This paper’s late, beloved dance writer Burt Supree once wrote of David Neumann’s performing, “You never know which way he’s going to jump.” That’s also true of his choreography. I’ve always thought of Neumann’s sensibility as urban and hip. Despite Oyimbo‘s African title and weighty subtitle (Dynamic Evolution of a Natural Population), the piece is a quizzically affectionate glimpse into Appalachia, where hog calling’s an art.
The piece’s elegant structure sets off its raucous tone. A tilting, lurching swatch of movement becomes a theme to be varied. So does calling: hollering for pigs and cows to gather, emitting a high cry when lost in the woods, calling square-dance figures. Everything’s a bit haywire. As the terrific performers pass through P.S. 122’s rear door, they open and slam a miniature screen door beside it. In a backcountry voice, Charlotte Griffin tells of being lost. Later she, DJ Mendel, and Faye Driscoll appear to lip-synch an old man’s voice telling the same story in exactly the same way—the original of Griffin’s copy. The lips don’t match the sound, but Tom O’Connor and Fritha Pengelly mime aspects of “lost.”
What with chairs at the back and electric fans blowing intermittently, the space has the look of a Saturday night dance in a mountain town. Neumann cleverly fills square-dance patterns with odd, rambunctious movement (like a mom with two rowdy boys, Erin Wilson holds off Neumann and O’Connor by their heads while they lean into her hands and jump about in place). And he inserts a real square-dance shuffle walk where no patterns exist (side-by-side, twitching their skirts, and giggling a little, Driscoll and Ruthie Epstein trip through and exit). Lisa Walter in a fluffy dress (costumes by Stacy Dawson) barks square-dance calls to Mendel, and the small dance steps incited by “move right, move left” mingle raunchily in our minds with Walter’s previous tale of motel sex. I love the community’s manners, the way people take each other in, shyly try to copy, get drunk, act up. The behavior is “real,” but, despite the verbal material, it’s dancing that makes this world come to life.
Neumann’s Completely Attached to Delusion is equally unexpected. The Beat poet John Giorno, comrade of Ginsberg and Burroughs, recites four of his poems (plus a piece by Mark Twain). At 63, with a New York twang, Giorno’s a wonderful unschooled dancer. He rhythms words with his body, strikes statue poses, and inserts a little skip into his walk. As he sings out tough lines on family values (“Never fast-forward a cum shot”) or the Chernobyl disaster, Neumann is his silent partner, even—uncannily—his William Burroughs, capturing Giorno’s joyful eccentricities in his own body. In “Demon in the Details,” Neumann, Driscoll, and Epstein try to get their bodies in sync with his, while he hymns his old boozing, drugging, poetry-spewing buddies, “It ain’t no sin to take off your skin and dance around in your bones.”
Eliot Feld has pretty well explored one aspect of his Ballet Tech’s name: He’s given us tech, as in the effects the Joyce’s theater technology can muster (like the handheld lights of nodrog doggo) and the schoolkids-at-play look of works like Simon Says. Coup de Couperin acknowledges and challenges his company’s grasp of the ballet part of the title. After all, the dancers who’ve come up through his school are ballet trained; time to show their chops.
On this level, Coup de Couperin is one smart work. It’s also delightful. To a sampler of short pieces by 18th-century composers François Couperin and Marin Marais, Feld choreographs images of elegant decorum tousled slightly by exuberance and flirtatiousness. Willa Kim’s delicious costumes pick up on this hint of undress. The men wear fancy long vests, but their tricorn hats have no crowns and their knee breeches are cut-off unitards. The women wear pale blue (horsehair?) panniers over their low-cut fuchsia unitards, with a flower atop each head giving them the verve of flamenco dancers.
There is no partnering. In the beginning, the men and the women occupy opposite corners, engaging in contrapuntal displays of courtly manners. Otherwise the men mostly flash past in showy leaps that cut through the women’s lines, or circle them like mating birds showing off plumage. During Marin’s Tempête—aided by drum thunder and flashes of Allen Lee Hughes’s lights—they look like winds disturbing the whirling, veiled women.
Feld’s inventive choreography reveals his dancers’ acute grasp of dynamics and phrasing (Nickemil Concepcion is a particularly musical performer). As Feld exploits the men’s elevation, he revels in the women’s limber backs and fluid arms. The surprise is the tricky pointework and steps that challenge those feet: the attitude on pointe with a flourish, the entrechat that twists in the air, the rapid games Ha-Chi Yu plays with turn-in/turn-out. Yu, Patricia Tuthill, Jacquelyn Scafidi, and Jeannine Lowery shine in charming little solos. In Coup de Couperin, Feld gives his company a more sophisticated way to define playfulness and a piece to grow in.
Ze’eva Cohen dedicated her Danspace program, “Female Mythologies,” to Anna Sokolow. She resembles her mentor only in her concern for the human condition and the clear way she defines gestures, so that the eye and heart remember them. Sokolow gave us bleak, abstracted visions of imperiled societies. Cohen’s view is more intimate, more tribal. Her dance style is tinged with her Yemenite heritage—the fluent hand motions, the hearty footwork, the occasional fierceness.
Cohen is in her fifties now; two 1996 works make use of her maturity. In Negotiations, she plays Sarah to glamorous Aleta Hayes’s Hagar —showing us their changing relations, from Hagar as maidservant copying her mistress’s steps to Hagar as Abraham’s concubine, who’s in a position to say no. In If Eve Had a Daughter: Mother’s Tongue/I Love You, exasperated mama Cohen teaches the Hebrew alphabet and the use of kitchen utensils to balky “modern” daughter Jill Sigman, talking via gestures and shrugs and looks. Cooking tools become weapons and toys, but once the klezmer music and Yiddish songs on the radio get Ma dancing, matters improve.
The betrayal of women by men is the subject of two works. In the haunting and beautifully performed Ariadne, made for Caryn Heilman in 1985, Heilman poses like a toppled statue; her distant looks and rushes to the edges of her territory, her desperate turning this way and that, express her desolation over being abandoned. More enigmatically, Cohen turns the terrible biblical tale of Jephtha’s sacrifice of his daughter into a duet for two women (Regina Nejman and Angharad Davies). Having “Jephtha” speak as a recorded remembering voice, while gypsy music from Rajasthan plays, Cohen is free to build images of impending danger, which Davies sees and Nejman denies, of desire stillborn and the violence of men.
But Cohen ends her program with the optimistic new Women and Veils II. Nine performers, in lovely silks and velvets by Deborah J. Caney, dance to music by Zakir Hussein and a commissioned score by Michael Keck. Here, too, Cohen shows watchfulness and ominous forces, but in their finely designed patterns these women are a tribe, breathing together, challenging one another, stepping into the same river.
Based in Brussels, Meg Stuart rarely visits New York. The only group work I’ve seen is one she made in 1997 for Baryshnikov’s White Oak Project. Her solos always create mesmerizing and disturbing images of vulnerability. In soft wear (first draft) at Judson, to a sound design by Bart Aga and Stefan Pucher, she stands, waifish and ill at ease. At first only her shoulders move, as if she were contemplating a workout or shrugging tentatively around in constricting clothes. “Can you smile for me, please?” commands a woman’s voice. She works her face into grimaces. As she begins to wind her arms, stretch her neck, thrust her hips obsessively, she seems compressed by the space and by whatever is driving her.
On the program with Stuart, Laura Staton demonstrates her smart, controlled recklessness in Hit Parade and in the beguiling I wanna be Kathie Lee. In this duet, uneasy vamps in puffy wigs (Staton and Barbara Mahler) are caught and manipulated by two anonymous male handlers, who stand at the ready in case the women, in their clumsy preenings and dazed self-involvement, get really out of hand. Opening the show, eight committed and strong Connecticut College dance students do choreographer Jeremy Nelson proud in his very fine Ayu.