A few years ago, Tere O’Connor made dances in which irritable, off-kilter dancing pocked with curious gestures conveyed all he wanted to say, while Doug Elkins danced with tongue in cheek and spoke when he felt like it. Now O’Connor’s writing dialogue, and Elkins is delving into lyricism. Times, as they say, change.
Elkins titles his program—at Dance Theater Workshop through April 25—Of Don Juans and Dying Swans. That’s the evening’s only flippancy. Over the decade or so that Elkins has been choreographing, his brainy mix of postmodern strategies, contact improvisation, hip-hop, capoeira, social dance—whatever his eye lit on—has evolved into a consistent vocabulary. In his newest pieces, that vocabulary comes dressed in velvet. People still confront each other with a squabble of limbs, one dancer ducks in response to another’s swinging leg, a person springs onto another and is deflected, legs wheeling. But such moves rarely look contentious, and partners tend to emphasize the moments when they cleave together rather than those in which they fly apart.
Duets seem to interest Elkins greatly; one of my favorite sections of last year’s Bipolarbear NOS is a complicated trio (danced by Tony Agostinelli, Fritha Pengelly, and Brian Caggiano) that’s more like a constantly shifting duet for three. The most beautiful of the new dances, In Winter, Stand, be gins with two contrasting duets. Wearing Nadia Tarr’s stunning red oufits, Rebecca Chisman and Kristen Daley frolic about each other—companionable, teasing, slipping silken nooses of dancing into the air between them. For Caggiano and Lisa Nicks, Elkins highlights the Latin beat beneath the strings in a selection from John Adams’s John’s Book of Alleged Dances (Paul Taylor used the same work in his recent premiere Fiddlers Green). With these two, you feel the tenderness and the heat of the moments when they entwine; even slip ping apart, they seem to be nosing into new ways to be together.
Elkins has a strong sense of form. He snags your eye by suave repetitions, by passing a phrase in canon down a line, by transferring a theme from two people to three and changing it to suit its new living space. He defines some thing just long enough for you to grasp it. At one point in In Winter, Stand, I see, with delight, five dancers as one big ballroom-dance couple, but the image erodes before it can become an obvious “moment.”
There’s something that doesn’t change about the overall flow patterns of Elkins’s dances, which may be why I couldn’t focus as intently on Philenor (to music by Evren Celimli) as I wanted to. Bipolarbear NOS and In Winter, Stand had already sated my eyes with lusciousness. I could enjoy Philenor‘s wonderful dancers, handsome tangles and rebounds, and the flutter of Naoko Nagata’s becoming white cos tumes, without fully assimilating the choreography.
Wrench shows traces of Elkins’s wit, but it too is tender. Set mostly to pop songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, the dance resembles a party in which the behavior’s getting a little odd—people pulling themselves up by the backs of their own shirts; Luis Tentindo, Agostinelli, and Pengelly snaking around one another, the men kissing as they pass; Nicks and Tentindo unsure what they’re doing together but loving doing it. Elkins told The New Yorker it was like “being taken through a cocktail party at the age of four, watching your parents slowly getting drunk.” The age is crucial; so is “being taken.” They explain the flow, the sense of security, the love.
Help! I need a different format for writing about Tere O’Connor’s new Hi Everybody! I need to be able to scatter sentences around the page, to embed a manifesto (maybe set in italics) for universal health care into the lyrics of an old song, and to periodically remind all of you that I’m a writer in search of a structure.
I’m having to make do with the standard Voice page, just as O’Connor has to fit everything onto a stage—in this case, the Kitchen’s spacious black box. But he’s brave enough to violate most of the conventions that usually control a mix of dance and text. In last sea son’s The World Is a Missing Girl, a story, buried in a dance-play about telling that story, emerged (if at all, some might say) in fragments. Hi Everybody! has no hidden plot; it’s all cranky subtext, with rage, grief, and loneliness erupting from bouts of stand-up comedy, clichés intoned by Greek choruses, scenes, songs, dances, and quiet soliloquies.
O’Connor makes an early appearance to chide the performers for sitting around sobbing while attempting to warm up. They give him short shrift and laugh him off the stage when he attempts a windy speech about his work (undermined anyway by the fact that he has trouble pronouncing genre). From then on, with faultless theatrical timing and many shifts in character, the fabulous performers (Rob Besserer, Rebecca Hilton, Marc Kenison, Heather Olson, Chrysa Parkinson, and Greg Zuccolo) jolt from topic to topic and back again, and from sincerity to high artifice, beauty to vulgarity, camp to satire to tragedy, talking to chanting to singing to dancing. Enhanced by Brian MacDevitt’s artful lighting, Hi Everybody! is like a revue that’s been chopped up, dunked in bile, and comes up gasping with a bunch of roses in its clenched fist.
Health insurance is a big issue for these dancers. It takes only a quick gabbled prayer for God to bring Lazarus to life. “Cool!” exclaims the revived Kenison, bouncing up into a split-second scene demonstrating that appeals to God will not get you into a hospital if you’ve got no insurance. Mood and style change with the speed of MTV cuts, but absurdity and exaggerated jokiness somehow actually support poignancy. A character played by Hilton, for instance, tells a wonder fully weird story about her husband, who measures the tendencies of tides by planting tiny computerized figures of sunbathers on beaches all over the world. She’s happy, so are her kids. Suddenly her mate dies; suddenly a pain flames in her gut. She’s about to tell us the sad reason when the others interrupt, fussing about getting into a diagonal to create a strong dramatic effect. A few seconds later, Zuccolo becomes the doctor who says her insurance won’t cover the new treatment, and then a son (hers?) sobbing over his mom’s death. Hilton stands quietly. “Oh kids…,” she says apologetically, and the impudent chorus members become angels and fly beautifully around her.
Enforced religious education, the treatment of Alzheimer’s patients, gay bashing, the tyranny of “family values,” and many other grievances crop up, often couched in bitter comedy. Olson bossily organizes a Grieving Group (because, it turns out, she’s so terribly sad). O’Connor’s startling juxtapositions risk irritating spectators. Parkinson delivers a serious speech about how upset she is over the plight of refugees hounded from their home land. Instantly, Besserer and Olson break into “Home on the Range,” but the syrupy cliché doesn’t annoy us, perhaps because their slow song and dance has unexpected words and an unfamiliar tune sweetly delivered in two-part harmony (composer James Baker may have been responsible).
Heavy sobs and hearty artificial laughter punctuate the goings-on, but O’Connor has created a work that is both hilarious and truly sad. The unison dance passages are a refuge for the performers, but also impose an order not of their choosing. The comedy acts as an antidote to swarming worries: How will I die? How will I live? How can I intervene in the world’s injustices? Ha, ha, ha!