with individual personal traits.
I can see why some viewers might not take to it – the music selected, generally, is understated, measured, and rigorous, which Neville’s choreography matches. In other words, it is presented and expands slowly and methodically. But to me it’s a curiously wonderful piece that defies labeling (post-modern; post-post-modern; balletic contemporary; …) and could easily have been academic and somewhat sterile, but isn’t. What makes it successful is that it’s not nearly as orthodox a presentation as it pretends to be.
The fact that Identities doesn’t look overly complex even though the subject matter, at least in the abstract, provides infinite possibilities, is part of the reason it succeeds. Seen a different way, part of the reason for its success is that it’s not as simplistic as one might think a catalogue of personality traits might be, because that’s not what Identities is. It’s a dance that uses individual identities as a base from which to create an intelligent dance that works as a dance, not an encyclopedia. In the process, however, it makes observations about human and group character that are specific enough to be identifiable but general enough not to be didactic, and further observes that individual character traits overlap and change and adapt. More importantly, Identities presents its observations in a way that makes it interesting to watch. That’s what makes it a fine dance instead of a visual lecture in psycho-sociology. The company dancers (Kayla Armgardt, Laura Dearman, Tori Hey, Shoshana Mozlin in addition to Allen, Punzo, Settembrino, and Summers) were outstanding.
In a strange way, and although they’re very different dances in almost every conceivable way, Identities brought to mind George Balanchine’s ballet masterpiece The Four Temperaments. Society is created of individuals with different character traits, but together humanity is stronger for it.
Although Neville choreographed Banter in 2014, I’d not previously seen it. Based on the Adagio segment of the dance and on the corresponding music from composer/ cellist Zoe Keating’s “Fern,” I’d like to see the full piece.
What I saw here, even though it was an excerpt (something that I usually don’t explore in any depth), was compelling – and the corresponding score is interesting the way a Philip Glass composition can be. Indeed, the initial moments of the dance bear a vague similarity to the opening moments of Jerome Robbins’s Glass Pieces, though on a much smaller scale. More importantly, it displays the terse, pithy quality of a lot of Neville’s work – and that’s not at all a criticism. There’s little in the way of extraneous movement in anything she’s created (that I’ve seen), and as a result the execution, mandated by the choreography, comes across clean as a whistle.
The segment features six dancers (Armgardt, Dearman, Hey, Mauricio Vera Nunez, Punzo, and Charles E. Scheland), and it begins with individual dancers emerging from opposite wings and crisscrossing horizontally upstage. This patterning repeats, but is augmented by an occasional intersection of a pair of dancers, who continue dancing individually in repetitive movement in accord with the repetitive score.
As the score moves from the initial basic repetitive quality, it expands – still repetitive, but it adds variations on the repetitive theme, so that even though the basic rhythm and melody remain the same, it sounds different. So it is with Neville’s choreography. The number of dancers on stage at any given time increases, and concurrently Neville’s movement quality amplifies and expands, adding reverse-mirror imaging, dancing in tandem, and sequencing in an exquisite variety of small but effective ways, all while maintaining the sharpness that marked the segment at its outset.
I don’t know whether the balance of Banter that I didn’t see maintains the same qualities, but I suspect it does, since it too is choreographed to repetitive, minimalist music. To some, the above description might make the piece sound somewhat ascetic, as many such dances are. But this one – again based on this excerpt alone – doesn’t; there’s a built-in sense of distance and the absence of any emotional quality that at times can seem antiseptic, but the dance is compelling nevertheless. I look forward to seeing the entire piece at some point in the future.
The evening’s penultimate dance, another world premiere, was created by guest choreographer Kristen Klein, whose performances by her own company, Inclined Dance Project, I’ve reviewed on many occasions. Her contribution to this program, titled The Pursuit, was performed by NDT dancers Allen, Mozlin, Settembrino, and Summers. It’s choreographed to “Rumours of Bread” and “Body in a Room,” by Valentina Magaletti, a multi-genre drummer, percussionist, improviser and composer based in London.
The piece is described as “an exploration of mankind’s intuitive drive for success, accomplishment, and progress,” and reportedly draws inspiration from each dancer’s personal aspirations, in the process creating an abstract narrative of how we chase our dreams and goals. I don’t know if I’d concur with such a lofty description, but The Pursuit, as I saw it, is a fine dance and, although very much typical of Klein’s work that I’ve previously seen, is more audience accessible than others. It also fits neatly within the parameters of the evening’s programming and Neville’s choreography.
What I found most intriguing about it is how quickly Klein establishes the collection of images that propel The Pursuit forward. One knows almost immediately what it’s about even without having read the program. That’s not to say that the dance is obvious – Klein’s imagery here, though clear, is expressed in her typical mostly angular movement quality that fits well with Magaletti’s driving percussion in the initial part of the score, but then is tempered with a lyrical sense that I haven’t frequently seen in Klein’s work that results in a less rigid appearance as the drama settles into the second, and more tempered, of the Magaletti pieces.
Dancers are first seen in shadow upstage running from one end to the other, occasionally stopping and stretching out toward, or to reach … something. Thirty seconds or so later, the overhead lights illuminate, a beam of light is projected from the stage right wing appearing like a platform diagonally up to stage left, on which two of the dancers, separately, move back and forth as if seeking some reward. After a period of silence, other dancers join and dance in tandem seemingly attempting to access the light’s source, but concurrently being repelled by the thought. Gradually the ensemble separates out as one pushes more emphatically and others apparently prevent her from moving forward, and then other group members attempt a similar assault, only to be blocked en route. At another point one dancers tries to push a colleague, which after repeated attempts, the colleague successfully resists. It’s a jungle out there.
The Pursuit is a short piece, which ends somewhat abruptly with all four dancers, after gathering their collective energies, finally penetrating beyond the light source in the wings. [That’s the only scene that doesn’t ring true, so I suspect my observation as to what was accomplished isn’t accurate.] It works as well as it does because of its clear focus, its brevity, and its execution.
The evening concluded with what was billed as an excerpt from Exposed, a piece that Neville choreographed in 2016.
As I watched the dance evolve, I recalled that I’d seen something like it before, without realizing that what I’d seen before was this same piece. The reason I didn’t recognize it immediately, aside from increasing age and concurrent diminishing memory, is that I was lukewarm to the piece after seeing it in its entirety before, but liked it quite a bit here. Although the dancers (all eight of the company’s women) were mostly a different group from those I’d seen previously, that wasn’t the reason for the different impact.
After rereading my prior review, I realized what the difference was. There was a program note that accompanied the premiere presentation that described the piece as a clarion call to action to end the social media invasion of our online privacy, and to eliminate various negative effects of harassing photographs therein, and this statement of intention appeared unsupported by what I saw. The excerpted presentation at this program impacted in a completely different way: without seeing the applicable note or recognizing it as what I’d previously seen, I saw the piece as what it is – a display of our passion for photographing and being photographed, as well as a clever abstract presentation of various photographed “events” that included multiple levels of light and shadow, which made the presentation as a whole both interesting and intriguing, and entertaining to watch.
Later, when I noticed the note that accompanied this presentation, I found that it included a different description of the piece, emphasizing that the dance “creates a sense of magic, intrigue, beauty, and energy … [and] references our duality of wanting both attention and privacy in an online world.” That’s a fair description, and a lot closer to what I saw.
Perhaps Exposed was excerpted here as it was in order to avoid including the parts in the full piece that had been choreographed to musical contributions by male composers that had comprised part of the original curated score. Whatever the reason, this excerpt was, to me, a superb way to end the program.
Overall, this program proved a valuable addition to the choreographic contributions in celebration of Women’s History Month, and, equally important, included well-conceived and performed dances that were enthusiastically received by the full-house audience. It’ll be interesting to see what Neville Dance Company and guest choreographers create next.