Three Easy Programs; Twenty-Seven Easy Pieces – plus one dismaying announcement
Doug Varone and Dancers
April 19 -23, 2021
2021 New York Season: The Scrapbook
April 28, 2021
People Place Disruption
South Orange Performing Arts Center
April 30 and May 1, 2021
Capturing the Moment: A Showcase of New Jersey Choreographer Fellows
With Covid-compelled virtual performances now as common as rain in April, it’s difficult to avoid saturation. Accordingly, I’ve tried to focus reviews on programs that appear to be particularly noteworthy, that may have gotten lost in the shuffle, and/or that are just different.
In recent weeks, those virtual events I’ve seen included three programs featuring works by choreographers relatively new to the art or who have limited experience but are not affiliated with a major company, as well as one particularly novel program from an established company. I’ll discuss them in viewing order.
Initially, however, there has been one recent development that I feel constrained to acknowledge, even though its only relationship to the programs reviewed here is that it relates to dance. It’s come to my attention that RIOULT Dance NY and the Rioult Dance Center that recently opened in Astoria, Queens have shut down permanently, a consequence of the pandemic. This is excruciating to me – RIOULT Dance NY was a very fine and highly regarded contemporary dance company that had been the subject of many favorable reviews by myself and others, and the dance center would have been a community magnet as well as an affordable alternative for dance rehearsals and presentations by companies city-wide. But I’m sure it’s far more painful for Pascal Rioult and his dancers (as well as others affiliated with the company). Hopefully both the company and the arts center will reemerge after funding and interest resumes with the pandemic’s end. If that’s not a possibility, I look forward to seeing Rioult’s choreography and his excellent group of dancers under other umbrellas in the future.
Doug Varone and Dancers: The Scrapbook
For its 2021 New York Season Doug Varone and Dancers produced a series of ten “film events” collectively called The Scrapbook. The presentations – each representing a month from March, 2020 to December, 2021 – are bound together in a visualized scrapbook format, and each month’s entry relates, or is supposed to relate, to the pandemic and its impact on the dancers and society.
The glue that binds the ten entries in The Scrapbook together are fictional letters exchanged between a “grandson” and his “grandmother,” one for each month. The subjects discussed in these letters provide a framework for a particular month’s scrapbook entry. The ten presentations themselves are divided into three twenty minute “Episodes” that were presented on three separate nights, with the three or four films within each Episode running roughly 5-6 minutes each (including the reading of the letter for that month).
There are two facing scrapbook “pages” for each month’s subject. On the right as a viewer sees the pages is a link to the recorded letter and the related film. On the left are links to various published articles or podcasts that relate to that month’s topic (the equivalent of placing a story or photograph from a newspaper in a scrapbook to illuminate the “main” entry), as well as an interview with at least one of the participating dancers in that month’s film.
This all might seem overly complicated, but it isn’t. Even a critic can figure it out.
The difficulty I initially had with the structure is that although the notion of a scrapbook, of course, is real, I didn’t for a second believe that the letters were anything more than contrivances intended to move the concept forward, and I found them increasingly annoying. Be that as it may, the heart of The Scrapbook, and its raison d’etre, are the films (each directed by Varone, presumably via Zoom, and filmed by the dancer(s) or, occasionally, by members of their families) that tell an individualized story related to the letter of the month. The films aren’t “dance films” per se, except to the extent they’re films that are made by and feature dancers.
Each film includes an accompanying background song that reflects the issue at hand (the music is from the ‘40s and ‘50s, but they’re not “oldies”; with one apparent exception, they just fit the subject) and that also provides a convenient “title” for each film. For example, the initial letter, for March 2020, discusses the pandemic lock-down. The filmed episode that follows it, titled “What’s This?” shows a woman dressed in yellow pajamas (why get dressed?) stuck at home (her parents’) with no outlet for her energy, and, almost literally, bouncing off the walls. The accompanying music, titled What’s This? is a fast, somewhat madcap, and appropriately frenetic (jazzy plus swing) percussion solo by Gene Krupa, a prominent drummer and band leader particularly popular in the ‘40s and ‘50s. On the left page of the March entry are links to various articles relating to the onset of the pandemic (e.g., a New York Times article on the closing of Broadway), and a brief filmed appearance by the dancer (Aya Wilson) discussing the process.
The topics chosen generally deal with relationships that suffer from the pandemic’s impact, but they include issues that relate only tangentially to the pandemic and its consequences: a man who falls for his male roommate, who isn’t interested, and then finds that the roommate is in a relationship with another roommate (Bradley Beakes et. al. in “Mad About the Boy”); a man who just happens to find a pair of high-heeled shoes on a fire escape, tries them on, and then acts out his fantasy by suddenly dressing in women’s clothes and humorously prancing around while his female roommate / companion ignores him (Jake Bone and Devin Oshiro-Bone in “Let Yourself Go”); a relationship between a heterosexual couple that grows more manic as a consequence of confinement (Hollis Bartlett and Nattie Trogdon in “Fever” – not the sultry Peggy Lee version, but a more manic version recorded by The McCoys); and a couple that can’t quite communicate as they had previously (Courtney Barth and Ryan Yamauchi in “I Can’t Get Started”).
While each of these films has merit, even if it’s simply the enthusiasm of doing something different (or at least doing something during pandemic isolation), the best have qualities that take them to another level.
“My Funny Valentine,” June’s film, records one person’s internalized response to the killing of George Floyd and ensuing protests. The Covid connection (he apparently is confined to his room) is flimsy, and the accompanying song (a favorite of mine) didn’t appear to fit the topic, but the execution by DeQuan Lewis was first rate. The frustration and sense of hopelessness, while not expressed aggressively, seethe throughout his performance. “Don’t Explain” is a brilliant little film that succinctly illustrates the quandary faced by abused women, exacerbated by the consequences of pandemic isolation. Whitney Dufrene, seen confined to a tiny phone-booth sized space, is costumed like a night-club singer and delivers a smashing rendition of the eponymous song – so much so that I was convinced she sang it (apparently it was lip-synced; the Billie Holiday / Arthur Herzog, Jr. song was sung by Helen Merrill). Dufrene’s attempt to hold herself together while falling apart encapsulates the dilemma: the sense of hopelessness, inevitability, and self-blame that accompanies an abusive relationship. As it turns out, the performance of the song is Dufrene’s character’s dream / nightmare, and when there’s a sudden hard knock on the door, we see her jolted back to reality, exhibiting a black eye, and ready to allow her abuser in the door. Shattering.
To me, the finest film was September’s entry, “Temptation” (the song was written by Tom Waits; sung by Diana Krall). Introduced by the grandson’s letter confessing succumbing to the temptation to join his friends and party without a mask. This temptation to escape pandemic confines, and ultimately yielding to it, is subsequently visualized and masterfully executed by guest artist Michael Trusnovec. There’s not a motion or gesture that doesn’t translate meaningfully, and although the delivery is intentionally somewhat stoic, what’s important here is the internal turmoil that Trusnovec, now retired from Paul Taylor Dance Company, seems to deliver naturally. Watching Temptation was a privilege.
The final film, in which liberation from pandemic restriction is in sight, is, appropriately, the most fun. Here Varone himself, to the giddy Almost Like Being in Love, plays a very happy puppy that is released or escapes from confinement and frolics outside like … a happy puppy. He dances in the snow, relieves himself next to a tree, and in the end, leaps into his human’s lap waiting to be stroked. It’s both hilarious and heartwarming, and Varone does a superb job with it.
All in all, and despite its artificial construct, The Scrapbook delivers an evening of information, insight, and entertainment. And although it was presented over three separate evenings, if it’s still available I recommend binge-watching the whole thing and taking the time to follow the trails to which the links lead.
Nimbus Dance: “People Place Disruption”
When I last reviewed a Nimbus Dance program, I was impressed by the overall quality of the company’s dancers and looked forward to seeing the company again. My enthusiasm was not misplaced.
Founded by Artistic Director Samuel Pott in 2005, Nimbus Dance touts that it presents “work that challenges, speaks to, and elevates the core beliefs of its diverse audience.” The program presented last week, titled “People Place Disruption,” exemplifies and reemphasizes that mission, with dances that, in general, reflect the diversity of its Jersey City, N.J. community as well as issues that are at the forefront of their lives. Generally, it’s a highly successful effort.
The event is presented in the form of a film by Luis Ribagorda, and the film contributes to the professional look of the program as a whole. In addition to the skillfully selected shifting camera viewpoints that add visual variety without encroaching on the dances themselves, the film packages the program in a way that emphasizes the common ambiance and sense of style among its component parts, which I suspect was Pott’s intent in formulating the program. Indeed, the sense of connection is so strong that I thought of the three segments, each of which includes two dances, as akin to movements in an orchestral composition. The dances are untitled, which is unfortunate in terms of discerning any clear intent on the part of the choreographers (and makes identifying the individual dances more cumbersome than it should be), but this also adds to the sense that each dance is part of an overall creative composition.
Part of the film’s packaging that adds to the sense of it all being part of a unified whole is its use of an exhibition of visual art at the Nimbus Performing Arts Center as a common reference point. The filmed program opens with people gradually entering and viewing the art on display, closes with the gallery’s lights being turned off for the night, and in between shows the choreographer and dancers in each dance as they navigate the exhibition and view a particular exhibit item, which segues into that particular dance itself – the implication being that the choreographer and dancers were impelled by the art they saw. When one dance ends, the film returns to the gallery, eventually focusing on another choreographer and group of dancers, and then the next filmed dance begins. It’s not a visualization of pictures at an exhibition; it’s dances inspired by pictures at an exhibition.
Each of the six dances is choreographed by one of the company’s dancers, and executed by rotating subgroupings of them.
The first dance (in the “People” section”) started the program off with a bang. Choreographed by company member Derick McKoy, Jr. and performed by Victoria Santaguida and LeighAnn Curd, the piece includes visual references to the pandemic and its victims and healthcare workers, but the heart of it describes a response to racial injustice. Abetted by its accompanying music, it becomes evident that this dance is a complex work that combines its dogma with sensitivity, and that becomes increasingly moving and persuasive as it evolves.
The dance itself includes two divisible segments. In the first, as images of visual artwork from the gallery (photo-journalistic-documentary images and image collages from “real life” events from the period) are projected sequentially against the stage’s back wall (all of the program’s projections were designed by Laia Cabrera and Isabelle Duverger), Santaguida and Curd initially dance in parallel, breaking off into mirrored images and brief individual punctuations as the frenetic but smoothly flowing contemporary dance progresses. Both women wear an identical sort of black head covering. As this first part progresses, these head coverings are removed, unwound, and converted into scarf-like black translucent fabric which creates a barrier of sorts between the dancers and the projected events. The fabric here functions as a metaphor of sorts, indicative, at least to me, of the separation between how the two dancers see the world and how it really is: at this point they seem distant from it; perhaps affected by it, but not responding to it.
The first section’s accompanying musical background, Interoception by Johansson Motschmann, is particularly noteworthy. [The title, loosely, means the physiological sense of the condition of the body – essentially, how one “feels.”] The electronic score consists of metronomic “tick” sounds – somewhat like a ticking clock, only faster, and with varying pitches. Or like a time bomb just before it detonates.
At the end of this part of the dance, with artwork that includes an image of George Floyd projected in the background, the ticking stops (a silent explosion, perhaps), and the dancers exit to separate wings. When the second part of the dance begins, the accompanying music changes to a mournful solo cello piece (identified as Memories by Maya Bernier) that sets the appropriate tone for this section as Interoception did for the first. At this point the piece takes emotional and choreographic flight. Curd returns with the head covering back on, while Santaguida, her face uncovered (except for her Covid mask), dances a devastatingly powerful and beautifully executed solo that visually echoes the cello’s wail. Curd joins with a strongly danced solo of her own, and thereafter the two engage in a sort of tug-of-war with the black “scarf.” I’m not sure what all this is supposed to indicate, given my interpretation of McKoy’s intent, but the piece flows so well that this is insignificant. Eventually, Santaguida slowly removes the covering from Curd’s head, finally enabling, or prompting, her to see the “real world” around her. It’s a potent image. McKoy’s dance is a dynamite work of contemporary dance art.
Both Santaguida and Curd are powerful dancers whose execution adds mightily to the dance’s impact. Santaguida’s performance augments that power with a sense of immediacy, vulnerability, and lyricism that I found especially well-expressed.
Aanyse Pettiford-Chandler’s brief dance, the second under the “People” rubric, is well-constructed and executed also, but to me its meaning isn’t as incendiary. The choreography for the two dancers, Mika Greene and Santaguida, fits and amplifies the strange musical background (a mix of urban noises, including the vocally mechanical sounds made by pedestrian street crossing machines, followed by Exposition by Clocks & Clouds, another very moving solo cello piece). Greene and Santaguida have little actual contact with each other, — the occasional hand-gripping or push – but mostly they reside in their own space. Abetted by the projection of windows (as in apartment or office building windows) in the background, the dance presents a very interesting combination of movements that merges crossing a street, walking a sidewalk, and casual connections with a sense of urban anomie, a desire to escape, and lost opportunities.
In the “Place” movement’s first dance, choreographed by Isabele de Albuquerque Rosso and performed by Donterreo Culp, Shayla Hutton, and McKoy, there’s little that the dancers do individually that’s not in sync with what the others do. But although some parts may seem repetitious, that’s surface: there’s more than sufficient movement diversity here. This variety is impelled by the contrasting accompanying musical selections (Shallow Water by Sivan Talmor, Yehezkel Raz; Something Wicked by Spearfisher; SsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSs by SHXCXCHCXSH; and Blood Meridian by Spearfisher). In a nutshell, the three dancers journey through places (in their minds, or representing locations through which they must travel in an ersatz world) that impact them differently, and provoke different movement qualities. Initially, the three are in a hauntingly lyrical space, with movement to match. This morphs musically and choreographically into a more dangerous “place,” finally returning at the dance’s end to a place in which the movement evokes a sense of spirituality and peace.
These “places” seem to me to represent prongs of a church service: opening with camaraderie and a desire to be freed from their deficiencies – or absolved from their sins (gleaned from images of face-washing and hand-shaking); followed by traveling through space and time and suffering tumultuous trials and challenges (represented by rapid, seemingly uncontrolled movement, as if possessed); and concluding with redemption (solace – with projected art that appeared to represent stained glass windows) – but that’s reading a lot into it that may not be there. Regardless, it’s an interestingly choreographed, dynamic piece of work, well executed by the three dancers – with Hutton standing out for her more aggressively agitated movement quality.
Rosso’s dance was followed by a short piece choreographed by Justin Cosme-Perez that has a definite Latin flavor conveyed by the music (“Harlem” by Saul Cosme and Haeun Joo) and matching movement qualities. I couldn’t sense any “meaning” here, and the choreographic variety within the Latin context is limited, but the dance’s ambience and style were sufficient to maintain visual interest. This was another trio dance in which much of the movement was performed in tandem, but the dancers (Pettiford-Chandler, Hutton, and Josias Cosme-Perez) executed distinctly enough to make each appear independent. The dance looks like it might be part of a larger piece – or perhaps soon will be.
The first part of “Disruption,” the program’s final movement, is Curd’s contribution to the program’s choreography. Unlike the other dances, this one is preceded by an image of Curd leaving the gallery display to enter the women’s bathroom, where instead of looking at art, she’s looking in the mirror. The dance is as meaningful, and as enigmatic, as that.
The piece focuses on a brief “disruption,” a disturbance in the force that briefly brings two people / two different cultures / two different races together in an atmosphere of hanging ropes that might represent a jungle or garden – or Central Park. [The set for both dances within the “Disruption” section was designed by Theda Sandiford.] Rosso opens the piece with a physical rant, accompanied by sound background that verbally and explicitly emphasizes fear of attack (the piece is choreographed to excerpts from Providence by Godspeed You! Black Emperor). My mind instantly thought of the recent incident in Central Park, which I think requires no descriptive elaboration here. This was followed by Pettiford-Chandler calmly walking through the space, or park, wary about being seen by a stranger, or simply looking for something in the distance (perhaps a bird). The two encounter each other, interact (but not physically), and the dance ends with Pettiford-Chandler lying on the ground, suffering from something (a wound, misread signals?), and Rosso, whose performance displays a complex variety of movement and emotions, walking away upstage, seeing but not caring. In its visualization of a disturbing inability, or unwillingness, of two different people to communicate, Curd’s dance is as haunting and explosive as the dance that opened the program.
The lighting here, with its dark / light contrasts (the lighting for all these dances was designed by HaeJin Han), adds to the dance’s drama.
I don’t know what Culp had in mind for the final part of “Disruption,” but it’s an easy segue from the prior dance: they both use the same (or minimally modified) set. It’s a relationship dance, but that’s a cop-out: many dances are. This one has several possibilities – two strangers meeting in a dark, unfamiliar area; a developing relationship; an interpretation of Adam and Eve; or a combination of all three (or none of the above). But what it means, if anything, doesn’t matter. Culp here weaves the sweetest dance on the program.
Here Greene is initially seen wandering through the “garden,” but she moves with a sense of wonder rather than apprehension. There is no musical background at this point. All is calm. Soon McKoy meanders through the wooded area seemingly searching for something. As the accompanying music (El Jardin by Hermanos Gutierrez) begins, the two meet and get acquainted – slowly, deliberately, and gently. They move a bit together, a bit apart. At one point they lay on their backs next to each other, at another point opposite each other, and at still another Greene simply sits on the ground and watches McKoy dance, seemingly transfixed. The relationship takes, they stand across from each other, and she places her hand on his chest. Then, as quietly as the dance began, it ends.
Culp’s piece doesn’t have the complexity of other dances on the program, but it’s a pleasure to watch unfold. And, with the dancers’ sensitive portrayals, it accomplishes that most difficult of emotions to engender in an audience – caring about who and what they see on stage.
“People Place Disruption” is not an audacious program, and it’s not filled with idiosyncratic or particularly inventive choreography. Nevertheless, it’s quite accomplished, and the performances confirm what I had gleaned from the company’s program a few weeks earlier: that this is a company of significance, with dancers of quality. My understanding is that “People Place Disruption” will be repeated, live, in a program on May 22 (together with a live performance of Pott’s Empty Space, with guest artist Sarah Lane). Information is available on Nimbus Dance’s web site.
SOPAC: Capturing the Moment
“Capturing the Moment: A Showcase of New Jersey Choreographer Fellows” is a two-part, pre-recorded event that highlights the work of seven choreographers who were awarded a 2020 Choreography Fellowship by the New Jersey Council on the Arts. The program, which spanned two evenings (April 30 and May 1, 2021), was presented by South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC), and most of the dances were recorded on SOPAC’s stage. Each of the choreographers was interviewed by dance critic Robert Johnson prior to the presentation of their pieces.
The seven fellowship honorees are: Part I – Erin Carlisle Norton, Oluwadamilare (Dare) Ayorinde, Pallavi Degwekar-Shaikh; Part 2 – Tsai Hsi Hung, Robert Mark Burke, Barkha Patel, and Nai-Ni Chen. Each presented one piece; several were represented by two.
I’m not aware of the criteria for these fellowship awards, but based on this program and the choreographers represented, works by relatively experienced as well as relatively novice choreographers were included. Accordingly, as might be expected, the programs were a mixed bag.
Three very different pieces were particularly polished, and easily the best of this crop: Patel’s bound (she also performed the piece), Burke’s Passages, and Chen’s Luminescence.
Simply put, I’ve never seen anything quite like bound.
Patel is a Kathak-trained dancer, and there’s much of the stylized elegance of this classical Indian training in the piece. [Kathak is indigenous to northern India and developed under the influence of both Hindu and Muslim cultures.] But bound is much more than that. Patel fuses her Indian classical dance background with contemporary movement such that together they create an extraordinary hybrid. And it doesn’t hurt that the dance’s subject is a 14th Century Kashmiri woman, Lal Ded (also known as Laleshwari, Mother Lal, or Mother Lalla, or a slew of other names accrued over the centuries) who was forced into what became an abusive marriage (at age 12), and, contrary to the standards of the time and the demands of her parents and the rest of the community, left the marriage and everything she knew behind and lived the rest of her life as a wandering poet, the creator of a revered style of mystic poetry called “Lal Vakhs.” To many she is regarded as a saint.
This extraordinary story deserves an extraordinary dance, and with bound, it got it.
The story is told indirectly, through gestures and small, moveable props – little vessels that were intended to represent the pitchers that Lal Ded used to gather water, but that also symbolize the cultural and gender boundaries from which she (Lal Ded, as well as Patel, and by natural implication all women) struggles to break free.
At one point, a film is projected showing a vision in Patel’s mind representing Lal Ded wandering through the countryside speaking verses of her inspirational poetry. Clearly inspired by this vision, Patel sees what she must do, and does what she’s inspired to do. It’s thrilling to watch the emotional roller coaster that Patel’s choreography and performance reveals, ending in her circling the stage as if suddenly liberated (executing the barefoot equivalent of piqué en manège in ballet) and as a consequence, in the process physically knocking down the vessels / boundaries that had imprisoned her. And although Patel’s face is highly expressive in an unexaggerated, restrained sort of way, there’s no melodramatic display of emotion. It’s all in Patel’s choreography, and on her face. The accompanying music, by Rushi Vakil, was a perfect complement to Patel’s choreography.
bound is a stunning, intelligent, inspired and inspiring piece of work; easily one of the finest dances I’ve seen in quite some time.
Burke’s Passages might appear somewhat retro (especially compared to other dances in the program), but to me that’s to be celebrated. What he has created here is fluid, lyrical dance (not without indicia of angularity) that doesn’t “do” anything in particular but that involves the viewer by its finely-crafted contemporary / balletic qualities, executed by an engaging and accomplished group of dancers (Derek Crescenti, Sarah Housepian, and Jared McAboy).
Choreographed to unidentified music by Australian composer Luke Howard, Passages has three related component parts. [Parenthetically, I’m grateful for the opportunity to become acquainted with Howard’s work.] It begins with the three dancers responding to the gently percussive and concurrently melodic piano and string music, clearly moving somewhere – either to another place, or another point in their lives – but also interacting with each other in intriguing partnering combinations. Dancing in tandem yields to varieties of individual or pair movement, but it’s all seamless.
Particularly interesting is the way Burke has his dancers look like they’re gobbling space when they’re not. The dance is filled with outstretched arms and legs, arm-length pushes and pulls, lifts, turns and floor work. A lengthy duet is a focal point, and is gorgeously executed by Housepian and McAboy. This yields to a solo by Housepian that ends the first part of the dance. The second part, to slightly more dramatic-sounding music, begins with a solo by Housepian, and then includes more of what we saw in the first part of the dance, but presented more … dramatically. The third part of the dance, again to a slightly different tenor in the music, is more of the same, but has more partnering work among all three dancers, and concludes with a McAboy solo. The dance ends with him looking outward toward the future. A bit clichéd to be sure, but it’s presented so interestingly that it looks new.
Although both of the men danced, and particularly partnered, very well (a necessity given Burke’s choreography here), to the extent the dance has a visual focal point, it’s Housepian, whether appearing solo, being transported in space by one or both of the men, or writhing on the stage floor. She delivers a remarkably impassioned performance, injecting an emotional component into every move she makes solely by the movement alone; there are no emotional histrionics.
I’m not familiar with Burke (or any of the choreographers represented on the program), but, based on this piece, he doesn’t break boundaries. Passages isn’t experimental or avant-garde or particularly idiosyncratic. What it is is just well-crafted and thoroughly enjoyable dance.
Chen’s Luminescence and Shadow Force (Part 1) closed the second night’s program.
Luminescence is … luminescent. There’s no other way to describe it. The two dancers, Yuka Netsuka and Rio Kakushi, are ethereal bodies that seem to radiate light as they move to Max Richter’s equally ethereal-sounding music. I don’t know what they’re supposed to represent (angels, underwater creatures, or nothing in particular), but it doesn’t matter. Some viewers might be bored by the overall one-dimensionality and relatively slow pace, but there’s such an abundance of movement variety that to me that’s not even close to being an issue. The two dancers move gently, swaying and slowly whirling their bodies and limbs, in parallel at the outset, but gradually executing the choreography sequentially, gradually increasing sequencing timing, which enhances the impact of the movement quality. All of this is accentuated by their billowy white floor-length diaphanous skirts, which expand the beauty of the movement exponentially. The effect is like watching calm ocean waves that seem to repeatedly break and regather, or released balloons that gently sway with the vagaries of a breeze. It’s a mesmerizing, intriguing, shimmering dance of the highest quality.
Also choreographed to music by Max Richter, and also intriguing, is Chen’s second piece Shadow Force (Part 1). But as well executed as it was by the five dancers (Evan Matthew Stewart, Greta Campo, Candace Jarvis, Ethan Gwynne, and Kakushi), and even though it’s as stunning-looking as Luminescence, it’s impact isn’t as great because it clearly is supposed to represent something, but that something isn’t clear.
Chen stated in the interview (which I consider the equivalent of program notes) what her intent was: choreographing the impact of pandemic isolation. But if I hadn’t known that, I would never have guessed it. What I sensed from the clearly defined individual areas constrained by stationery spotlights (or downlights) was a sort of urban isolation, with people constantly moving and getting nowhere (the opening and closing images are of the dancers furiously running in place), and never establishing contact with each other. And I had no idea what the squawking “bird” sound as the dance ended (perhaps crows?) was intended to represent. But the piece is referenced as “Part 1,” so perhaps this is all clarified in the larger context.
The first night’s program opened with two dances choreographed by Norton (in collaboration with the dancers): Walled, and Coup. Norton’s choreography is stylistically very different from the others I’ve described: the style is more rigid (intentionally so) and angular, and based on these pieces, more a reaction to the accompanying music than an enhancement of it. In addition to being Director of Dance New Jersey, Norton is Artistic Director of The Moving Architects. I’m not familiar with that company, but its name is an apt description of what I saw.
Of the two, Coup is a more successful dance. Based on Norton’s preview comments, the piece arose from her company’s tour to Tajikistan (a mountainous, landlocked country bordered by Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan. and China), which she describes as an eerily male-dominated society with considerable gender differences in costume and attitude. Coup, she stated, is a reaction to that. The dance hypothesizes that women rather than men dominate the society. Fine.
However, what Norton has choreographed here is a very martial display. To accompanying music that sounds like a cross between slurred Morse code and a television broadcasting test, with squeak and gong sounds added, four women (Caitlin Bailey, Bethany Chang, Aria Roach, and Indigo Sparks) with bent arms lifted and clenched fists, march in various formations up and down and around the stage, led by one of them who carries what appears to be a quarterstaff (as in Little John, from Robin Hood), which she occasionally raises into the air or pounds into the ground. Every once in awhile one of them exhibits her leadership qualities (or simply her displeasure) by having a jumping or shaking tantrum. Eventually the movement breaks up into stylized combat between pairs of the women, which often escalates into extremely violent acts and imagery.
It may be that Norton is making a comment on the male-domination the company observed in Tajikistan by showing how distasteful the same thing looks like with gender roles reversed, but if so it’s not developed beyond displaying a militaristic and regimented Amazonian society within which there is a constant internal battle for control. Given the piece’s fiercely aggressive parameters there’s considerable variety of movement, and the lighting that projects enlarged shadows of the dancers against the stage’s back wall is a superb representation of military totalitarianism. That being said, the piece went on too long: after awhile it all became somewhat numbing.
With Walled, Norton was motivated by finding a type of fabric that could stretch upon contact with a body without losing shape. It looks like the type of fabric that Martha Graham used in Lamentation, but Norton here was inspired to use it to represent boundaries against which her dancers push, or a stretchable wall that separates one dancer from another. There’s nothing beyond that – no sense of trying to break through the boundaries; just visualization of boundaries.
Aside from this overall theme, the choreography, to pulsing percussive music (“Mog” and “Licht” by Komet – think the sound of a car engine that won’t turn over, or a factory machine that repeatedly creates the same sounds as it manufactures whatever it is that it manufactures), suggests a hard-fought journey. The angular, thrusting movement yields at times to a “palsied” type of movement, as if the dancer is being restricted by some invisible barrier, and many of the images are poses that are held for several seconds and then yield to further poses. At one point one of the three dancers walks around the stage, circumnavigating it over and over, maybe establishing a perimeter boundary, and then starts jogging around it. At another point the dancer initially shown pressing her body against the stretchable fabric wraps an edge of it around the head of another dancer, and pulls her up from the floor, stretching the fabric between them in increasing length to form a space divider; a boundary, perhaps suggesting that it’s the dancers who are creating the boundaries for themselves and each other.
The closing two pieces in the first program were choreographed and performed by Degwekar-Shaikh, also a Kathak-trained dancer, in unabridged Kathak classical Indian style. I don’t consider myself competent to evaluate the merit of Degwekar-Shaikh’s technical execution, but it appears to be at a very high level. Her first dance, Shiv Panchakshar, is an incantation to Lord Shiva. It’s apparent what Degwekar-Shaikh is doing, and aside from continuing too long (which may have been required by the subject matter) it looked intriguing. Her second piece, Taal Bandish, is essentially a lesson in Kathak style and gestural meaning, which she artfully communicates.
Finally, the dances by Ayorinde, which forms the middle part of the first program, and those by Tsai, which opened the second program, are “experimental” pieces that are difficult to categorize beyond that, much less to explain. I don’t know what Ayorinde was attempting to accomplish with his multi-part presentation, Patient, Not Serene, which featured a video of a PATH train (a local commuter subway of sorts between Newark or Hoboken, NJ and NYC) taken from inside the train looking out to some adjacent structures and the rails on which the train moves, followed by a photographic collage of several unidentified people with moving arms seemingly swaying in the marshland while a different train (a NJ Transit Train) passes in the distance. These images yield to a video of a woman (Sienna Blaw) apparently taken in a different “natural” location, slightly moving her arms and body, eventually dancing slowly and deliberately – except when she’s pretending to swing a baseball bat – near a body of water, and finally to a view of some ghost-like white shadowy image taken from the sky, soon joined by another ghost-like image.
While there’s no requirement that any dance, and particularly one described as “experimental,” be audience-friendly, Patient, Not Serene appears to be nothing more than an intentional amalgam of disparate and minimally related images. If there’s more to it than that, and there may well be, I missed it.
Tsai’s experimental dances are another matter. Jai-Mei Barber Shop, in which she appears with Sam Yang, doesn’t follow any script, and the action – recorded in black and white – consists of Tsai welcoming Yang and giving him a haircut. It’s very active (many cuts – pun intended – from one set of moving images to the next), and that’s about it. But it’s all in how Tsai puts everything together to make a visual statement. Jai-Mei Barber Shop is fun to watch, and a reminder that “experimental” doesn’t necessarily mean incomprehensible. Her second piece, Woman, is a fractured grouping, also in black and white, of brief filmed images of three women in various movement sequences spliced together in no apparent order. It’s not enjoyable the way Jai-Mei Barber Shop is, but I appreciate its experimentation value in capturing a series of movement images that may share some commonality.
The level of “programmed hyperactivity” in Tsai’s dances is reflected in her paintings, some of which she showed during the preceding interview. They’re jumbled and expressionistic and quite wonderful, as were so many of the dances in this program. The program will be available to stream from the SOPAC site through June 30, free of charch.