Six Degrees of Separation
The Mark O’Donnell Theater
Brooklyn, New York
July 27, 2019
Rovaco Dance Company: Sex Robot (excerpt from Kama)
One Day Dance: After the Tone
Six Degrees Dance: Fissure
Michelle Thompson Ulerich: 6 Women (excerpt from 20 Women)
Depth Dance: These Tunnels Breathe
Ryder Dance: Through the Open Window
For the past six years, Six Degrees Dance has presented a combined program of dances representing different choreographers and companies, more often than not curated by its Artistic Director Cecly Placenti to reflect a particular theme. This year’s incarnation, its seventh annual program (under the overall heading “Six Degrees of Separation”) employed the theme “Becoming.” In this case, “becoming” references new and emerging choreographers (and their companies). Not surprisingly, the choreographers with greater experience presented pieces (or excerpts) that were more polished than those with less, but there was plenty of promise to go around.
One of the more accomplished pieces was the opener: Sex Robot (an excerpt from Kama), choreographed by Rohan Bhargava in collaboration with dancers and performed by three dancers from Rovaco Dance Company: Elise Pacicco, Jihyun Kim, and Anna Pinault.
I’ve indicated too many times that unless intended to be standalone, excerpts are usually a poor way to get a sense of the larger piece, or of the choreographer’s abilities. This would seem to be the case here. The larger dance from which the excerpt presented is derived, titled Kama, means “desire, wish, longing” in Hindu and Buddhist literature (as in “Kama Sutra”). I haven’t seen it. But Sex Robot, at least on the surface (which is all there is absent a context), appears just the opposite. Sure the focus is on sex, but it’s robotic – as the title indicates. It’s largely posing in what might appear to be seductive positions, with nothing emotional behind the varying poses, and nothing intended to portray the sense of desire or wish or longing in anything other than the most sterile sense.
But having said that, this may well be what Bhargava is trying to say either in this excerpt or the larger dance as a whole: that sex, to a large extent (especially with respect to possibly non-emotional formulaic encounters) may indeed, stripped to its movement essence, be robotic. The accompanying original score by Saul Guanipa, which consists largely of background hum of irregular beats that seems geared to instill absolutely no emotional response at all, fits the movement.
Whether that’s the point to the excerpt or the larger piece, judging solely by this excerpt Bhargava’s choreography does have coherence, even if it comes across as not particularly pleasant to watch. Some of the movement is lumbering and heavy, with the three women on all fours on the floor as the excerpt begins, looking like sex workers (presumably) who know what they’re supposed to do and couldn’t care less about it. The dancers’ costumes (by Barry Doss), each woman in black shorts and black top with black straps at various points that instantly bring to mind stereotypical S&M outfits, exacerbate the robotic sense, as does the dancers’ collective attitude as they go through the motions of thigh thrusts, spread legs, and rolling on the floor. But there’s nothing sensual or prurient or exploitative about Sex Robots either, and this fact is emphasized when, as the excerpt evolves, two of the women place a black mesh covering over the head of the third dancer (Pinnault), and manipulate themselves and her as she writhes and thrashes in emotionally detached silence. Pinnault does a lot of heavy breathing, but apparently more from the stifling covering over her head and physical exertion than from any emotional involvement.
If my description makes the dance sound boring, that’s unfortunate. It’s not. There’s sufficient movement variety here to make the piece look interesting beyond the posing and sense of detachment, and Pacicco, Kim, and Pinault, who obviously have strong dance backgrounds, wring every bit of physicality and sense of anomie out of Bhargava’s movement. At some point down the road, seeing the piece in context might prove illuminating.
Bhargava’s company has been in existence (with his choreography) for roughly 5 years. One Day Dance, which followed with After the Tone, was formed in January 2018. Perhaps for that reason, the piece looks considerably less polished – although this may be the impression that Artistic Director and choreographer Heitman wants to convey. According to the program note, Heitman formed One Day Dance to create dance films within a twenty-four-hour span. Obviously After the Tone isn’t a film, but it has more of the characteristics of a limited-focus brief dance film than a piece developed for the stage.
Essentially, After the Tone relates to what happens “after the tone” on a phone goes off – as in the tone one hears before an actual call begins, or after it ends. In this case, it’s before a girl gets call from a boy, or thinks she does, or dreams that she does, or maybe doesn’t, or maybe after the call that maybe was or maybe wasn’t ends. In between, she has, or dreams she has, an encounter presumably with the person who has called her, or who she dreamed of calling her, or who she wanted to call her but didn’t. Sometimes the absence of clarity can foster different but equally valid observations – but here it’s just a lack of clarity.
The piece is performed by two dancers: Cassandra Stern and Edwardo Brito. It begins with a solo by Stern, in which the real or imagined phone call either happens or didn’t happen, after which she meanders back and forth in various stages of angst for several minutes. If there was a rhyme or reason to the choreography, I didn’t get it. Suddenly Brito appears in a black outfit, the creation of her imagination or the person she’d arranged to meet. They dance together, mostly he paralleling her movement (which led me to think he was a figment of her imagination) and some well-executed partnering (which led me to think that maybe he was “real”). The sequence included Brito catching Stern as she’s about to fall, which was executed perfectly and for me was the dance’s highpoint.
Both Stern and Brito moved convincingly through the choreography, and obviously worked hard doing it, but the dance itself didn’t show more than movement that looked relatively simplistic and limited, and a subject (with a title like that, and the phone references during the piece, the dance obviously isn’t without intended meaning) that’s been used many times before. Perhaps it would look better as a one day dance film.
Fissure, a world premiere choreographed by Sean Scantlebury, had more choreographic meat to it, albeit with a more nebulous possible meaning.
To a score that used, apparently sequentially, music by Armand Amar, Chanting Monks, and Si Tew, Scantlebury choreographed a three-part dance that perhaps was intended to simply be a dance to different music styles, with maybe the “fissure” being the differences between them (both the music and the choreography). Regardless, the abstract piece worked well, with a variety of movement that the dancers of Six Degrees Dance (Shanise Dews, Eilish Henderson, Hannah McClean, and Placenti) executed well.
A native of Barbados and former dancer with Eliot Feld’s Ballet Tech, Scantlebury here works with feeling. If there was a common thread beyond choreographing to music and to the differences in the music, I didn’t see it, but that’s not a requirement. What is is a sense of musicality that both reflects and enhances the chosen music, and this Fissure has. There’s also a sense of spirituality here in the related, but different, sections – as if in a general sense Scantlebury was exploring the spiritual and emotional differences engendered by the music and attempting to express them choreographically. In the opening section, the music sounds vaguely middle-eastern; the second is chant-like, and the third is electronic under the general ambit of hip-hop, but soft-core (a gentle edge that sounds almost … spiritual). It’s not clear on first view, but at various points the dancers shed outer layers of costume, as if shedding layers of history, ultimately leaving the dancers clad in black.
Using these disparate (but not as disparate as one might think) musical inspirations, Scantlebury has crafted a dance that thrives on balance, patterns, differences, and similarities. The most liberated, for want of a better word, section is the third, with more individual rather than group components and images that are lovely (heads being cradled) and confusing (writhing and twitching at the end, for no apparent reason except maybe to illustrate the shaking off of encumbrances). Or maybe a combination of independence and anger.
I doubt that I got all of what Scantlebury is trying to do here, but at a minimum it looks intriguing. I expect that I’ll be seeing more of his pieces in the future.
Michelle Thompson Ulerich contributed the fourth piece on the program: 6 Women. The dance is an excerpt from a larger work titled 20 Women, a daunting number considering the nature of the excerpt presented here. Essentially, to a background score consisting of a curated set of lyrics / statements / songs ranging from Bob Dylan to Dr.Seuss to Don DeLillo to Zach Braff to the dancers themselves, with voices (where not provided in the source songs) by Angela Hooper and the dancers, Ulerich has crafted a series of solos for each dancer (Bethany Kellner, Gina Montalto, Louisa Pancoast, Hanna Wojszynski, Nikkid’Arnault, and Christiana Hunte) that visually spring from the core sisterhood of dancers as a whole, and that provide a panoply of women reacting or responding to what’s said about them.
There’s nothing new about the structure here – individual dancers breaking out from a larger group is not in the least unusual, but the excerpt presented is never bland. And just as each dancer is costumed differently, but with a commonality (different color tops, each wearing black shorts), and looks very different from the others (this is a very eclectic group), each different solo has its own choreographed and emotional character, effectively providing a sense of intimacy and giving each dancer an individual voice – at times literally. And although there may be moments of anger here (I didn’t note any) or happiness (I didn’t note any of that either), the overall tenor is effect, contradiction, and resolve, with moments of serenity.
Ulerich’s choreography, while firmly contemporary, seems commendably less an effort to be different than to communicate, with more fluidity than is often present in emerging contemporary choreographers whose primary purpose seems to stake out their own particular movement territory. This impression is thoroughly consistent with Ulerich’s background: trained at San Francisco Ballet, danced with Ballet Austin for 14 years, and apparently has been choreographing exclusively since 2015.
Mindful of my comment (and prejudice) regarding excerpts stated above, I don’t know whether 6 Women is a selection of isolated solos from the larger piece, a section of that piece, or if it’s representative of what Ulerich is attempting to communicate. And perhaps the difference between 20 and 6 is not just a 14-fold increase in the number of featured solos. But if it is 20 solos, the only comment I’ll make without having seen the larger piece is that often less is more: they’re apples and oranges, but one of the most powerful films of all time is titled “Two Women.”
The program’s final two pieces lack 6 Women’s focus. These Tunnels Breathe, performed by four dancers from Depth Dance (the choreographer, Artistic Director Ellen Sickenberger, and three members of the company: Margaret Jones, Lisa Kobdish, and Graziella Murdocca), is “about” living in tunnels, and occasionally seeing light at the end of them. The “tunnel” theme, I presume, isn’t to be taken literally, but metaphorically as a representation of the “tunnels” within which most of us live and function and feel emotionally trapped.
But as visualized, the dance could just as easily be seen as being about human survivors of some cataclysm, living, literally, in tunnels (or in some “underworld,” as in purgatory). I saw images of what appear to be a fight for survival, including dancers gathered at an apparent watering hole (as in a cave), bumping into each other (as in being unable to see in the darkness), gathering together (as if seeking safety in numbers) and hiding their eyes from the light (at the end of that tunnel) that penetrates the apparent darkness. And although there are moments that successfully convey a pervasive sense of “haunting” (the dance, choreographed to music by Greg Haines, Laurel Halo, and Against All Logic, has considerable atmosphere), there are also images that appear to make no sense (e.g., the women lifting and tossing each other around).
The two subjects that I saw in the piece: living in emotional tunnels and surviving in real ones, don’t have to be mutually exclusive. But having the latter expressed so concretely diminishes the more universal impact that the dance might have had.
I’m not familiar with Sickenberger’s choreography (she formed Depth Dance in 2016), so perhaps there’s some common choreographic thread here that I missed, and there’s no question that there’s an intellectual component to These Tunnels Breathe that is recognizable but difficult to decipher – which makes the dance intriguing, but also frustrating.
The program closed with Jordan Ryder’s Through the Open Window, performed by six company dancers: Julia Gold, Spencer Grossman, Emma Massarelli, Dante Norris, Ayala Abrams, and Philip Strom. Ryder formed Ryder Dance shortly after graduating in 2018 from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and the piece, to me, reflects this relative lack of experience.
Given the title, I thought I knew where Through the Open Window was going from the outset. I saw two of the male dancers preening (maybe the third also), as if preparing for an encounter, and we get to watch them “through their open window.” Great. But then the “window,” disappears – or maybe is metaphorically converted to a different window: a window onto a private club, perhaps, or some other location for an encounter. Or maybe not.
In any event, the encounters among the dancers that subsequently occur are tinged with isolation and relative distance – fostered by music (not identified) by electronic guitarist Ferrensz. [I tried to find the piece – the closest I came to what I recall hearing was a composition called “In My Room,” which sort of fits what my notes reflect as well as the dance’s title. But the music Ryder used may be a sampling of different Ferrensz pieces.] Essentially, it’s sound, with perhaps changes in pitch now and then – like maybe the cold, often indistinguishable din of street noise. I’m focusing on this because however one describes or responds to the music used, the choreography has nothing to hold on to. As a result, what’s presented are isolated episodes of dancers in pairs (or pairs of pairs). And maybe this sense of isolation and tension and connecting without connecting is what Ryder was going for, but it was hard to tell. And it was equally hard to tell whether this piece is reflective of a particular choreographic style. But I’ll grant that there may be a unity here that I didn’t see.
In any event, this Six Degrees of Separation program did what it set out to do: it provided outlets for emerging choreographers to show examples of their work. I look forward to seeing the evolution that will further illustrate the choreographers they will become.