Neil Greenberg Dares Your Interpretation; Molissa Fenley Dances With Art

Veteran Chorepgraphers debut new work at DTW and the Joyce Soho

Neil Greenberg has a way of tangoing with meaning; he pulls it close, stares at it, and spins it away—never quite losing control. As a former member of Merce Cunningham’s company, he wants, like the late master, to let movement tell its own story, but—knowing audiences’ tendencies to read human drama into dancing—he teases our perceptions and flirts with narrative accomplices.

His new (like a vase) doesn’t use film or video to forge and query relationships the way others of his pieces have done, and the spate of text we hear is deliciously oblique. However, the setting challenges us from the outset: “I dare you to interpret me.” With the aid of Jmy Leary and Michael Stiller, Greenberg has created an austere, oddly enticing arena within Dance Theater Workshop’s black-box theater. Four large Doric columns form a square in the middle of a white floor. While Johnni Durango strides and runs backward around the space on her long, slim legs, Greenberg makes several trips on- and offstage, each time placing a glossy, black ceramic vase in front of each pillar. No one is exactly like the others.

You might be tempted to call what ensues a duet, except that he and Durango never touch, stay far apart, do mostly different steps, and pay no attention to each other. While they move intriguingly and quite beautifully, with a kind of nervous, scouting energy, (like a vase) throws down another challenge to our built-in lust for interpretation. Coming to us via an ancient recording (now out on CD) is the voice of celebrated monologist Ruth Draper (1884-1956) reciting her early “A Class in Greek Poise.” Assuming a cozy, encouraging, Midwestern accent, she instructs four overweight female clients in poise as a form of “rhythmic harmony,” urging them to look at classical Greek in order to learn that “our bodies are the homes of our souls.”

Paige Martin in Neil Greenberg’s (like a vase)
Yi-Chun Wu
Paige Martin in Neil Greenberg’s (like a vase)
Cassie Mey and Molissa Fenley in Fenley’s The Prop Dances
Julie Lemberger
Cassie Mey and Molissa Fenley in Fenley’s The Prop Dances

Details

Neil Greenberg’s (like a vase)
Dance Theater Workshop
November 9 through 13
Molissa Fenley and Dancers
Joyce Soho
November 4 through 7

In addition to being very funny, the monologue goads me into thinking “Greek”—vases, pillars, poise. And to apply “poise” and the notion of embodied souls to the dancers. I note, too, that black Greek vases usually have red nymphs and satyrs chasing one another around them, and that maybe Greenberg and Durango are escapees from those endless circles. At which point, I say to myself, “YOU STOP THAT!!” And then, even more silently, “Greenberg, you clever bastard, you hooked me,” knowing that making me query context might be one of his ploys

Just then, Draper’s voice fades out, and composer Zeena Parkins goes to her place at the harp, keyboards, and various electronic devices upstage, and Shayna Dunkelman positions herself at the percussion equipment. (Preshish Moments handles the drum programming, live processing, and other electronic effects from the back of the house.) By now, Paige Martin and Mina Nishimura are also onstage, Stiller is beginning to create lighting effects, and I can go back to thinking about the movement.

A photo of Greenberg that appears on the cover of his press kit says something about his style. He’s wearing a sort of bulky white gym suit and standing on one sturdy leg with his other leg crooked up behind him, both knees close together. This narrow base is topped by his more abandoned upper body. Greenberg has twisted to float one arm behind him, while the other, elbow and wrist bent, ends in a dainty splay of fingers; his head is thrown back and to the side. As I write this, the word “bacchante” slides into my head, and I suppress it to note that gender is a topic that often crops up in Greenberg’s recent work (Really Queer Dance with Harps and Quartet with Three Gay Men are two obvious examples).

Greenberg’s process for making (like a vase) involved videotaping himself and some of the other dancers improvising alone, then learning that movement and incorporating some of it into the piece. That process, I think, has helped foster the image of individuals pursuing their separate paths without much relation to one another. At times, when working in separate areas of space, the dancers—in plain tops and gorgeous, variously patterned tights by James Kidd—assume an object-like quality that allies them with the vases. The movement is both elegant and awkward, subject to odd quirks (a flapping hand in opposition to striding legs, etc.) but always controlled. Sometimes the dancers gallop about the space; sometimes they pose thoughtfully. A bit of folkdance heel-and-toe surfaces and vanishes. Martin and Colin Stilwell face each other (a rare occurrence), hopping and punching the air.

The overall dynamic seems to vary little, despite the variations within sequences of movement. Moments when a move by one person echoes that by another, or a fragment of canon or unison occurs, help hold your attention. Still it’s possible to drift off, even during an absorbing quartet for Stilwell, Martin, Nishimura, and Luke Miller that allows your eyes to roam around and take in their distinct personas—to compare, say, Miller’s soft, long-legged reach and dreamy air with Stilwell’s taut alertness to possible changes.

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