Six Degrees of Separation
The Actors Fund Arts Center
Brooklyn, New York

January 21, 2017

Jerry Hochman

The fifth annual incarnation of Six Degrees of Separation proved somewhat less experimental than its predecessors, but also to be the most accomplished and accessible in the series. Organized by Six Degrees Dance Artistic Director Cecly Placenti, the program features her own company, as well as five other emerging dance companies, all “related” to Six Degrees Dance (and consequently to each other) by a degree of separation.

Each dance is supposed to adhere to an overall theme, which this year was “Reflections.” A subject that broad can encompass almost anything, and the individual dances (each of which I understand was a premiere) did. Many had only the flimsiest of connections to the topic, and, as is frequently the case, the overall quality was uneven. That having been said, there were moments during the program that revealed considerable raw performing and/or choreographic ability, and the dance choreographed by Placenti (who is a Criticaldance reviewer colleague) was one of her best. Her company, which is the only one to have presented in all the annual incarnations, has the longest period of performing experience of all of them, and it showed.

Vanessa Ferranti and Rachel Russell  of Six Degrees Dance  in "Infinite Reflection" Photo by Rebecca Bitner

Vanessa Ferranti and Rachel Russell
of Six Degrees Dance
in “Infinite Reflection”
Photo by Rebecca Bitner

I’ll address the dances in the order presented.

The program opened with a dance that manages to be both bizarre and pedestrian at the same time. kamrDANCE, the name of the group founded by the dance’s choreographer, Alexis Robbins, is described as a company that fuses tap and modern dance with humor and intricacy. Here, her dance presents a combination of tap and humor, but the “fusion” takes the form of a grafting rather than a merger.

The piece’s title – Back Up Dancers Freaking Out Before Going Onstage and then Everything is Fine – discloses the dance’s two component parts, and also sums it up. The ‘Everything is Fine’ part has Robbins and Ginny Mottla dancing a tap routine in tandem. From the audience’s point of view, they’re images in sync – which I suppose is the connection to the evening’s subject. The two execute the tap routine skillfully, and the physical contrast between them provides visual interest as well, but there’s nothing particularly choreographically unusual here – which may have been the intent. However, it was a relief from the introductory ‘Back Up Dancers Freaking Out’ part, which is just that (the two converse nervously as they presumably await their turn onstage); despite its earnest attempt at “nervous humor,” the scene and its dialogue were not funny.

The dance that followed, Finding It There, is a solo choreographed and performed by Maja Bakija. According to a program note, the piece is intended to “embod[y] the act of reflecting on one’s past,” and it certainly can be seen consistent with that. Bakija, who was born in Bosnia and moved to Canada at age seven, has performed at various venues across North America. She’s an interesting dancer, with a persona of quiet contemplation and the dancing ability to transmit that quality to the audience. The dance is very low-decibel, but that’s what it’s intended to be, and it’s not uninteresting. And although she uses a couple of different musical sources, a process that invites extended strung-together sequences, the piece is short and to the point. Bakija’s work shows promise.

Maja Bakija in "Finding It There" Photo by Rebecca Bitner

Maja Bakija in “Finding It There”
Photo by Rebecca Bitner

The third piece, performed by the six-member Vector Dance Company, is a collection of three loosely connected dances choreographed by Martha Lavery (like Robbins, a graduate of Hofstra University with a BA in Dance). Although there’s no overall title, each of the components is individually identified: Elvis, Reciprocal, and Brooklyn. The six dancers (Victoria Fowler, Briana Giordano, Stephanie Grover, Becki Winer, Robbins and Lavery), performed admirably, but the pieces themselves – with one exception – include a variety of movement qualities that leave no lasting overall impression beyond, perhaps, being a reflection of life in a city jungle (the music for the second dance is Jungle by Petit Biscuit). That’s not to say that there isn’t choreographic competence here – it just comes in the form of nicely presented snippets of different styles that lack sufficient integration.

The opening segment (to Human Hands by Sondre Lerche) is a sometimes casual, sometimes jaunty duet for Robbins and Grover that has moments of fun and invention that seem to reflect bonding, but not more. [I can’t discern a reason for the title Elvis – except perhaps that Elvis Costello covered the song.] Reciprocal involves the entire group in a variety of components and movement styles, as if they’re feeling their way through an unfamiliar and somewhat alien environment. And the final section, to Brooklyn, by Gary Go, seems filled with varying levels of frustration, anomie, and will-to-overcome, and is dominated (at least in the memory) by a solo that Lavery, a pint-sized dynamo, dances herself. Brimming with energy and passion and spunk, the solo provides the most effective moments in the piece. The overall dance looks unpolished, almost like a work in progress, but although comprised of stylistic sampling, it sufficiently demonstrates that Lavery’s choreography merits attention as it evolves.

Caitlin Parish, who honed her dance and choreography in Alabama and moved to New York in 2015 (according to program notes), is another choreographer who bears watching. Her five-dancer company, called Caitlin Parish Dance, presented Looking Glass, which has obvious connotations by its title alone that relate to the evening’s subject, but the connection is more substantive than that. [The program notes also reflect an effort to tie the dance to Alice in Wonderland, but I found that allusion more tenuous.]

Unlike the previous piece, Looking Glass is a unified whole, and its contemporary choreography has a serene edge (fitting the accompanying music: The Winter by Balmorhea). Although there are occasional solo moments, much of the piece has the dancers aligned in alternating pairs (leaving one dancer alone) that separate and reformulate in the blink of an eye – the focus not being on the pairs per se, but on mirror movement images. Combined with a general “slinky,” non-aggressive movement quality is floor work that includes bodies balancing and rotating over other bodies. With the dancers (Taylor Cambria, Casey LaVres, Sarah Tole, Bakija and Lavery) costumed in black and dark purple combinations that differ for each dancer, including a pair wearing gauze-like skirts that lend an air of ethereality and lyricism, the overall effect is of gentle, almost sensual warmth.

Dance Into Deliverance is the name of a project-based dance company that Jessica Ray, Artistic Director and Producer, initiated in 2012. Titled CULTure, the company’s presentation, which Ray choreographed, includes three dancers (Julie Carter, Kyla Ranney, and Brooke Stewart) in addition to Ray, music (unspecified) by Arthur Rayis and David Bowie, and a film projection/video collage which is uncredited but is doubtless also created by Ray. [The program notes indicate that in addition to being a dancer and choreographer, Ray is a videographer and editor.] The video projection has the look of a multi-image, curated, “news of the day/week/century” documentary, and provides the background for the live dancing that takes place in front of it. It also dominates the piece.

CULTure is a reflection on current events and on history seen through the “current events” prism. That’s fine. But as presented, it’s a polemic, which, while not unjustified, is more silent scream than choreographic commentary – and the implicit reference to a “cult culture” in the piece’s title is not developed. As I watched it, I thought of Simon and Garfunkel’s 7 O’Clock News/Silent Night, which expressed a similar form of outrage via a vocal collage, albeit more insidiously and effectively.

Be that as it may, the concern I have is not with the presentation of the facts/events in the video or that Ray, in this context, was preaching to the choir. Those factors are givens. Rather, it is the relationship between the video and the action on stage, and the movement quality itself, that impact the piece as a dance.

In the projection, film snippets of the dancers who are performing on stage are seen projected together with the “news” items (though in separate images), but there is no direct choreographic connection between the dancers in the film and the dancers on stage in front of it; they’re independent of each other, even though they’re the same people. By that I mean that the dancers in the video do not anticipate or reflect what they’re doing on stage, and vice versa. Perhaps the intention was to have them, in the video, serve as witnesses to the historical developments, as opposed to those dancing on stage, who presumably are responding to, or anticipating consequences of, those events. But with one exception I saw little in the way of “reaction” beyond a somewhat disconnected sense of numbness and tragedy – a moving, silent Greek chorus in mourning for what’s been, and/or what might be, lost. The one exception is a heartfelt, agonized, anguished solo movingly danced by Stewart.

The final piece on the program, titled Infinite Reflection, was choreographed by Placenti “in collaboration with the dancers” of Six Degrees Dance to music by Arvo Part. What Placenti doesn’t say in the brief but comprehensive program notes is that the title of the accompanying composition, Spiegel im Spiegel, translated from the German means “Mirror [or Mirrors] in the Mirror.” The title is a key to understanding and appreciating the piece, which is literally about the physical components, described choreographically, of mirror images within mirror images, theoretically to an infinity of images.

Rachel Russell and Cecly Placenti  of Six Degrees Dance  in "Infinite Reflection" Photo by Rebecca Bitner

Rachel Russell and Cecly Placenti
of Six Degrees Dance
in “Infinite Reflection”
Photo by Rebecca Bitner

Although the choice is perfectly apt, selecting Spiegel im Spiegel to choreograph to is fraught with peril.

Initially, the musical composition, not surprisingly given its title, is comprised almost entirely of repetitive phrases which, to an untrained ear, have only minor changes, if any, from phrase to phrase – even though the piece as a whole is highly complex. But in addition, Part is one of the most spiritual of composers. Though its title doesn’t reflect it, the Spiegel im Spiegel composition is spiritual as well. So in addition to music that consists of repetitive phrases that differ from others primarily only by degree, the piece has an aura of quiet prayer. Given these qualities of repetition and contemplative spirituality, if you’re not “into” the music, it can sound intriguing, but dull, without the more dynamic repetition of, say, a stereotypical piece composed by Philip Glass. So if the choreography is too literal, you risk losing the audience; if it’s not literal enough, it misses the connection to the music. Placenti and her company dance this tightrope.

What she and her colleagues have come up with is a dance with constantly changing but largely minimal movement that visualizes images seen through mirrors in mirrors. The movement isn’t minimalist – like the music, there’s a lot going on. But it’s basically changes of arm positions, positions on the stage, etc. that mirror the music. This is exactly what Placenti asserts that she’s doing in the program notes.

Cecly Placenti, Rachel Russell,  and Kristen Klein  of Six Degrees Dance  in "Infinite Reflection" Photo by Rebecca Bitner

Cecly Placenti, Rachel Russell,
and Kristen Klein
of Six Degrees Dance
in “Infinite Reflection”
Photo by Rebecca Bitner

But it’s one thing to attempt to do it, it’s another to pull it off, which is what Placenti and her colleagues, Vanessa Ferranti, Kristen Klein, and Rachel Russell, do. To some, Infinite Reflection might be off-putting; but to others it becomes as mesmerizing as the music. Deconstructing the movement is pointless – suffice it to say that for minimal changes in movement quality, the action is non-stop. The dancers don’t always dance in unison (either in sync with or mirroring each other) – patterns develop on stage; dancers are paired or dance solos in which their individual movements create mirrored movement, and they’re not dancing automatons. The best way to describe it is a sense I came up with as I watched the piece evolve. If you’ve ever been transfixed by the movement of the flame of a candle, you know that the flame, from moment to moment, is never exactly the same – even though it’s one consistent flame. That’s what Infinite Reflection is – with the added ingredient that the flaming candles move too.

While all the dancers did a fine job with the choreography, one stood out. Klein has a striking image quality, but there’s something about her movement quality, particularly as expressed in her solo here, that commands the viewer to pay attention. The resulting visual imagery looks at times gawky, but you can’t ignore it. [It’s a quality that she demonstrated from her first appearance with this company, when she personified a horse in one of Placenti’s earlier pieces.] And when Placenti and Klein appear paired with each other, as is the case at times in Infinite Reflection, the contrasting visual images are striking, even when their movement mirrors each other.

So overall, this Six Degrees of Separation evening was the best presented so far. If this represents a continuing evolution, I’ll look forward to its sixth incarnation.