People have compared the Canadian Margie Gillis to Isadora Duncan. I can’t see it. Gillis’s early flower-child solos could evoke Duncan’s spontaneity and expressiveness, but not her soft power. Gillis has always projected inner tensions, a sense of withholding even while giving.
In her arresting program at the Joyce of recent and new works, she dances like a thoughtful survivor. She turns Irene Dowd’s Thrall, a gentle interplay of dynamic changes, into a meditation on possibilities. For her own Meditation, she wears a beautiful swirling dress by Anne Dixon, and what’s essentially a skirt dance to Ellington music becomes a memory of flowering. In Blue, she sits on a chair, while a sweet Leonard Cohen composition (sung on tape by Jennifer Warnes) scratches at her—causing her to slump into despondency by fluid increments, then startling her into alertness. In Loon, curled over, a tuft of her long red hair spraying out, she keeps her face hidden at first, while her fingers curl and claw the air; but when real loon calls begin to pierce the bird twitterings, she turns darkly sensual—lying face down and thrusting her hips up.
Gillis can invest small, minimal gestures with tremendous import, but she can also move big—and with power. George Gershwin’s “Lullaby” doesn’t soothe her in George. Instead, wearing a man’s suit, the jacket open to show only a black band across her breasts, she’s constantly busy—her supple arms drawing boxes in the air, her feet gliding. She struts. She pulls herself up and grabs her lapels. She romances her own jacket, becomes suddenly violent. George looks like a rueful, affectionate collage of her every Tom, Dick, and Harry.
The 1998 Voyage seems drawn out, but it’s a wonderful work. Lapped by Gilles Vigneault’s soundscape of variations on the Gaétan LeBoeuf song “Si les bateaux,” she’s the perpetual immigrant toting suitcases. But her long black skirt exposes her belly, and her breasts are bare under a black tailcoat. The suitcases (on wheels) convey her as she falls backward over them. They become obstacles, mountains, stepping-stones, books to be perused. She whirls adrift. And in one unforgettable moment, rigs her handkerchief above one shoe and, blowing, urges the tiny motionless boat to sail.
A suspiciously large number of teenagers troop into Judson Church for the evening shared by Gerald Casel and Monica Bill Barnes. The reason? Barnes’s Awake and Sing features 10 students from High Tech High School. In the informal atmosphere of Movement Research’s Monday shows, that seems fine, and Barnes’s simple movements and well-crafted tidal patterns don’t condescend to the inexperienced young dancers—all of them serious, some of them fervent.
Barnes’s solo Once I Was in a Beauty Contest, But My Strap Broke was first performed at Judson two years ago as a work in progress. It’s an engaging introduction to her personal style. Small, slender, and big-eyed, Barnes suggests the blithe maiden of decades-ago dance, but with kinks. Slightly gawky, occasionally abandoned, she reaches her right leg to her left so far that she has to work at not falling. Charm and discomfort duke it out. On this program, Barnes’s An Opera Allegory in Three Acts (in which the gifted Jennifer Ward sings, but not opera) comes across as the latest piece to be worked on. Right now it’s inconclusive and a little confusing, but a dance in which Christine M. Poland wields two extendable dog leashes attached to Ward’s arms to guide and restrain her is hardly unpromising.
Casel is probably better known for his performing in Stephen Petronio’s company (1991-98) than for his choreography. The in-progress Gravity/Lost, to be premiered at the Joyce Soho in June, shows a commendable grasp of form. His opening solo is so elegant and controlled that I’d be tempted to call it balletic, except that the steps—later interestingly dissected and transformed for five other dancers—tilt and stretch awry. His 1999 Triangle, a quartet for himself and Maile Okamura (in black pants and shirts) and Tracy Dickson and Steffany George in hot little dresses, is meaner and tighter. The dancers can make a gesture like pointing at one knee look obscene. Dickson and George loll like bathing beauties. There’s something ritualistic about it (Okamura’s crumpled on the floor at the start, and she’s back there at the end). A passage of springy hops, like those whose rhythms disturbed two weeks ago in Allyson Green’s work, gets to me again (the thoughtless postmodern answer to ballet’s when-in-doubt-pirouette), but this is one smart piece.