Periapsis Music & Dance
Mark Morris Dance Center
James and Martha Duffy Performance Space
Brooklyn, New York
May 21-22, 2022 (viewed by online video, August 4, 2022)
Dissimilate, The Subject, What Kind of Land, SPLIT, Unbeknownst
Periapsis Music and Dance, led by Co-Founder, Artistic and Executive Director, and Resident Composer Jonathan Howard Katz, has been around since 2012, but my first opportunity to see this company’s work came as a result of not being able to see this company’s work. That is, due to an overcrowded schedule, I could not see the Periapsis 10th Anniversary program when it was presented live (on May 21 and 22, 2022), but I was given an opportunity to see it online, which I finally was able to do on August 4.
Titled “Unbeknownst,” the program is a mixed bag in terms of entertainment value, as these programs often are, but it provides insight into the state of contemporary music and choreographic collaboration on a highly intellectual level.
The word “periapsis” means the point in the path of an orbiting body at which it is nearest to the body that it orbits; the apsis nearest the center of attraction. The word is an apt name for this company, which was created, according to its mission statement, to cultivate new concert repertoire at the intersection of dance and music by actively contributing to it with its ensemble and by facilitating and encouraging such collaborations in the community.
To me, this is nothing new. The dancescape is filled with contemporary companies that purport to bring musicians, choreographers and dancers together to create new work. What makes Periapsis different, however, is its distinguished music and dance pedigree as reflected in the composition of its Board of Directors and the array of recognized choreographers who have collaborated with it; and, at least based on what I saw here, the primacy of the musical component of each dance even though the choreographic / visual component is what most impacts the audience.
This program’s five dances, each premieres, have two general qualities in common, aside from each containing only a minimal number (two or four) of dancers: substantively, an effort by the characters in each dance to learn things about one another that they previously didn’t know; and choreographically, an absence of overt emotional expression – the audience can see what’s happening or what’s being displayed, but emotionally it’s intimacy (or the lack of it) seen from a distance – watching what the dancers do, but not becoming emotionally involved themselves. There’s nothing right or wrong about either of these qualities, but (with one possible exception) they become dances to observe and appreciate rather than to become involved in. Also, based on my cursory review of Periapsis’s web site, these dances may not be representative of any “typical” Periapsis program in that there was no direct physical interaction in any of them between the dancers and musicians who may have performed on stage. Whether this is significant is not something on which I’m ab le to opine, but this apparent absence did not impact the quality of the dances presented.
The program opened with Dissimilate, choreographed by Resident Choreographer / Dancer Rohan Bhargava (in collaboration with the dancers), to a score created by Annie Nikunen (a member of the company’s artistic staff) and played by Jeffrey Zeigler on cello. According to the program note, Dissimilate, not surprisingly given its title, “contrasts individual identity against societal conformity in search for love, community, and acceptance.” The piece, featuring four dancers (all women, though the dancers’ genders are not pertinent factors in the dance), accomplishes this, albeit in a bare-bones way and with a decidedly non-assimilation emphasis.
Dissimilate begins with the dancers (Sydney Chow, Elisabeth Jeffrey, Paulina Meneses, and Evita Zacharioglou) each bent at the waist with their bottoms and the backs of their legs facing the audience – certainly an inelegant-looking opening image. Gradually, with each of the dancers moving in unison and with their legs still planted on the stage floor and turned away from the audience, bottoms up, one sees a head emerging from between each dancer’s legs, and arms twisting back and forth. Shortly thereafter, as the music kicks in, the arms and fingers begin to grasp the legs as if exploring the nature of their individual corporeal existence. This becomes a continuing motif when one dancer becomes acquainted with another.
Eventually, as if gradually being born (or acclimated), the dancers move to their knees, then rise, each in their own separate universe. The score and the limited choreographic variety (apparently intentional), together with a total absence of facial emotion, give the dance a haunting quality, as if all were moving within some unfamiliar and unwelcoming atmosphere.
After standing in a circle and eyeing each other warily, and as the music becomes more melodramatic, one dancer, Meneses, separates from the group and interacts, mostly individually, with each of the other dancers, who at times seem to be open to her, and at times push her away. Eventually, two leave and Meneses is left in a duet with Chow. They approach each other, push away from each other, and eventually warm to each other as Meneses cradles herself over Chow’s body and the pair examine each other’s arms as all examined their legs at the dance’s outset.
This mutual contentment ends quickly. The relationship evolves and, not triggered by anything in particular, a physical struggle ensues that appears to reflect Meneses’s character resisting Chow’s welcoming efforts in an effort to retain her individual identity. Eventually, Chow retreats, leaving Meneses alone.
And then the dance ends.
Although for a brief period Dissimilate shows an interesting take on a fairly common subject, the deliberate pacing eventually becomes tedious. I anticipated that the duet would yield to interactions involving other dancers, but that didn’t happen, leaving the two who did interact as perhaps representative of people seeking the seemingly incompatible goals of being accepted by others while at the same time retaining their individuality.
The Subject, choreographed by Zacharioglou (the company’s other Resident Choreographer / Dancer) and performed by her, Jeffrey, and Nico Gonzales to music created and performed by Katz (with a soundscape by Spencer Robelen), at first appears related to Dissimilate – sort of. Here “the subject” – Zacharioglou – is manipulated into certain physical positions by the others as if she were a doll, apparently in an effort to have the subject’s body conform to one or the other’s preferred physical arrangement.
The similarity between the two dances ends there.
Eventually, after Zacharioglou’s character loses her bodily substance when she’s not being manipulated, and regains it when one of the others (Gonzales) manipulates her by “conducting” her body movements from a distance, as if by invisible strings, the tables turn, and it is the “doll” that seems to be controlling the others.
But although this is what The Subject presents, it’s far more noteworthy as a dance for Katz’s piano composition that itself directs (or reflects) Zachariogiou’s choreography, and even more so by the extraordinary movement images that Zacharioglou has created and for the control and precision-timing required for her to make the dance look as unusual as it does.
The Subject isn’t some contemporary Coppelia; it’s not funny, and any humor is minimal. If anything, the character that Zachariogiou creates and the dance’s impact as a whole is a little closer to the funny/sad Pulcinella of Commedia dell’arte, updated and without any recognizable narrative. Regardless, it’s great fun, and Zachariogiou’s inventiveness and top-flight execution makes it continuously interesting to watch.
Zachariogiou is of Greek-Cypriot descent, with a fascinating personal history and a ballet background that is evident. I have no prior familiarity with her choreography (or her dancing), but The Subject is a neat introduction to both.
Da’ Von Doane, a celebrated dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem who retired from that company in 2020, choreographed the evening’s third piece, What Kind of Land, a duet for two men, performed here by Gonzales and Christopher LaFleche. To music composed in 2021 by Nikunen (titled “what kind of land will we be together in?”) and performed by Melinda Faylor and Katz on piano, the two men execute an unusual relationship dance – not unusual because two men are involved, but because it’s not told in anything resembling narrative form. The relationship is a given either because it’s an essential predicate or it suddenly “happens” after the men briefly connect when the dance begins. That’s not important to the dance. What is important is the dance’s internalization of the emotions that the relationship generates rather than any external manifestation of them. That is, to my eye the emotions are displayed as visualized impressions rather than as the more standard expressive visualization of emotional expressions. If that sounds like an unnecessarily dense description of what appear here to be simple interactions, it’s because Doane has chosen a more difficult approach to sustain (and describe) since whatever is happening seems more like a collection of emotional codes to decipher rather than a display of various overtly expressed and clearly understood emotions.
But Doane and these dancers, together with Nikunen’s marvelous score, succeed because the movement, although not telling a story directly, is varied enough to maintain interest throughout. Much of it is tandem movement – but even so, the variety of movement reflects a variety of emotions, certainly enough to avoid appearing repetitious or overly emotional. Indeed, notwithstanding the display of emotions suggested here by choreographic impression, there is no emotional display at all – the dancers express nothing – and yet no such expression is needed.
What Kind of Land is an impressive work by all involved, accessible regardless of one’s orientation. Indeed, should it matter, I suspect that the same choreography could be used in a heterosexual pairing without any negative impact on the piece.
This duet for two men was followed on the program by a duet for two women: SPLIT, choreographed by PeiJu Chien-Pott, a former Principal Dancer with Martha Graham Company.
To music composed by Katz and played by Zeigler on cello, the choreography that Chien-Pott has created and that the dancers, Memeses and Liz Hepp, have brilliantly executed is somewhat akin to What Kind of Land in that it relates to some relationship between the two dancer entities, but that’s as far as it goes. Where the former is, to me, a series of visualized emotional impressions, SPLIT visualizes emotional expression, though more through its choreography than by any directly communicated drama.
SPLIT’s music is a collection of sounds that, most of the time, seem apropos of nothing except the movement on stage, which is as angular-looking as the music is angular-sounding. It has all the ingredients of dances that drive me crazy because they’re interesting only to their creators, with the audience left to figure out what’s going on.
And yet …. there is something depicted here – a relationship splitting apart; an individual splitting into component parts; or just inscrutable movement to equally inscrutable music with no intent necessary; whatever – that makes SPLIT an intriguing piece to watch. Unlike the program’s previous piece, here there’s a palpable Graham-like emotional intensity (without contractions) that nevertheless avoids overt emotional expression, which is the exclusive province of the dance’s choreography and music. That I don’t get what that intent is, in this context, seems irrelevant.
SPLIT begins with Meneses appearing alone on stage, dancing an extended solo that conveys some sort of dissatisfaction and/or confusion, and that, between the dance’s high-pitched music and rapid-fire arm movement, is relatively aggressive-looking. And as a side note, in addition to the competence of her execution (evident in each of the dances in which she appeared), Meneses benefits from an inherently expressive face that adds a measure of character even to characters that lack definable character.
Following her solo, she’s joined by Hepp (who also made a significant impression although she has much less to do here than Meneses does). The two dance primarily in tandem, but the result looks intricate rather than numbing. The two interact occasionally, signaling some sort of relationship that reflects either contrasting facets of one character or, after an initial connection, intractable incompatibility. Eventually Meneses departs, leaving Hepp in solo contemplation of whatever it is that just happened.
Attempting to break down SPLIT’s movement qualities into component parts would be useless (if it could be doable at all) because it would effectively minimize SPLIT’s overall impact. Suffice it to say that notwithstanding my inability to satisfactorily describe it, it’s a strangely powerful dance.
The evening’s final dance, which lends its title to the program as a whole, is choreographed by Gabrielle Lamb to music composed by Katz, and features Elise Frawley on viola and Katz on piano. Lamb is a dancer (a former Soloist with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal) who began choreographing in or about 2014. Although she’s garnered an abundance of recognition and awards since then, including a Guggenheim Fellowship (and also started her own company, Pigeonwing Dance), this is the first of her work that I can recall seeing.
Lamb is ballet-trained, but the only connection to ballet evident in Unbeknownst is a pervasive sense of lyricism that frames the piece, including movement quality that flows smoothly from start to finish even though the movement itself isn’t balletic. The theme, to the extent there may be one, is an attempt by the dancers here to get to know those qualities that make another dancer/entity tick, qualities that, presumably, are beneath the surface and previously unseen.
The music frames the piece as well, providing a lengthy preface that introduces the intersecting and somewhat complementary sounds (following an initial period of dissonance), and, after the choreographic part of the piece ends, reflects Unbeknownst’s visualized interaction between the pairs of dancers: the two instruments also growing increasingly comfortable with each other.
The piece begins, choreographically, with the four dancers (Bhargava, Chow, Gonzales, and Zacharioglou) seemingly measuring each other while standing in a circle. The dancers subsequently separate out, with the primary interaction (at least what’s reflected in the video) being between Chow and Bhargava. One dancer will strike a pose as if looking at the other through a magnifying class while touching various parts of the other’s body, at times with the pair tying themselves into knot-like entanglements in order to do so (in an investigative rather than prurient way).
Unbeknownst is presented in a visually interesting and coherent manner, without it being as academic as my description might make it appear to be. And there are moments of movement gems – one split-second action, like the tug of one’s foot or hand on the other’s leg that triggers a reaction in the other – that take Unbeknownst beyond simple entanglement into something that’s visually profound.
Aside from the dance’s title itself being the equivalent to me of chalk grating against a blackboard (“unbeknownst” as opposed to “unbeknown,” which is the form of the word I grew up with – like “amongst” vs. “among” – but that’s a dissertation for another day), because of its movement variety and intricacy, Unbeknownst was perhaps the most polished piece on a program in which each of the dances was well-crafted and executed.
This program provided a fine, albeit belated, introduction to Katz’s company. I look forward to seeing Periapsis again – hopefully live.