Friday, April 17, 2009

Sex and the City Dancer: Second Avenue Dance Company Retro Concert April 1 – 6, 2009 (full version)

In an odd bit of synchronicity, NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts presented its major Spring Dance concerts coincidental with the culmination of “March Madness” – the men's and women's NCAA basketball championships. In an oft-repeated TV spot shown during the tournament a voiceover reminds us, “There are over 400,000 student athletes, and almost all of us will be going professional in something other than sports.”

The Tisch School stands among the elite in academic dance programs worldwide. Its concert “bracket” featured a two-program schedule. Each concert consisted of six works. Susan Marshall’s 2007  “Name by Name,” which led off each program, sounded several intriguing themes and ideas that echoed through the rest of both programs.

The piece opens with the riveting Catherine DeAngelis lying at our feet, cut off from view from the waist down by the red stage curtain that falls across her hips. To a piano theme from composer David Lang's “Increase” she enacts a solo of hand, arm and torso gestures. She seems to enfold and reach through space as if half in dream, longing for a missing bed partner. Suddenly she finds herself joined by the torsos of four other dancers who squirt simultaneously halfway under the curtain as if squeezed beyond its skin by some mounting somnolent pressure.

(above) Catherine DeAngelis in the opening solo of Susan Marshall’s “Name by Name" *

Slowly the curtain parts to reveal the remainder of the cast arrayed in formal corps de ballet poses across the front of the stage in standing and kneeling parallel lines. As Lang's music adds voices to become a driving Glass/Reich like engine, Marshall will revisit and develop all of these early theatrical and movement themes. The revelations and surprises she introduces find their most compelling expression in a series of solos that anchor the scene in a pool of light near the back left hand corner of the stage.

As the tableau clears, the corps lines pushed off by the dreamy floppers, DeAngelis has been left alone in the arms of Marlene Desiree Watts who, releasing her drooping partner out of their encircling light, commences the pattern that will continue almost to the end of the piece. In a repeating series of moves delineated by a sharp turn and one kneed drop to the floor, the fearless, eloquent and athletic Watts gives way to the fierce, muscular and powerful Dana Thomas and eventually to every other member of the cast who pass name by name through a vibrant spatial tapestry. Marshall weaves the remainder of the tapestry with fugue-like trios, duets, quartets, variations on the corps lines, circling and darting cross stage runs, falls, rolls, and balletic friezes and figures. These shoot and shuttle almost continuously through her warp and woof even as the front-buttoning cotton dresses that complete Fritz Masten's costuming move mysteriously from dancer to dancer.

(l to r above) Laurel Snyder, Marlene Desiree Watts, and Brittany Murchie in Susan Marshall’s “Name by Name" *

The piece reaches its climax and here come the bodies, rolling in two parallel lines toward the audience from under the black back curtain to bracket the final soloists in their lighted pool. This curtain now parts to reveal a cyclorama at the back of the stage the color of blue sky. The effect opens the stage as if the gates of heaven had swung back and carries the viewer forward into the piece’s resolution as relentlessly as Ravel's Bolero can carry the listener.

Marshall's impassioned yet stoic work, created at the height of the debacle in Iraq, put me much in mind of the human imperative to carry on in the face of incomprehensible and essentially unspeakable loss; the dancing eloquent in its matter-of-fact reserve. In program notes, she dedicates the piece to her mother and acknowledges the collaboration of its original Juilliard cast.

Intriguingly, not only does “Name by Name” set the tone for what will follow, it also introduces movement motifs that seem to recur in many of the other pieces. While a dead run across the stage space represents a common enough way of human locomotion and may be useful as a textural element, its almost compulsive repetition caused me to begin to wonder what attractive or urgent force or activities must exist in the wings. What could be the significance of a hand held up to the side of the face as if shielding a dancer more or less in profile from the audience's gaze, and why did 3 out of 8 choreographers repeat this motif?  Could there be something in the air these days that has choreographers designing partnering in which one dancer slides the back of his or her neck into the outstretched palm of another? Can quirky dance vocabulary go viral?

NYU alum Brook Notary's “Grid,” it's five parallel stage-width white ropes stretching at hip level to divide the stage horizontally like a musical graph, plays with the theatrical space and pushes the boundaries of the proscenium in its stylish exploration of what lies between and outside the lines. Lara deBruijn's altered black suit costumes for 7 men and 7 women and John Elliott Oyzon's moody mixed-media digitalized score, combine with the set and the lighting to suggest an urban environment struggling to contain hidden desires and agendas. Driven by its own effects, however, the piece ultimately seems to fall short of its striking setting and cool ambition. Christeen Stridsberg, Samuel Wentz and Hee Ra Yoo stood out among the strong cast in the physically challenging, often daring choreography.

(l to r above) Elliot Reiland, Jesse Beck, Lauren Etter, Lara Gemmiti, Saeed Siamak, Elizabeth Beres and Tracy B. Gilland in Brook Notary's "GRID" *

Jill Johnson's collaboration with the dancers on a piece “based on the original phrases and governing principals (sic) of William Forsythe's work Room as it Was (2002)” here titled “Room/Room” echoes Marshall's formal explorations and attention to detail but fails to achieve her impact. Performed by separate casts of nine on alternating nights the dancing unfolds in silence until the last 45 seconds, when a fragment of Thom Willems music scratches its way into the space occupied by an almost motionless standing soloist. If Forsythe's work can be fairly described as deconstructionist, “Room/Room” with its Forsythian mix of dancers in toe shoes or socks, bright rehearsal clothes-like costumes, and twisty formal patterns shot through with stillness might best be described as a deconstruction of a deconstruction.

The student choreographers, for their part, seemed slightly less susceptible, though by no means immune, to tropes. Jesse Beck's “Eurydice,” set against an original score by Mighty Five, seems to re-imagine the fate that launched a thousand myths from the female protagonist's point of view. Our heroine appears to be two faced, as embodied by the luminous duo of Elizebeth Randall and Megan Roup. In approaching her irretrievable loss, she appears to have had a mind of her own, coming and going seemingly at will, patiently enduring her troubadour's operatic grief and ultimately dragging him (Gary Schaufeld) from her collective hips in a Sisyphean ending that does not quite live up to the rest of the piece's originality.

Lauren Etter's relatively brief ”Eventuality” takes a tribe of slightly lost looking ragamuffins from the floor to the curtain accompanied by a recording of Alain LeMay's “Prayer.” Along the way, the choreographer delivers some arresting side partnered turns, and shows a sure hand in the compositional use of opposing groups in space. When Lara Gemmiti ends up pushed offstage center as the curtain closes on the group of ten that has left her behind, Marshall's opening returns recollected. This time, however, the full-bodied ostracism and sense of separation seem opaque.

Elizabeth Beres' and Elliot Reiland's “Pavlov” and Jaclyn K. Walsh's “The Last Ace Up our Sleeve,” each seems at risk of finding itself upstaged by the strength and wit of the recorded accompanying text on which it heavily relies. Both recordings also suffer from technical production challenges that mar their clarity.

Beres and Reiland make a winning, whimsical and witty dancing couple amidst a set of chairs. Interrupted by live bell ringing marking the end of each episode, the sound of their recorded voices deliver the lines of David Ives' “Sure Thing,” a one act play of pick-up courtship. They manage to escape the textual trap they've set for themselves through the variation of their spatial composition and the evident relish of their partnering. This exploits the relative size differences of their bodies and their strong appealing sense of presence to keep us engaged in their dancing.

Walsh's composition lives and dies on excerpts of the inveterate dance writer Joan Acocella delivering a public lecture that her recorded voice reveals should have been entitled “Ballet and the Crotch." While an edited recording of Gabriela Montero's “Spontaneous Composition based on J.S. Bach's Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring'” adds further accompaniment, Walsh sets five women in motion, tongue firmly in cheek, like music box dolls in burgundy knee length tulle tutus over kelly green men's briefs seamed by white piping.

(l to r above)Traci Klein, Tracy B. Gilland, Catherine DeAngelis, Elizebeth Randall, and Regina Sobel in Jaclyn K. Walsh's “The Last Ace Up our Sleeve”*

The text declares the subject matter to be timeless, and the choreography strives to match its authority with moment, cheek, poise and wit. But the piece often seems to fall into over-literal inventions that fail to live up to its choreographer's evident imagination and skill. In a world in which the female crotch can loom forty feet tall over Houston Street, Times Square or the Hollywood Freeway the sly and delicious irony at the core of Walsh's work remains more hinted at than enacted even in view of the strong performances delivered by her cast.

This brings us back to the pelvis we came in on. Hidden under the stage curtain in the opening solo of “Name by Name” it will finally be fully harnessed in Ronald K. Brown's 2001 “Serving Nia,” a high energy crowd pleaser that brought each program to a close. As it had across both programs, the dancing of E. Wheeler Hughes, Ramona Kelley, Traci Klein, Marissa Livanna Maislen, Laurel Snyder, and Nicholas Straffaccia, as well as that of Beres, Schaufeld, the quick footed and powerful Walsh and the incandescent Watts stood out here.

Gary Schaufeld in Ronald K. Brown's "Serving Nia" (right)*

Projected digitized photographs by Deborah Willis accompanied Brown's dance designs. These images often fell upon and transfigured the skin and yellow costumes (by Omotayo Olaiyo) of the dancers, whose shadows sometimes loomed large on the back cyclorama screen. The joyous dancing that the choreography elicited from members of the cast of 11 women and 4 men sometimes stood in uncomfortable contrast to long pregnant pauses in which a group might stand in dead stillness for a minute at a time without palpable connection to the full bodied dancing unfolding before them.

In such moments, my mind would cast back to Marshall’s piece; its inspired scope of craft so complete that it crescendos in a powerful full cast unison walk right at us from the back of the stage to within feet of the front row. The afterimage of continued purpose lingers even as the dancers seem to dissolve into air, fading from view as the stage lights come down. The assertion of, in this case female, fortitude elucidates a universal theme while evoking issues much more closely at hand. For the women of Tisch, along with their much less numerous male counterparts, have acquitted themselves splendidly across the several nights of this capstone to their college careers.

It seems apparent that almost all if not all of the men in the Second Ave Dance Company can and will work as paid professional dancers if they want to work. Some have already been offered and have accepted such jobs. With no less talent and accomplishment on offer, the outlook in the women's bracket looks much more like that of the athletes in the NCAA. This rite of Spring, therefore, may offer the last best hope for many of them as maturing artists, and Marshall’s work both acknowledges and celebrates a signal moment in these lives.

“Name by Name” fully redeems its title. Somewhere in my head, as the stage lights dim before the bow, that stalwart line of women, shoulder to shoulder, still advances.

* all photos by Ella Bromblin copyright 2009

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