By Alexis Soloski
By Molly Grogan
By R. C. Baker
By Christian Viveros-FaunÃ©
By Alexis Soloski
By Alexis Soloski
By Lilly Lampe
I doubt that Janis Brenner was making dances during all five decades of dance that she celebrates in her elegant show at the Joyce Soho; shes not that old. Shes honoring her roots, and some important mileposts in her career, in addition to paying tribute to those members of the dance community lost in the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.
It was as a performer in Meredith Monks work that Brenner found an outlet for her singing voice, and she opens her Joyce Soho concert by performing Monks Breakcreated in 1964, when Monk was a 21-year-old upstart, and not seen in New York since 1992. Theres no singing in Break, only such utterances as an occasional ow! or no. Its a flawless piece terse and wittyconstructed of simple, repetitive, pedestrian moves; long, intense pauses; and calmly presented disturbing images. From the intermittent sounds of a car engine starting up and later of a crash, you can intuit a traffic accident, but Monk deconstructed it in such a way that its very form embodies the notion of fragmentation, of things shattering. At one point, Brenners disembodied head appears from behind one of two white screens; the head is tipped on its side, and it slowly slides floorward before its sucked back.
Brenner danced in Murray Louiss company from 1977 to 1984. Aaron Selissen and Sumaya Jackson (coached by Robert Small), admirably recreate two solos from Louiss 1978 Figura. These are beautifully made little piecesbuoyant dancing shaped into phrases full of subtle dynamic contrasts. The mans solo is vigorous, the womans more meditative; Jackson swings her hips from one side to the other as if just discovering the sensuous possibilities of the motion.
The three other pieces on the program are by Brenner; they show both the craftsmanship she learned in her early training with Alwin Nikolais and her own interest in human passions. In her 1985 solo Guilt, Kyla Barkin, in Brenners original role, slams herself around inside a vertical, three-sided wooden box with doorknobs on two unopenable doors, while Marianne Faithfull moans, I feel good. . . I feel bad. Repetition only intensifies the womans self-made imprisonment.
A Matter of Time (1995), to music by David Karagianis, also starts with a clearly delineated dilemma. Two unhappy couples inhabit two pools of light with diagonal paths leading away from them (lighting design by Mitchell Bogard). In one house, Selissen controls the struggling Barkin (both wonderfully expressive). In the other, Pam Wagner attempts to rein in Moo Kim. The partners mouths move in silent argument; they gesture their anger, their helplessness. Interestingly, Barkin and Kim have different ways of striking out along the paths, but over and over, they get retrieved and pulled back in more or less the same way. Gradually, we see more differences between the two couples as the struggle between possessiveness and a yearning for freedom intensifies. Eventually, when the two wrangling pairs are close to one anotherstill for a momentKim reaches out his hand to caress Barkins cheek. You can imagine the rest. Yet, as the lights fade, Barkin, allied with Kim now, is looking back at Selissen.
Many dancers just starting out cannot know those years when AIDS was ravaging the dance worldthe days when youd see beautiful young men, thin and pale, helped down the street as if they were someones grandfather. I will never forget the sight of Edward Stierle, a dancer in the Joffrey Ballet, whod recently begun to display immense promise as a choreographer, walking unsteadily onto the stage during the companys 1991 season to take a bow for his new Empyrean Dances.Three days later, he died at 23.
Brenner conceived Dancing in Absentia as a tribute to all the male artists in dance who didnt survive those terrible decades. Brenner and Michelle Rosen chant a prosaic litany (I lost a sock, I lost an earring) and go on to more major losses; that list continues on tape via Bang on a Cans Lost Objects, along with other recorded musical selections by Charlemagne Palestine, by Brenner and Theo Blechmans Prayer from Mars Cantata, and by the onstage dancers harsh, rhythmic breathing. Carolyn Rossett joins the five others to create Brenners plangent visions of people gathering to lift and support others, of repeated embraces that one of the two slips out of, leaving the partner holding air. Segments of the AIDS quilt are projected on the back wall; so are 41 cut-out photos of the dead. These float across the surface, frozen in an endless leap, posing for the camera, healthy, young. Sometimes the images blur and dissolve. In five cases, the men are shown with a colleague; Bill T. Jones remains while Arnie Zane vanishes, Yoshiko Chua is left without Harry Sheppard.
The centerpiece of Dancing in Absentia is a powerful duet for Kim and Selissenangry, passionate, tender. Their companions watch, and the photos stream on. The last picture shows an unknown man, his back to the camera, squatting to peruse the AIDS quilt laid out on the undying grass.