Sitting Down to Dance

New Choreography by Swanson, Curran, and a Clutch of Downtowners

You can't dance with Trisha Brown for 10 years and not feel a bone-deep influence in your own choreography. The three pieces Wil Swanson showed at the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Project at the Duke have a subtle elegance and a wayward formalism I associate with Brown, as well as moves that share her fluid style: soft springs, lightly flung steps, complex ricocheting interactions.

But Swanson has his own concerns. Falling and resting interest him. In his beautiful new Naked Singularities, sleeping bodies stud the dark stage, while Swanson dances on-screen above them, the slowed-down film feathering his gestures. Uta Takemura suddenly rolls to lie on Joshua Zimmerman, her head on his belly. Near the end, Takemura, Felicia Ballos, and Flora Wiegmann dive into the arms of Swanson, Zimmerman, and Kayvon Pourazar (they like this so much they do it again). Yet in all three pieces, Swanson treats dancing as an endless swath of material. People fall out of it into the wings and seconds later reappear linked to an ongoing pattern. To Naked Singularities' ticking, pounding score, the dancers form nuclei, constantly metamorphosing as they traverse the stage. By way of a climax, they acquire gold and bronze costumes as if they have indeed entered another state, carrying their favorite movements with them.

In Torse (2000) and Ore (1999), Swanson also pits stillness against motion, especially potent in Ore, where the sound score (attributed to Devin Carey) seeds silence with clangings and horn blasts. Here, too, despite interruptions or pauses where people stand for a while like statues in a plaza, the piece builds images of flux. Torse, set to several concerti grossi by Arcangelo Corelli, seems particularly, sunnily changeable. The music, Josh Epstein's lighting, and the costumes by Swanson and Wiegmann—decorated corsets and filmy white pants—help foster visions of grave playfulness, where a woman may catch her armpit on another's shoulder and be swung off the ground. But archness is absent. Takemura pushes her chin against a man's outstretched hand as if this were a step as formal as a leap.

Wil Swanson and Joshua Zimmerman in Swanson's Torse, at The Duke
photo: Pete Kuhns
Wil Swanson and Joshua Zimmerman in Swanson's Torse, at The Duke


Watching Seán Curran's work (also part of the Harkness series), I think that community must matter more to him than anything else in the world. The people in his dances are bound together by his zest for patterns and lively rhythms, and by the crisp lines of his movement style. The dances seem like anthologies of private memories or favorite games. In the haunting 1999 Six Laments, individual losses are collaged rather than shared. No one onstage watches Curran as, over and over, he spins and crashes into a sit, as if trying to relive and understand a terrible moment. No one responds to Heather Waldon-Arnold, fitting a long, precise solo into unseen grooves of space, or pays attention when Seamus Egan's beautiful music stops and Donna Scro Gentile, holding her pregnant belly, begins to dance. And yet, each plight—of Amy Brous and Tony Guglietti, Juan Carlos Claudio and Kevin Scarpin—echoes every other.

Curran's new Sonata (We Are What We Were) is more overtly communal. The stage is framed by kid-sized white chairs, and Philip W. Sandström's lighting creates a blue-sky day. Chamber music by Leos Janácek sets the tone. We are in some Czech garden of the mind. One by one, the dancers (including Blakeley White-McGuire and Peter Kalivas) join hands, curling a line into a circle. They form pairs—men together, women together, a man and a woman. Four men dance with their arms about one another's shoulders and waists. They rest, sprawled across the tiny chairs. This is a folk dance beset and tempered by recollections. And when they whirl their arms, they swim through dreams.

From the Ether With Instinct, Curran's latest, is a breezier work. Clearly pleased with their bright outfits (from the Issey Miyake Pleats Please Collection), the dancers stand, heads cocked, and hold pants or skirts out to the side like little girls preparing to curtsy. The music—scruffy, booping '80s rock by the Young Marble Giants—inspires Curran to enter twanging an air guitar as he dances to beat the band. There are games—one person seems to control another as if flying a toy airplane. Partners size each other up across the floor and meet to swing-dance. It's a sort of oddball show: dancers facing front a lot, the occasional follow spot. I kept hoping that Curran would break loose more often from his tightly controlled form, but the slightly artificial sound dictates something else: rock by the rules.


Ever since government funding for individual choreographers dried up, shared programs have been on the rise. They're useful samplers for spectators. Anyone attending all three "Performance Mix" programs presented by the New Dance Alliance at Joyce Soho the weekend before last would have seen dances by 13 choreographers. One evening's mix ranged from works in progress to Ellis Wood's Timeless Red from the late '90s.

The title of Cary Baker's duet for Marissa Nielsen-Pincus and Anne Palmer, i am twice, promised more than an attractive exploration of what could be done with two hanging exercise balls to music by Torococorot (imitate them, swing them, slip beneath them). The dancers looked glum—maybe to avoid kiddishness.

Three pieces used chairs. In The Main Event, an excerpt from Tania Isaac's work in progress, Deborah Richards sat to speak, with ferocity and elegant articulation, a text by her and Isaac, while Isaac—lanky and powerful yet delicate—danced as if to cast things away. It wasn't hard to get the drift (identity and assimilation) from sentences like "Girl, you're a long way from the ripe smells of a native somewhere," but words and movement never fully mated.

On two close-together chairs, in an excerpt from Shannon Hummel's promising work in progress Stay, sat prim, hands-folded Vanessa Adato and Donna Costello. Costello practiced enough curious, obsessive gestures to interest and irritate her seat mate. Her escalating bids for attention led to a struggle; the smaller Adato repeatedly pinned her to the wall with an elbow. Hummel's initial image, coupled with the birdsong in MANOISECA's score, suggested strangers in a park, but then Adato could've walked away or called the cops. There's some deeper, as yet unclarified rivalry here.

The chairs in Wood's piece were occupied by three women in slips—maybe sisters, who, though rebellious, seemed pulled into eddies of movement by a dominating yet landlocked woman (Leslie Johnson) in an extra-long red dress, who gestured from a tall box. Almost throughout this enigmatic but compelling piece, with its barely heard text by Jonathan Pascoe, another woman in red, Sara Joel, sat on the floor shaking her head—an object of occasional attention, like the demented child in the attic or the bewildered demon within.

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