Peter Martins’s new Walton Cello Concerto, for the New York City Ballet, transpires in a big chill space. With the mottled gray backdrop, the translucent gray wings, and Mark Stanley’s cool lighting, the New York State Theater’s stage appears even vaster than it is. Damian Woetzel’s blue chest-baring unitard, Miranda Weese’s teal blue tunic, and Alexandra Ansanelli’s red one (all by Holly Hynes, all becoming) make the three inhabitants of this new Antarctica look as if a paint-streaked thumb had traced them on the void.
I’ve seldom seen such a lonely ballet. The emotions seem intense yet adrift. Martins picks up on Walton’s complexity and muscularity, but also on the music’s plangent tones (the excellent cello soloist was Frederick Zlotkin). Woetzel begins kneeling in a circle of light. When Weese appears, he draws her into a pas de deux that turns her dependent— put down only to be picked up again. He runs with her draped over his arm. She eventually steps out on her own, but at the end she’s scooped up and carried off, arched back and unseeing.
That image of women fallen backward over a man recurs, although Ansanelli’s a livelier muse with a nervy little solo; in a fiendishly difficult duet she supports herself on Woetzel but keeps her feet pretty much on the ground. An ensuing trio is spare and quiet, intriguing in terms of steps but also desolate. Dancers leave the stage abruptly, as if summoned by a bell, and return as mysteriously. When Woetzel finally kneels again, both women bend backward over his outstretched arms.
The new work premiered on Balanchine’s birthday, sharing the program with Jerome Robbins’s lovely 2 & 3 Part Inventions— its contemporary courtliness beautifully rehearsed and performed— and with the lush Balanchine thicket Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet. I imagine the master especially pleased with the breadth and spatial command in the dancing of Jennie Somogyi, Monique Meunier, and guest Isabelle Guérin. The sort of gift he’d like best.
We enter Lance Gries’s Scrawl through white muslin curtains, invited to wander about in his solo. How close dare we get? He careers around Danspace St. Mark’s, wheeling large aluminum-framed Plexiglas panels (by Peter Melville). When we look at him through the panels, their surfaces catch David Fritz’s lighting in such a way that our reflections swallow him up. As he dances, he draws feverishly on the transparent surfaces; the barely visible pictures are of human vertebrae, like the sketches that hang at the back of the church. (I think Gries draws from his spine.) His partner, Belgian dancer Florence Augendre, is easier to watch. She just sits on a box, and lets us get a close view of her bare back bending; the box is actually a veiled television monitor bearing her small doppelgänger.
We sit to watch Gries move as if grave interior states were challenging his body. His head and limbs, at odds with one another, lock in slow muscular twistings; he passes his hand around his head like a grooming cat. He and Augendre— she’s compelling, too— explore their clothing for a while. Now her head’s covered, but her breasts are bare. Now he’s walking like a two-year-old, his pants down around his ankles. The garments become bondage; the two don’t seem to care.
Choreography for Amy Cox, KT Niehoff, Ingo Reulecke, and Teresa Smith has the same muted volatility; lying down, they’re restless sleepers. “Scrawl” might define the febrile lines of their dancing as well as music excerpted from works by Alfred Schnittke and collaged by Andy Russ. A final duet charges the air between Gries and Augendre, but though they eventually touch they’re complementary— soloists more than partners. This curious, intriguing evening leaves me feeling I’ve been shown only part of something.
Deconstruction is a can-do tool. Watching shreds of a familiar scenario fly by and gum onto one another in witty ways can be exhilarating. In 1996, DD Dorvillier played havoc with the fairly simple story of Ferdinand the Bull. For Die flasche ist ganz leer (The bottle is quite empty), she and coauthor-codirector Peter Jacobs take on denser texts, including Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Two brothers (played by any combination of Dorvillier, Jacobs, and Sarah Michelson) seek spiritual truths and face perils. Elizabeth (Willa Carroll) is an angelic-looking woman who stirs up trouble. Amid the ruckus of dancing, words, films of chickens, bursts of important music, and lots of objects, I can identify with wandering minstrels (just when you crave a hunk of meat, you get a lofty speech). Deconstruction works best, I think, when the audience really knows the source.
But how could you not be entranced by a faceless beast (Jacobs) in all-over white stretch net who rises from a red mattress and growls, “Little blond girl! You have to come back with that boogie board,” while Carroll, standing on the board, insouciantly pulls herself out the door of P.S. 122, hand over hand on a rope? You don’t have to understand why the performers don fangs and green unicorn horns to like the look. Mystification does not preclude pleasure when Dorvillier and Jacobs pull dead fish in plastic bags out of their breast pockets and hold them up to Carroll, who’s been sniffing worriedly all through her speech containing the line “They’ve never seen anything like my shoes here.”
Dorvillier’s rampant imagination creates an ambience of legend in which quest, ordeal, and violent acts play their preordained roles. “Traveling” is conveyed by a nifty, thumpy, spraddle-legged phrase that all the performers, backs to us, feed into. As a test of valor, Michelson dives through a suddenly appearing hoop onto the red bed. As for revelation of mysteries, Michelson pulls the cloth off a sawhorse on wheels she’s been using as a dinner table, exposing Carroll curled up on a shelf inside it.
Feeding an audience unexpected visions and making us feel as if we’re on a quest definitely has its points, although embroiling us in dazzling sights and complicated text risks losing us in the woods.
Andrea E. Woods, performing in Dance Theater Workshop’s ongoing Carnival Series, also creates oblique cross-
references with speech, movement, and objects. Even as they give pleasure, they rouse questions about meaning. In Honeysuckle, Honeysuckle — Conversations with John Brace, Part II, Woods dances against a garden of vivid flower photos hanging on a clothesline and planted beneath it. We hear her interviewing her grandfather and (barely) his murmured answers. A straw hat, words from the biblical Song of Songs, Chopin, a jewel box, rocks, a bouquet, a suitcase, and slides of family combine in a gentle exploration of black ancestors: their courage, their pride, their life-saving humor.
Woods is a marvelous mover. Dancing for Bill T. Jones may have helped mold her beautiful slippery style and the way she draws herself up out of sinuosity as if to reconnoiter new territory, but everything she does looks original. She can be a serene presence one minute, a little wild girl the next. In Same Rivers, she and Dana Arceneaux flow together and apart, in and out of the wings, creating lovely images of closeness and gentle adventure. Later in Rememorabilia, Scraps From Out A Tin Can, Everybody Has Some, she dances with a harmonica in her mouth, her sly wit, nimbleness, and zest providing a quietly ironic commentary on black performers of the past. While she does her crazy-legs tapping on a box, a screen behind her shows Hollywood clichés: Shirley Temple dancing with “servant” Bill Robinson, Hattie McDaniel as Mammy in Gone With the Wind.
Woods is joined in Rememorabilia (and in the sweet tale In The Window/ Monk) by writer-performer hattie
gossett and musician-composer Madeleine Yayodele Nelson. They create a setting for powerful dancing by Woods, Arceneaux, Carolyn King, and Felicia Swoope that combats the sounds of a slave auction and eggs on the exultant “21st Century Warrior Wimmin.”