Fear and Loving

Choreography Unspools in Two Downtown Series

You don't want to go there. I don't mean that you shouldn't see Rosane Chamecki and Andrea Lerner's Visible Content, the terrifying piece that opened Dance Theater Workshop's "Carnival" series (12 companies in rotation through March 30). I mean you never want to experience the fear that Lerner (in rotation with Chamecki), Tarek Halaby, Maria Hassabi, and Paul Matteson endure for 45 minutes.

We do not know what they are afraid of or who they are. They embody fear in all its aspects. They've become what they feel, and they're not a pretty sight. Alone together, rarely in synchrony, they shiver and howl. They hunch their backs and laugh, lips spread as in the rictus of a corpse. They waddle, slump to the floor, pull at their faces, and paw their heads. They wave and smile in desperate flirtatiousness. They rub their bellies obsessively. Their clothes (by Nicholas Petrou) have a sci-fi edge: cuirasses in rags, glittering.

They never approach Thomas Sandbichler's set—white tennis netting that forms a high barrier at one side of the stage and is pulled into peaks and hollows by red cords. Nor do they seem to react to the changes in Lap-Chi Chu's superb lighting, which sometimes turns the stage unbearably bright for a few seconds, like a lightning strike prolonged. Guitarist-bassist Darren Crawforth and keyboardist John Codling of AZORES mix up echoes from hell, but do the four hear them?

Barnett and Kennedy in Elkins's Mermaids
photo: Tom Brazil
Barnett and Kennedy in Elkins's Mermaids

Minimalism of form plays against white-hot content. The gestures, moves, expressions (some of which could have been inspired by photographs or disaster reports) have been structured into long phrases. Most "words" in this vocabulary are shared by all; others seem particular to individuals, or more favored by them. What you see are the same things over and over. And over. Rearranged, truncated, performed with different emphasis. But the same. Watch one person for a lot of the time, and you almost memorize his or her repertoire.

There are no climaxes. But a few incidents tempt you into false anticipation. Once, Matteson breaks out of his isolation to rub Hassabi's head for her, to make her hand rub him, to burrow his head into her neck; but she's numb, and he seems unsure whose body is whose. When she staggers away, he's rubbing his own leg, unaware she has gone, or was ever beside him.

Each new Chamecki and Lerner piece is different from its predecessors. This daring one, on view January 16, 17, 25, and 26, is as remorseless as terror. You could go crazy watching.

The annual "Altogether Different" season at the Joyce (eight companies through January 19) chose to open with a party. Watching Doug Elkins's The Look of Love—now sensibly pared down from its original two-act version—is almost as much fun as dancing it would be. It's that infectious. Elkins's seductive moves—a happy fusion of club dancing, contact improvisation, and postmodern smarts—ride fine classic songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and kooky ones by Daniel Johnston. Elkins has a terrific instinct as to where to flow and wind around the music and when to dart wittily through it.

Roma Flowers's lighting blends colorful changeability with soft-focus projections of tricked-out flowers and heavenly bodies. In this vivid atmosphere, the seven dancers ripple their bodies and fling themselves about with easy exuberance, bringing out the nuances of each number. They're wonderful, beginning with Sharon Estacio and Brian Caggiano in a duet that allows her juicy musicality and his sensitivity to dynamic changes full play. Kristina Kirkenaer, whose awareness of where she is and who she's with is as lively as Caggiano's, excels in a bumptious love-on-the-dancefloor duet with skinny, mischievous Bernard Brown. Julian Barnett joins Caggiano and Brown for one of Elkins's most tongue-in-cheek dances, "Tower of Strength," in which sustaining machismo is a major effort.

Elkins enjoys playing against traditional gender roles. Women lift men; men swing men around. In one delicious, elegantly structured trio to "Long Day, Short Night," Brown tries to kiss Caggiano, while Caggiano, more interested in Lesley Kennedy, isn't having any. But these are not "incidents"; the three keep spooling out their intricate exchanges without losing a beat.

Like The Look of Love, Elkins's new I Hear Mermaids Singing is in suite form, but it's set to music from Polynesia and the South Pacific that ranges from chants accompanied by clapping and sticks hitting together, to mellow songs with steel guitar, to tropicalized Christian hymns, all underlaid by Evren Celimli with the sounds of the sea. Flowers enhances her lighting with projections of rippling ocean. And in this piece, simple transitions keep the dances flowing into one another, as if they're being borne in by the tide. The dancers (joined by Pippa Frame) wear bright-colored costumes by Nadia Tarr, whose skillful drape of skirt-over-pants evokes island attire while looking very contemporary.

You see typical Elkins moves—like a coiled one-armed handstand that never stands, but bounces and curves into something else—yet also the surprise of sudden, straight-up jumps. Occasionally, the dancers vibrate their knees in and out Samoan-style, and their undulating torsos acquire a soft island accent, as does Caggiano's final solitary burst of easygoing acrobatics on the floor. Convivial, playful, occasionally meditative, the piece is still a little rough in form, as if it had been finished in haste. Elkins may be lighthearted in his choreography, but he's a serious craftsman.

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