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OtherShore and Jo Strømgren Kompani—Two Kinds of Daring

Pictured: Miguel Anaya and Sonja Kostich in Annie-B Parson’s “The Snow Falls in the Winter”
Julieta Cervantes

Brandi Norton and Sonja Kostich, the founders of the just-launched dance group OtherShore, are a good advertisement for stylistic diversity. Norton, who spent nine years in the Trisha Brown Dance Company, is tall, strong, and grounded. Kostich, who has danced with American Ballet Theatre and the San Francisco Ballet, among others, is small, very slim, and airy. Their two different sorts of fluidity write very individual calligraphy on the space. The other five dancers have equally impressive resumes. The Baryshnikov Arts Center granted OtherShore a residency to rehearse its initial repertory and a space to perform it in.

What’s remarkable is how Stacy Matthew Spence, Edwaard Liang, and Annie-B Parson—the three choreographers invited to prepare new works—managed to show to advantage this dauntingly diverse bunch of performers. Spence’s sensitive small earthquakes along the way is performed in front of four white screens, wired to present hilly surfaces and becoming translucent in Jennifer Tipton’s beautiful lighting. Jack Warren’s alluring scenic design also involves projected cloudscapes that float across the screens. Spence, like Norton, danced in Trisha Brown’s group. Her influence shows in his aptitude for a quietness gently sabotaged by flurries of movement that slide fluidly through the dancers’ bodies. small earthquakes unfolds a subtle drama; the performers—Miguel Anaya, Robbie Cook, Norton, and Kostich—could be on a trek. They enter gradually and, clustered in a near corner, lie or sit, occasionally changing their positions. Even when they step out into the space, they remain thoughtful, alert, deliberate, as if pondering moves in a game. The composer, Cornelius Dufallo, accompanies them with high, windy sounds on his violin (later augmented by recorded sounds).

Steps are echoed and gestures transferred across space and time. Sometimes one or two people will catch someone who’s falling. Often all four move in very close quarters, each doing something different. You can almost see a person thinking, “Maybe I can just slip through here.” It’s almost a surprise when the screens turn gold from within, and Norton edges into an opening between two of them and disappears.

Liang’s Lift is mysterious in a more vexing way. You can get very interested in Norton, Kostich, Cook, and Peter Brandenhoff as they sit facing one another across a table, under a painting by Mark Kostabi that shows two figures in conflict. The recorded music by film composer Clint Mansell begins eerily. This is no happy family dinner; the four keep erupting from their seats and slamming one another down. When Anaya, an onlooker, dances, they pay no attention; then they rise and flank him. Jean Yu’s monochromatic, footed, one-piece outfits for the men conjure up some drab science fiction community, as does Norton’s severe dress. Kostich, however, wears a bright red, short-and-flouncy, nearly backless gown (why?). Liang, a former New York City ballet dancer who has been building a reputation as a choreographer, works very well with the modern dancers–especially in a couple of intriguing, rough (but not violent) encounters between Norton and Cook, who’re terrific together. But when Liang sets a duet for the accomplished ballet dancers, Kostich and Brandenhoff, he seems to forget himself and become lost in admiration for all the lovely things a guy can do with a lightweight woman. At the end, they’re all back at the table. Leaving questions in the air.

Parson and her co-director, Paul Lazar, know all about balancing mystery and reality, truth and fantasy, as their many full-length pieces for their Big Dance Theatre have shown. Using Eugene Ionesco’s grim playlet The Lesson as the basis for their entrancing The Snow Falls in Winter, they build an absurdist house-of-cards drama that never topples. You know what a slippery world you’re in from the first moment, when Norton, wearing a hat and a long coat, bends over a low table where Rosalynde LeBlanc is sitting and tries to pick up a mustache with her face (it falls off).

Sometimes simultaneously, Norton, LeBlanc, and Anaya assume the role of Ionesco’s homicidal teacher—speaking his words, doing his uneasy, compulsive moves. LeBlanc, as narrator, also sets the scene (she even speaks while dancing strenuously, whipping the microphone’s long cord out of her way). Kostich, appropriately, is the timid, but quite stubborn schoolgirl come for lessons, and Elizabeth DeMent plays the professor’s dragon of a maidservant. Small, telling actions migrate into others so smoothly that you can barely be sure you’ve seen them. Others linger, like the moment when Kostich, a fan between her toes, cools the overheated professor. There’s no tragedy here—at least, I don’t think so—and not much grimness. In the delicious last scene, DeMent gives very peculiar instructions on how to write a thank-you note with the least trouble. Meanwhile, Anaya, seated on a low chair with his back to us, gives sotto voce instructions (the others have lined up beside DeMent) as to what gestures must be performed. Every time DeMent obediently lifts the arm holding the mic, her voice fades.

The Snow Falls in Winter reinforces two already-evident impressions: These dancers have many talents; this enterprising young group deserves a bright future.

I saw members of Norway’s Jo Strømgren Kompani perform Strømgren’s There at Jacob’s Pillow in 2003 and have always wanted to see more of Strømgren’s work. Five years was way too long to wait, but I’m grateful to Performance Space 122 for presenting the company now. Like the earlier work, The Society, which premiered in Beirut last spring, has an-all male cast. It’s brilliant. It eats into your conscience, makes you laugh while you’re horrified, and edges the everyday world so far into fantasy that you doubt it can return. Nightmare has become the new reality.

The three superb performers play members of an elite coffee drinkers’ society—maybe the only members. As the piece begins, they’re awaiting the right moment to brew a pot: Trond Fausa Aurvåg meticulously polishes the cups—each in its own cubicle in a large chest that almost spans the stage. John Fjelnseth Brungot paces and consults his watch. The head guy, Bartek Kaminski, sits in an armchair with his head in his hands. Connoisseurs, they almost swoon at the first taste and try to guess its provenance. When Charles Aznavour’s “Esperanza” magically comes on over their radio, they break spontaneously into the first of several wonderful dance passages that have the look of music hall numbers refashioned by faulty memories and amateur aspirations.

As is usual in Strømgren’s works, the performers speak a specially designed gibberish. This time it’s French gibberish (although Aurvåg, when receiving phone calls from the society’s supplier, speaks an atrocious French-accented English reminiscent of British comedian Peter Sellers). You don’t know exactly what is being said (neither do the performers), but, on another level, you do.

When a tea bag is discovered in a cup (the men handle it as if it were a dead mouse), they’re convinced that one of them is a spy, a traitor. Political analogies begin to leak from the goings-on. Those on the other end of the phone line clearly have a Big-Brother authority. Torture is permissible; two of the guys practically request it to clear their names (I never thought I could laugh even while writhing, at the wacky, but agonizing procedures they devise). Uh-oh. Traces of Chinese culture appear: a photo pasted on the bottom of a drawer, chopsticks hidden behind cups. The men try to laugh it off with crude and hilarious Chinese impersonations. Aurvåg is clearly the turncoat (to us, anyway; he tells his buddies he learned to handle chopsticks—which he does with dazzle—from Jackie Chan movies). Nevertheless, the men affirm their commitment to coffee; coffee drinking denotes manliness, patriotism! But the society is beginning to crumble from within.

A war seems to be happening outside the window, and the men’s behavior becomes stranger and stranger. Throwing furniture out, spouting improbable dialogue, breaking into dance, lip-synching Aznavour’s songs, they become crazed, disheveled, punitive; yet they always return to a relaxed “this is nothing, we’re doing fine” sort of camaraderie. When the situation reaches its most bizarre stage of disintegration, they reappear wearing black wigs and Chinese peasant outfits, moving tough and talking Chinese gibberish (perhaps hoping to fit in to whatever new regime is lurking). Aurvåg tries in vain to remind them how to pronounce French gibberish. In the end, Brungot and Kaminski, in their new “Chinese’ identities, are about to take their first taste of coffee, while Aurvåg warns them not to. Lights within the cups spookily illuminate their faces. Blackout.

The Society went over in Lebanon). I wish I could convey the many excruciatingly funny moments that also send off alarms in our heads. And how to explain how marvelous these performers are? We laugh at Strømgren’s bumbling Everymen, ache for them, become exasperated with them, fall in love with them.

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