Manhattan Movement and Arts Center, New York, NY; December 5, 2014
When I last saw Trainor Dance ten months ago on a joint program with two other companies, it consisted of Caitlin Trainor, its artistic director and choreographer (and a faculty member at Barnard College), and Kaitlyn Gilliland, a former dancer with New York City Ballet (and now a teacher at the NYCB’s School of American Ballet and a senior at Columbia University). Although I enjoyed Ms. Trainor’s two pieces last February, this latest presentation at the Manhattan Movement and Arts Center, the culmination of the company’s 2014 season, was a more comprehensive, and more entertaining, overall program. Indeed, for sheer choreographic variety, it was an eye-opening evening.
Founded in 2011, Trainor Dance is currently comprised of nine dancers, plus Ms. Trainor. They are a visually eclectic group, but all have significant dance pedigrees, and they’re an engaging troupe. Ms. Trainor’s choreographic style is equally eclectic; the three pieces on the program were so visually different from each other that they hardly seemed the product of the same choreographer. The common thread to all of them is the quality of the craftsmanship. The evening’s initial piece, “Courante”, is both energetic and intriguing – the perfect opener; the middle piece is a brooding, introspective solo for Ms. Trainor, and “Faux Pas” is a rousing, send-them-home-smiling, concluding dance.
Even though it goes on too long, its choreographic vocabulary is relatively limited, and it has too many false endings (faux pas?), “Faux Pas” is well worth seeing, and was the best piece on the program.
As may be gleaned from its title, “Faux Pas” is a dance with a sense of humor. The piece begins with the seven dancers spaced evenly through the stage, dressed in colorless costumes that look like hybrid leotards and shorts (except for the two men, who are shirtless). Above each of them hang cape-like garments of varying colors – no two the same. The dancers, first one then another, wrap themselves in these capes while they are still hanging. After some positional changes (the equivalent of shopping for a different outfit, perhaps?), one, then another, pulls the cape off its hooks and dances with it, eventually trying the garment on in various positions – as a shawl, or a skirt, or pantaloons, or a body-spanning sheet. Eventually, all the garments become lower-body coverings – except when used as a sort of shroud. But even though the costume manipulation presents a cute (and colorful) moving montage, don’t get the notion that this is a dance about playing with costumes.
Choreographed to Mozart’s Piano Concertos Nos.20 and 23 (one played by classical pianist Mikhail Pietnev and the other by Bobby McFerrin and Chick Corea), “Faux Pas” is about playing with imagery. In between an assortment of permutations of individual dancers, duos, trios, etc., there are references to folk dances (e.g. Czardas), fleeting allusions to Graham-esque inward thrusts and costume boundaries (think “Lamentations”, only without anything to lament), Greco/Roman friezes, a surrogate Puck, Balanchinian diagonals and sequencing, and Tharpian quirkiness.
But being fun to watch is surface – the piece is more complex than any of those references and allusions would imply. “Faux Pas” enwraps the audience in visual movement as much as the clever costumes (by David Quinn) enwrap the dancers. If there’s one image that repeats constantly, but in a positive way, it’s that of dancers leaping with one leg extended, and rotating in the air as they fly off stage. And if there’s one movement sense that permeates the piece it’s a quality of fluidity, of swirling circularity, which encompasses floor work as well as flight.
And “Faux Pas” includes some very good dancing. Each of the seven members of the cast delivered distinctive character (or the calculated absence of it) to his or her role – and that I can remember each of them individually, in what is an ensemble piece, is no small accomplishment. Highlighting one over others may seem unfair since no one dancer was featured, but Allegra Herman (who, according to program notes, trained at Manhattan Youth Ballet, SAB, and Nederlands Dans Theater – and is also a Columbia student) was particularly expressive, and impressive.
A ‘courante’ is music in quick triple time or a mixture of 3/2 and 6/4 time, but it can also refer to a dance marked by quick running or gliding step. Both these musical and dance qualities are reflected in Ms. Trainor’s “Courante”, which opened the evening’s program. “Courante” is also the title of the accompanying music – one of a suite of four pieces reflective of Baroque dance forms composed by Carolyn Shaw (“Partita for Eight Voices”) that won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Music, performed by the acclaimed chamber ensemble, Roomful of Teeth. The score is comprised of melodic whispers, sighs, and repetitive chants that span the vocal spectrum. To my untrained musical ear, it sounds like plainchant updated with 21st century angst; a throaty, pulsing, beautiful series of devilishly angelic orgasms occasionally interrupted by vocal accompaniment to a human sacrifice. But despite this seeming tonal variety and internal inconsistency, the composition is both fascinating and surprisingly well-suited for dance.
The piece opens on a darkened stage as Ms. Shaw’s composition and the Roomful of Teeth voices set the mood. As the stage brightens, two female dancers appear, moving in a slinky, shaking, quirky manner that brought to mind the movement of chickens. The allusion is compounded by costumes (uncredited) that are partially bordered by what appears to be a thin line of feathers appended to the black costume at locations unique to each dancer – for example, around the neck, waste, or down a leg.
This sense of poultry in motion (forgive me – I’m still knee deep in Thanksgiving leftovers) gradually becomes more ordered, and less quirky –although I still had the sense of animalistic movement (as opposed to humans acting like animals). But for all its quirkiness, there’s a lyrical quality to “Courante”, combined with powerful movement vocabulary, which made me think of the lyricism inherent in the movement of a herd of animals. Indeed, at times the dancers frame the stage action or emerge from the wings as if not wanting to stray too far from forested safety, and at one point some of them attempt, unsuccessfully, to penetrate the proscenium boundary and stampede into the audience.
But although I sensed this animalistic movement quality, this has no direct relevance to the vocal background. The piece works as coherent abstract movementalone, just as the vocal accompaniment works as a coherent gathering of disparate sounds. The movement is constant, vital, and primitive – and exciting to watch.
Sandwiched between “Courante” and “Faux Pas” was a solo for Ms. Trainor, titled “Self-Portrait, Reflected”. It is the only one of the three pieces on the program that doesn’t work. The stage is dominated by an upstage screen on which photographed images of a decaying, desolate cityscape (I thought New York City, but couldn’t place the location) were projected. This large, dominant image is soon complemented by photographed images of Ms. Trainor projected on one or another side of the urban panorama. The images (by Paul B. Goode) generally appeared to be snapshots of Ms. Trainor frozen in various dance poses captured from the dance on stage (on a few occasions I saw Ms. Trainor’s stage movement suddenly match the projected image), but the piece lacked the intriguing visual quality that I sensed in “The Air Turned White”, a similar solo/photographic duet that she performed on last February’s program. And instead of looking forward to seeing the next unpredictable and imaginative image, as I did at that prior performance, this time it all looked predictable and emotionally monochromatic. I take anything titled ‘Self-Portrait’ as a serious attempt at self-reflection and self-understanding, but to me this piece revealed nothing more than an anguished individual suffering from kinetic anomie superimposed on an anguished city suffering from an urban version of anomie. There’s no question of Ms. Trainor’s ability to translate feeling into movement, but “Self-Portrait, Reflected” is not particularly enlightening or entertaining.
Nevertheless, for its overall choreographic quality as well as the skill and enthusiasm of its dancers, based on this program (and evidenced by the full house), Trainor Dance is a company well worth seeing the next time it performs in the New York area.