The American Dance Guild Honors Murray Louis
In his heyday as a performer in Alwin Nikolais company and later with his own group, Murray Louis truly sang the body electric," but not in Walt Whitmans sense of himself as charging with his soul those he loved and pressed close to. Louis danced as a man electrified by small currents that rippled through one joint and out another. He could seem like a scampdelighted by the impulses that caused a wrist to flick, a leg to fly up, a shoulder to rollbut also like an explorer in shaky terrain and, even at times, as a person besieged, betrayed, by his body and the magical environments of light created by Nikolais.
Louis was honored at the opening night of the American Dance Guilds Performance Festival 2008. Hale and energetic, with a bit less hair and a bit more bulk than he had 40 years ago, he stood up in his first-row seat to express his delight. He also compared Dance New Amsterdams unpretentious studio-turned-black-box theater to the Henry Street Playhouse (now the Abrons Art Center), where Nikolais magical experiments with light, space, and human bodies were spawned. Both spaces, he said, were similar hotbeds for invention.
The Guild was founded in 1956, primarily as a dance teachers organization, but soon expanded to attract and benefit dancers and choreographers. Its budget may be small, but its current fundraising projects are notable: If you purchase the major-brand products available through its website (americandanceguild.org), the association gets a kickback. As it does when you sign up for an American Dance Guild Custom Visa Card (!), and on your every purchase with it.
The 44 choreographers presented over five festival performances ranged from just-starting-out through accomplished mid-career artists to modern-dance luminaries like Louis and Anna Sokolow. (I unfortunately had to miss the evening that honored her, but Jim May, director of the Sokolow Theatre Dance Ensemble, is staging her great 1955 Rooms for the José Limón Dance Company, and itll be on view during the companys Joyce sesson in December.)
The first program featured excerpts from two solos choreographed by Louis. I remember seeing his Figura when the wonderful Limón dancer Nina Watt performed it at its 1978 premiere. At DNA, Betsy Fisher, a member of Louiss company in the 1980s, also renders it with wisdom and charm, picking up on the Spanish nuances dictated by the Ernesto Lecuona music. Striking a movement and then melting into it, she regards her own swaying hips with surprise and pleasure. When a man strolls through, she scampers offstage in pursuit. Peter Kyle, also a former Louis dancer, and, like Fisher, director of his own group, has learned Louiss four-part solo, Frail Demons (1984). Its an arresting piece, with subtly varying moods underscored by Nikolais electronic soundscape. Kyle is taller and more stalwart than Louis, but he captures both the softer dynamics and the flippy little impulses excellently. The piece is full of trademark Louis movements: the tiny, tiptoe steps with which he glides as if on ball bearings; the leg that swings like a pendulum; the occasional illusion that an unseen puppeteer is pulling his limbs up by strings. These demons arent vengeful stalkers; theyre adventurous creatures who sneak into your house by night to toy with your possessions and pretend to be you.
An absurd fragment of a soloan excerpt from Yung-li Chens The Pursuit of Balloonsoffered the evenings most lightweight moment, with the very engaging performer Christopher Ralph being pulled on atop a teetery little metal cart and then bounding about twisting a balloon into naughty shapes to what sounds like an old Heidelberg drinking song. Dirge, by relative newcomer Danielle Russo, takes a darker view of life. The emotions are elusive, and made more so by the presence of two chairs (Alexander Schwartz begins standing on one of them slowly putting on a belt and ends on a differently situated chair removing it). To two of Bachs suites for unaccompanied cello, Schwartz and Joshua Palmer perform with dramatically eloquent athleticism, although I find myself wondering why they are together and what they mean to each other. I dont, however, wonder about the pair in Bill Evanss Alternating Current. Here electricity seems to be administering almost constant small shocks, making Don Halquists head and limbs quiver and jolting Heather Roffe out of the wings and into a sitting position in his arms. Sometimes theyre alone, sometimes together, and their white unitards with patches of color tell us theyre two of a kind. They dont seem to be agents of their own activities. Evans, who ran his own company (primarily in Seattle) for 30 years, is now a visiting professor-artist at SUNY-Brockport.
Design principles govern Impromptu by Claudia Gitelman (a dance writer and, for 24 years, a teacher at the Nikolais/Louis Dance Theatre Lab) and Traces, Marks, a New York premiere by Gloria McLean (once a leading dancer in Erick Hawkinss company, now a director of her own group). Both choreographers create several striking images. In Impromptu, to Schuberts Piano Impromptu No. 3, Lynn Lesniak Needle, former Nikolais dancer, sits on a small metal drum wearing a long, blood-red gown, and rotating slowly. From time to time, she molds herself into a pose, the final one collapsed, but theres nothing spontaneous or impromptu about what she does. She seems to be a woman recreating familiar positions, now drained of significance. From several rows back, I cant see what McClean is doing on the floor, scrabbling around on a white sheet of paper, while four othersa brusque chorus jolt around in disunion and semi-harmony. When a video of her working on a similar paper is projected on the back wall, we discover that shes been drawing around her body parts but in a scattershot way, changing positions, guessing at what shes left out. The video is the best part, although I suspect a connection that I cant quite make between the choreographer and her colleagues.
The final piece, The Way of FiveFire (an excerpt from a longer piece by Nai-Ni Chen) draws on Chens background in Chinese traditional dance and martial arts, although she formed her company in the U.S. in 1988 and modern dance is also part of her heritage. Three women wield large fans, but not always with delicacy. A certain fierceness creeps in via Tan Duns music and a fiery, slashing combat between one of the women and Noibid Licea excites the crowd.
Some of the pieces on the program reveal the kind of craftsmanship that informs Louiss work but seldom match his powers of invention. Pooh Kayes 1983 The River Sticks, however, began the evening on a very smart note. In making it, Kaye employed considerable skill to shake up the idea of predictable craft. She has been a maverick imp in dance and film dance since the 1970s, and maturity hasnt dimmed her adventurousness. Catherine Kernans set is a playground of slender boards, gathered into tottery tunnels and tepees. Kaye sets herself tasks that often misfire. Order and disorder go to war. She adjusts. What? A bunch of short painted sticks that shes manipulated into a fan shape wont conform? She takes one of them and whips it around. Boards falling on her head dont faze her. Intrigued by one, she rubs it against her face (leaving smudges), and gives it a lick. The tunnel shes attempting to crawl through collapses on her. Never mind, two boards make skis. One of the tepees topples when shes nowhere near it, and shes stillwith an occasional squealtrying to gather up all the fallen wood when the lights dim and a hoop rolls across the stage. Lucky she doesnt see it.
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