Tangled Tales

Dancers Pull Out All the Stops

The members of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater pounce on choreography with the zeal of vampires offered a feast of blood, but a lot more elegantly. Up at City Center, where the company plays through January 5, they relish everything they do so thoroughly that I feel almost guilty when I'm less than thrilled by their material.

Francesca Harper's Apex begins grippingly. Bahiyah Sayyed-Gaines almost thrashes her super-flexible body out of her skimpy black bra and trunks. Matthew Rushing crouches, aiming a spotlight amid smoke. The word fear stretches across the backdrop; Rolf Ellmer's electronic score menaces the stage. Clifford Brown ripples and segments his body as if one shoulder were disintegrating and the vertical human stance were in question. We hardly need Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell stalking watchfully about in stiletto-heeled patent-leather boots to teach us that this is a corrupt society.

Apex is one of two new dances (the other is by Lynn Taylor-Corbett) commissioned as part of artistic director Judith Jamison's Women's Choreography Initiative. It shows both Harper's heritage as a onetime Ailey dancer and her work in Europe with William Forsythe's Ballett Frankfurt. You want passion? It's here. Dark motives and compelling, slashing moves? You got 'em. Legs kicking very, very high? Right.

Menace or watchdog? Fisher-Harrell in Harper's new Apex
photo: Janet Levitt
Menace or watchdog? Fisher-Harrell in Harper's new Apex

The first part of the striking but uneven work emphasizes punitive dancing, while words like torture flash on the backdrop and on the white lengths of material that are used like snares and leashes. The dancers, including Samuel Deshauteurs, Jeffrey Gerodias, Jamar Roberts, Renée Robinson, Rosalyn Sanders, and Asha Thomas, perform as if inspired.

The dance switches gears in midstream. I wouldn't have known had I not read it in the press kit that the nasty society of the first part is a result of the lack of compassion and respect for freedom we learn about later. Fisher-Harrell may look like a dominatrix you pay to be bad, but it is she who stands at a mic in the second section and recites hard-to-hear stories of asylum denied and asylum seekers turned back to the hells from which they came.

So after all the beat-'em-up dancing, we see Robinson gently untangle Rushing from the white strips and hear him yell to immigration officials, "Je m'appelle Patrick. Je viens du Congo." Then, finally fully audible without the music fighting her, Fisher-Harrell recites the case history of a man denied asylum for an unreasonable reason, who was reprieved when the pilot refused to take off. This last section's literal tone is at odds with the first part’s depraved acrobatics.


Storytelling in dance is a challenge, especially if the plot is a tangle of conflicting desires like the Romeo-and-Juliet-plus-incest one of Cecilia, Pedro Ruiz's latest work for Ballet Hispanico. At intermission in the lobby of the Joyce, where Tina Ramirez’s excellent company finished its run last Sunday, you could hear, "That wasn't the father's mistress, it was his wife." "Why did he run off if he didn’t know she was his half sister? Or did he?" "She didn't look as if she came from a different class . . . "

Company dancer Ruiz has made several successful works for the ensemble, but he's groping here, despite some interesting dancing to a variety of musical selections. He successfully conveys that the aristocratic hero Leonardo (Yarden Ronen) is torn between his half sister Cecilia (the gorgeous dancer Natalia Alonso) and his parents' choice of a wife (Irene Hogarth) by having the two women onstage—one standing at the rear, her back turned, while he dances with the other. But in no way does a flashy if enraged solo, excellently performed by Jae-Man Joo, convey rival Pimienta's jealousy of Cecilia's love for Leonardo. In no way does a passionate duet between the hero's parents (Ruiz and Jennifer DePalo) convey a decision about their son’s marriage. And the moment when Pimienta stabs Leonardo (does he?) is a split-second throwaway that clears the stage of wedding guests as if by magic.

You can learn quite a bit about women's underwear from one scene in Cecilia and a lot more from Ann Reinking’s Slices. The work begins with three dreamy duets (some of the music is by Philip Hamilton, and he also offers an intriguing take on "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"). Reinking is better, to my mind, with zingy stuff. The men in these duets put women down tenderly, only to pick them up again and turn them upside down or drape them over their shoulders. Panties make an appearance.

In the next section, the costume is black trunks and colored tops for all, but during a smart, taut group dance featuring hyperactive pelvises and jack-in-the-box jumps, the crotch becomes a feature, especially in an elaborate adagio act for Ruiz and Nicole Stoner. In the finale, a rousing, skillfully made display of dance-hall camaraderie to Fher Sierra's "Corazon Espinado," the men (now in dark suits) enjoy flipping up the women's skirts to look underneath, and the women turn to flash them. As an individual vagary, this could be simply lusty; executed in unison, it's vulgar.


The 11th annual Improvisation Festival/NY staked out downtown for two weeks in December, and improv groupies could have a blast. Improvisation has become increasingly sophisticated—a form well beyond its clichéd identity as an arena in which people playfully parade their shticks.

On one evening, at Judson Church, Paul Langland, Wendell Beavers, and Marguerita Guergue inhabit a post–9-11 work titled Rooms and Buildings. The beginning might almost have been choreographed; the men on blocks below the altar platform, and Guergue atop it, strike slow, strange poses that are like drastic responses arrested and cooled. Langland reads from Gertrude Stein's Rooms, and at the end, they walk wearily about, wearing landmarks like the Chrysler Building as mask-headpieces. But much of what they do and how they do it, alone and together, is spontaneous. The three are fascinating to watch; these agile men are no spring chickens, and their presence is deep and thoughtful. Guergue, droll and quick-footed, provides a fine counterpoint.

When Montreal-based artist Marc Boivin stretches upward and outward, his limbs seem to reach beyond the confines of the space. In Peripethia's Path, he and Helen Walkley of Vancouver travel a road that takes them through quiet challenges and tender moments, separates them and unites them. They are beautifully responsive to each other. He advances on her vibrating his ribcage; she vibrates too. The action goes beyond simple imitation, and the whole piece simmers with subtle emotion: a silent howl, a struggle to speak, the change of a gentle touch to something more dangerous. When they nestle together, your body remembers embraces.

Polly Motley explores Field alone, her space marked by a trail of little red lights. Listening to bird sounds, she's like a woman with a bird inside her, one that feathers slowly through her limbs. Her mood is quiet, but she can ripple amazingly to the floor in a flash. Nothing looks learned or practiced. Again, your seated body responds.


I forgot to mention last week that Meredith Monk’s Mercy has been released on CD by ECM.

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