Douglas Dunn Trips Up the Mind

then boss in man? is what Douglas Dunn calls his new dance. What kind of a title is that? Like, you know, what? Perhaps only Dunn would use such a non-question question and perplexing word construction—leading us away from the literal toward lord knows what.

then boss in man? opens Dunn’s dazzling, rich-in-invention program, part of the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Festival. I use the word dazzling with trepidation; its association with glitz could be misleading. But dazzling his work is, in the sense of getting you to think and making you very happy in the process. tbim? is a spare and spacious little work, anchored by some very wonderful music (a Bach Chaconne and pieces by Agustín Barrios, Astor Piazzolla, and Isaac Albéniz), played wonderfully by the extraordinary guitarist, Tali Roth.

Right away, Dunn makes you aware of the distances between people. Liz Filbrun is dancing near where Roth is seated when Dunn creeps on in the background and slowly makes his way to her. He darts a hand between her arms and dodges away, but shortly they’re leaning together, getting ready to launch a skippy little jig. When Kara Blazek enters, she stares at them as if they were another species, goes up to Roth and puts a hand on her shoulder. The wall-covering mirror at the back of the theater’s studio-stage doubles the personnel and magnifies the space.

Caption: Commedia chicanery! Douglas Dunn’s "Pulcinella"
Julie Lemberger
Caption: Commedia chicanery! Douglas Dunn’s "Pulcinella"

You can rarely predict what’s going to happen in a piece by Dunn. His choreography melds a raffish elegance he picked up during his years as a dancer in Merce Cunningham’s company with awkward or goofy moves that can be either comical or lovely—sometimes both. You don’t question why Jean Freebury sinks into a deep plié and then gives her hips a little wiggle. Or why Christopher Williams and Paul Singh, who’ve entered like cautious tightrope walkers, lie down and wriggle backward to no particular destination. Nor do you wonder what prompts the group to take Roth for a little stroll around the stage with them and then escort her back to her seat. And then there’s Dunn, who for his second appearance wears a green hood and visor, sports an extra pair of green arms, and dances as if this were perfectly normal. Past his youth, the prince chooses frogginess?

The dancers look sleek in Charles Atlas’s two-toned unitards: dark brown sides and bright-colored fronts and backs for the women, and the reverse for the two men. And they’re terrifically buoyant in Dunn’s springy, foot-lively movement. The piece, like the title, ends with a question. As Carol Mullins’s lighting is dimming, Blazek is walking in a squat toward Roth. And then?

What actually happens then is an intermission, followed by a revival of Dunn’s Pulcinella, choreographed for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1980 (and restaged for that company in 2002). Igor Stravinsky drew on compositions by Giovanni Pergolesi (1710-1736) to create the gorgeous score for orchestra and singers that originally accompanied Léonide Massine’s ballet Pulcinella (premiered by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1920). It’s interesting to think of Dunn’s work, which shook up some of the rules and conventions of the Paris Opera, in relation to the Commedia dell’Arte. The chicaneries and acrobatics of Commedia characters like Pulcinella (or Punch) were an influence on 18th-century ballet—slightly loosening its vision of regal behavior and adding lively steps to the repertory.

Mimi Gross, who designed the white costumes for Dunn’s work, drew on Giovanni Tiepolo’s lively drawings of “Punchinello,” as did Dunn. The choreographer himself appears in the overture to the work, wearing the towering white hat seen in those sketches and joining Williams and Singh in mischievous shadowplay behind and in front of a little fairground puppet theater (made by Peter Cramer and brightly painted by Gross). The 16 dancers multiply the Pulcinella character, and Dunn sets them hurtling through a storyless dance that portrays a far more benign kind of craftiness and trickery than we associate with the Commedia performers. These are nimble, wily athletes, dancing at the top of their form in a changeable, very theatrical world, created by the music’s many mood changes and Carol Mullins’s responsive lighting.

Dunn approaches ballet steps with a frisky nonchalance, but the dancing has its quota of handsome poses and spins, and more than its quota of leaps. Reid Bartelme does a lengthy, bounding, non-stop solo—the kind you could possibly kill yourself doing. There are tricks and familiar Commedia imagery (like a dead, or faux-dead body carried aloft) and gentler passages—notably for Blazek, for Bartelme and Filbrun, and for Jeremy “Nuney” Stigler and Hope Davis. But what you remember most are dancers flying on and off the stage, clustering and racing away, scuttling, vaulting, throwing themselves to the floor; rarely are any two of these handsome, idiosyncratic people doing the same thing at the same time, although themes do recur. The impression is of a bustling Saturday marketplace in some Italian town rendered into dance. You hardly know where to look, but everything you see is interesting. Also daring. Also just beautiful.

 
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