With the Birds

Nesting in the crevices of Manhattan, wind strong

I wish I didn't have to think of Jennifer Monson's Flight of Mind as the culmination of Bird Brain, a five-year project during which she studied migration patterns of birds and whales and produced several works, including the lovely Pigeon Project (2000). Perhaps what Monson discovered as she watched populations of ospreys and city pigeons will continue to affect her work. The action of air currents and storms on flight, the sensing of temperature changes on the skin, the alterations in landscape caused by humans are not trivial subjects and can be made visible in the patternings of dance.

The choreographic task, however, isn't easy. Sometimes during Flight of Mind, I tried to find analogies between what I saw and bird behavior—to reconcile the apparent purposefulness of migrations, the sleekness of flight patterns, the doggedness of nesting with behavior that looked more aimless and unfulfilled—intrepid downtown dancers at play, with the wary intent of improvisors and the occasional unforeseen snags. Perhaps Monson's vision is broader and less literal, her form simply more hidden.

She incites thoughts about migration in events that precede the theater performance. On the second-floor terrace, five children (Myranda Acosta, Nemo E.W., Jarratt Jung, Sulana Ahsha Robinson, and Alia Velazquez) hover on one leg, take short fledgling flights, and adventure in small, daring solos—repeating the whole sequence as spectators come and go. In a far corner, Alejandra Martorell tests the air.

When we traipse downstairs and outside, Monson and Katy Pyle are dancing across the street, pensively rambunctious with each other's bodies and the boxed trees that line the sidewalk. In front of the theater, Alex Escalante and Kayvon Pourazar are scrappier and more athletic. Passersby ignore them almost completely ("Oh, just some dancers," barely crosses their minds as they pursue their paths undeterred). A few take notice when the women appear to be trying to break a mailbox free of its moorings and the men shinny up a street lamp and rattle a "No Parking" sign. But two women lying on the sidewalk with their legs in the air? Ignore them. Only a New York crazy mutters a reasonable question through missing teeth: "Are they fighting or playing?" Members of the general public become the single-minded migrators streaming past us the bird-watchers and the squabbling-pigeon dancers.

We enter the theater through a backstage entrance, negotiating a trail that winds through tall potted phragmites and bamboo (Bob Brain and Leslie Reed, set designers). Other pots block rows and aisles, and the audience can view the space from any of three sides. Joe Levasseur's lights include us in the scene. The dancers appear wearing pants and knitted vests with collars that become hoods. These are the same four we saw outside, but Pourazar is substituting for Eleanor Hullihan who, sad to say, broke a toe in the middle of the opening night performance. Pourazar is familiar with Monson's work and, in fact, had begun learning Monson's part the day before the accident, two days before the performance I attended. (You'd never know he learned the material—granted, much of it improvised—so quickly, but the last-minute switch is bound to have affected the work).

Composer David Kean samples the ambiance in the building; the score he plays with Kenta Nagai is sometimes quiet, sometimes jangling, sometimes a whooshing storm. The intention the performers project is one of trying this, trying that, looking around for something else they might want or need to do. You can, if you like, see bird behavior in their precarious balances, their overcrossing footsteps, the way Pyle wheels around the space, their unexpected flocking into casual unison, the illusion they create of fighting strong winds. Occasionally they squawk. Huddled together, they reach up hands to stroke and preen one another. A highlight: Monson's slow solo with little calls, which culminates in her hitting the floor flat on her face and smacking a fist against it. Other highlights: brief encounters in which dancers hook onto one another in odd ways; an all-fours retreat in which their rapidly vibrating bodies turn their vocalizing into an eerie flutter.

Everything they do seems to be as much the product of whim as of instinct. Objects figure as nesting material, precarious shelter, whatever. The four drag potted plants around, shove them with their heads. They shelter briefly under thin pieces of plywood. It's a mistake, however, always to equate them with wildlife. No bird ever trashed the environment, although one might try and fail to pick up the pieces of styrofoam that fall from Monson's plastic bag to squeak under the dancers' feet. By the end of the piece the stage is littered with spilled dirt and torn newspapers. Near the end, the dancers jive—two to a garish spotlight—screaming a raucous song into hand-held mics. I think I hear the wor, but who knows?

 
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