Just Don't Stop

Worlds of Difference Downtown

"Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough." That's what Ben Munisteri calls his program at P.S. 122. He has sage ideas about what "enough" is, seaming four dances together so tightly that you wonder how he and his four dancers manage to scramble in and out of the great-looking costumes Ginger Blake designed.

In the part-discotheque, part-jungle created by Kathy Kaufmann's imaginative lighting and projections, Munisteri displays very smart, beautifully controlled dancing that's wild at the core. How did a confessed club kid who once performed Doug Elkins's deconstructed hip-hop develop a selective sense regarding ballet? Even in Mastic-Shirley, smacking their hips around to David Bowie, Munisteri, Lisa Wheeler, and Tricia Brouk sculpt each move. Passés-relevés ensue shortly after the choreographer trashes a table set with junk food, and before ropes attached to the three pull most of their clothes off.

It seems perfectly okay that the dancers execute tours en l'air in I'm an Angry Little Frog, or back out beating their legs in entrechat trois in Smash Through to Sunlight. This may be because all Munisteri's movement and space patterns, no matter how idiosyncratic and skewed, maintain the tension of ballet and its linear clarity. Equally deftly, the choreography for The Rosenkavalier (Lust Is a Pig Wallowing and Grovelling in Filth) straddles Strauss's late, dark Romanticism and Evren Celimli's rock beat. Flat-out dancing seems perfectly at home with well-managed displays of the lust the kooky title promises. My favorite erotic moment: Munisteri holds Wheeler in a ballroom dip and dreamily strokes her belly for a while.

Ballet for Weirdos: Smash Through to Sunlight
photo: Dona Ann McAdams
Ballet for Weirdos: Smash Through to Sunlight

The dancers' individuality comes through beautifully. Francisco Graciano's sobriety contrasts with Munisteri's offhand, almost embarrassed manner. Brouk is bold and crystal clear; Wheeler tougher, disarmingly gauche; and Chris McMillan shows the up-for-anything sangfroid you'd expect of a woman whose CV includes the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and Poppo and the GoGo Boys.

Nicholas Leichter also fades one dance into another. The aptly named Breakdown, at the Flea Theater, feels like a single long hyperenergetic piece about coming apart and missing connections. He deconstructs not only street dance moves but nightclub manners. Even though gorgeous Holly Handman, rubbing her body and writhing sensuously, isn't trying to seduce us, she's making a public statement about being sexy. In solos like Leichter's new Baby Doll, he uncannily builds nervous gestures and facial expressions into a barrage of tics that pertain to how he hopes and fears we (standing for society) will perceive him, and how he sees himself. Dancers offer flowers to the front row and pull excited audience members up to rock with them afterward. In the tiny Flea, not only do dancers' legs graze the spectators, their cravings put us on the spot.

In group dances, the constant staccato texture takes hip-hop into demented, sometimes witty directions that distance the performers from their own desires. They twitch in and out of embraces and dance steps as if the constant beat DJ D. Eddy Chai keeps pounding were ruling their lives. The most compelling new work is Prologue, a duet for Leichter and Claire Byrne. In Suzanne Blezard's silvery tops and white skirts with fake-marabou trim, they literally get hooked (and unhooked), staring past each other as if they could neither comprehend their desires nor control their bodies. In this poignant display of missed connections, Byrne remains sweet, goofy, willing—a marvelous foil for Leichter's terrible confusion, and an angel of subtlety in white-hot hell.

Onstage at the Joyce, Sara Pearson's on the verge of exploding. In Hereafter, by Pearson and partner Patrik Widrig, she talks of a long dying, of "Richard" who clings to life like a rock climber to a cliff. All the while her body, dancing in place, expresses her rage, love, frustration, grief; her stamping feet mark off the hours, days, months. It's the single moment in Hereafter when text and movement most perfectly fuse. Otherwise, in this tough-tender dance about passing from life to death, text carries most of the meaning; the flung-out dancing exists as a kind of vital undercurrent standing for life.

At first I worried. Pearson and Widrig have resorted to a form that's become a cliché: Several times, the performers speak in turn—to recount a childhood idea of death, address one who has passed on, make bequests. But, staged with wise theatricality, the device becomes suspenseful: As the choreographers and company members Liz Claire, Rodrigo Esteva, Philip Kain III, and Mirah Kellc Moriarty line up with a vivid assortment of all-ages performers, we're caught. What will each come up with next?

Robert Een's music, performed live by an ensemble featuring cello, accordion, saxophone, and percussion, provides a bright, earthy texture and rhythmic push. Videos obliquely acknowledge the passage from life: Esteva, a tiny figure, runs and runs through green fields, outstripping nothing; bathers lined up at the edge of a swimming pool fall sideways into it one by one. Pearson and Widrig don't really need to interrupt Hereafter with an intermission. Life may pause, but it doesn't stop in the middle.

Marion Ballester's Unconscious Landscape is as much a startling art exhibit as a dance. Ballester transported to Danspace from her native France the seven wooden balls—carved, distressed, cracked, and about two feet in diameter—that constitute Louise Bourgeois's sculpture Gathering Wool. (Gallery owners, eat your hearts out.) It's one thing to watch a naked Ballester on video dancing in and out of a tight row of immense disks (Bourgeois's Shredder), or sitting on one of the balls and rippling her back muscles. It's another to see performer Jacinthe Giroux, her entire torso wrapped in an Ace bandage, roll the balls into a cluster or attempt to stand on one, occasionally singing in a voice as high and thin as a gnat's. Unlike Isamu Noguchi's works for Martha Graham, Bourgeois's sculpture wasn't made for the theater, although she obviously supported Ballester's project. So there's something transgressive about the whole performance that feeds the notion of Bourgeois's art as a radical act.

For Giroux's character, the balls represent task, challenge, burden; for Ballester, Sara Hanley, and Heather Kravas, they reconfigure a somewhat treacherous landscape of memory. The shards of music (by Xenakis, Evelynn Glennie, Bourgeois herself, et al.) and the sculpted shapes of light by Ana Cappelluto catch the three dancers in mysterious activities. At times the movement, loose and soft, shows a slight Trisha Brown likeness; at other times the three repeat tauter actions, like windmilling their arms, to the point of obsession. Unconscious Landscape is elegantly designed, hinting at more than it tells. Bourgeois's life story may be buried within it—only slightly less secretively than it is in Gathering Wool.

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