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 constructionleading us away from the literal toward lord knows what.
then boss in man? opens Dunns 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 theyre 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 theaters studio-stage doubles the personnel and magnifies the space.
You can rarely predict whats 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 Cunninghams company with awkward or goofy moves that can be either comical or lovelysometimes both. You dont question why Jean Freebury sinks into a deep plié and then gives her hips a little wiggle. Or why Christopher Williams and Paul Singh, whove 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 theres 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 Atlass two-toned unitards: dark brown sides and bright-colored fronts and backs for the women, and the reverse for the two men. And theyre terrifically buoyant in Dunns springy, foot-lively movement. The piece, like the title, ends with a question. As Carol Mullinss 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 Dunns 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 Massines ballet Pulcinella (premiered by Serge Diaghilevs Ballets Russes in 1920). Its interesting to think of Dunns work, which shook up some of the rules and conventions of the Paris Opera, in relation to the Commedia dellArte. The chicaneries and acrobatics of Commedia characters like Pulcinella (or Punch) were an influence on 18th-century balletslightly loosening its vision of regal behavior and adding lively steps to the repertory.
Mimi Gross, who designed the white costumes for Dunns work, drew on Giovanni Tiepolos 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 musics many mood changes and Carol Mullinss 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 solothe 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 passagesnotably 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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