Theater archives

Dancing Grief Away


People often say that Antony Tudor’s great Dark Elegies looks like a modern dance. Made for Marie Rambert’s little company in 1937 during the early, heady days of British ballet, the work’s starkness—and the anguished gestures that distorted classical line—allied it with Expressionism. So did the plain, blocky clothes in which designer Nadia Benois dressed the dancers, and the unusual choice of music—Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder cycle. The subject, too, was atypical in the ballet world: a fishing community ritually mourns the death of its children in a disaster the audience can only guess at. Kurt Jooss, a pupil of Rudolf von Laban, had fled Germany for England in 1933, bringing with him ideas about the expressive body; whether or not Tudor was influenced by Jooss, word of burgeoning modern dance, whether German or American, was in the air.

So it’s not surprising that the Limón Dance Company should take on Dark Elegies. It shares with Jose Limón’s style ardent gestures that sculpt space. The dancers understand how to sink into a step or suspend it as if on a catch of the breath. In ballet company productions of the work (American Ballet Theatre danced it wonderfully under Tudor’s direction), only three women soloists perform on pointe. On Limón’s opening night, however, the work, although conscientiously rendered, looks light, its clarity blurred, its intensity veiled.

The Limón company has dispensed with Benois’s seascape backdrops, but Ted Sullivan skillfully lights a plain cyclorama to suggest a turbulent sky and a hint of wateriness. I do miss having a costumed singer seated onstage as part of the community, even if accompanied by piano rather than orchestra. Kathleen Ferrier’s recorded voice is almost too thrilling; the baritone voice that usually accompanies the ballet sounds more natural, more plausibly that of a member of the community.

Pointework is most vital to the fourth song in this poignant ritual of grief. Tudor used pointe shoes to heighten emotion; they increase the arc of the soloist’s rocking steps; you feel them piercing the earth. Without them, given Mary Ford’s rather inexpressive interpretation, the solo seems numb. I missed that needling extension to the foot far less in Natalie Desch’s lovely, nuanced, technically expert performance of the opening dance.

In their solos, Bradon McDonald and Zhen Jun Zhang accurately project Tudor’s designs and a general sadness. But one of the most moving things about the ballet is each character’s quite different outbursts, coming as they do out of a painful restraint—torsos held erect and narrow, arms almost rigidly at the sides, formal courtesies, and muted folk dance chains. Zhang’s performance is underarticulated and guarded (the music seems slower than usual, but this may be an illusion). It’s difficult to get both speed and clarity into those sharp twists and outbreaks of dancing that tear at the body, those footsteps that score the air. McDonald performs a rapid beating of foot against floor, as if he were remembering a phantom tap dance. In time, the excellent company should be able to bring this masterpiece to full ripeness.

Doug Varone’s The Plain Sense of Things, created for the company, mates interestingly with Tudor’s work. It too shows a community, but one in which interchanges are fluid and almost constant, and the people touch one another freely, without ceremony. Varone’s spatial designs are unlike Tudor’s; they evoke neither folk dance nor ritual. Clusters spill open, encounters may be glimpsed through a moving thicket. Dancers push at one another softly, as if trying to find reciprocal harmony.

The piece builds (although Philip Glass’s surprisingly undriven The Saxophone Quartet does not). Three brief, contrasting duets particularize the search for compatibility. The section called “Singing Beyond What You Can Hear” is enriched by Nina Watt’s uncannily beautiful performance. She senses something the others (Ford, company director Carla Maxwell, and Carlos Orta) do not, something that unsettles her dancing. Quietly uneasy, she sits guard over the others’ sleeping bodies, but joins the final, increasingly joyful migration across the stage and into darkness. A rare performer, a fine dance.

**Everyman—endowed with a dubious self- image, a propensity for fantasy, and a room loaded with video equipment—could be heading for danger. Coming home to a lonely apartment, he can pour himself a martini, and—grabbing one of the remotes that spill from his briefcase—switch on lights, monitor, and the camcorder pointed at his easy chair. He may end up like Charles Dennis in his brilliant 1998 Mr.Remote: kissing and stroking a screen full of his own face, while a dozy voice sings, “I want to lay like this forever, until the sky falls into the sea.”

Dennis—performer, media artist, and one of the founders of P.S. 122—charts the descent into addiction with wit, irony, charm, and a trace of well-managed pathos. Here’s this nimble, balding guy in a suit, crawling below the camera’s line of fire to take his own image by surprise. He’s fascinated by his own feet dancing. He and his drunken shadow grab at his replayed antics on a big screen. Spinning, he transforms himself into the still center of a whirling floor. The piece perfectly and scarily captures the seductive demonics of our increasingly virtual world.

The 1997 Me & My Dad & TV is a deep, layered, talking-dancing-media odyssey into Dennis’s past and his relationship with his father, who’s present on one monitor as an intermittently talking head—smart, affable, with reserves of cantankerousness. Another monitor shows a video diary Dennis made over the course of 1994. On the big screen: family photos, home movies, assorted film and video clips. A teenage Dennis sports a Beatles wig and plays rock with his buddies at his mom’s cocktail party. Young and lean, he dances around Europe with Byrd Hoffman’s School for Byrds (Robert Wilson’s group).

Dennis Jr.’s view of the events in his growing up wrangle with Dennis Sr.’s memories. The choreographer remembers a triumphant touchdown; his dad remembers only that his kid was knocked down. As for Wilson, Dad recalls that in Deafman Glance it took someone half an hour to pick up a glass of water, for God’s sake. Predictably, the two don’t have the same take on parental divorce either, or on the weekends when Dennis Sr. left his family and adventured on boats with cronies.

The choreographer regresses periodically to the disappointed or enthusiastic youth he was, and as a wryly affectionate adult pushing 50 talks back to a dad who’s easily controlled by hands up in the booth where the technological magic and Jane Cox’s fine lighting originate. Irritations and misunderstandings can’t hide the wit and good humor of both men, and the warmth of their relationship. This father contributed “additional text” to the piece and sits proudly in the opening-night audience.

The use of video in live performance can often seem gratuitous. Dennis cannily exploits its capacity to make memories visible and cause time to dance.