Theater archives

Plunging Toward Apocalypse


During the 1970s, a few bold choreographers changed the way we looked at dance. Why wait for a climax when it’s clearly not in the cards? In Lucinda Childs’s austerely magnificent Radial Courses (1976), which opened her Brooklyn Academy of Music program in mid October, the means are modest, the permutations infinitely absorbing. Bruce Jones, Garry Reigenborn, Keith Sabado, and Dušan Týnek begin as a squad, walking fast, sometimes erupting into a seven-count phrase featuring small hops. There’s no music. Circling, the men split into pairs, change directions, regroup. Lean and efficient, they don’t even swing their arms. In such a continuum, subtle counterpoint assumes thrilling proportions.

Most of the work in Childs’s Parcours was new to New York (her company last played here in 1994). It affirmed that she has never strayed from her passion for geometry and repetition. She has just added “dancier” steps (critic Arlene Croce once defined Childs’s style as “prehistoric ballet”), music, svelte costumes, and dramatic lighting that can make her dancers seem like persistent and diligent utopians in a tempestuous world. Each of her 1990s dances and the latest, From the White Edge of Phrygia, offer variations on her basic aesthetic of purity. Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector, to Terry Riley’s music of the same title, is the most unvarnished: Five women pit diagonal lines against curving, balletic gestures. In contrast, White Edge begins with a series of brief duets (no touching!) and is Childs’s equivalent of an epic, with overbearing dramatic music by Stephen Montague, lighting by Pat Dignan that turns the backdrop red, then blue, then red, and a curtain with mythic portals that descends to still the activity.

Childs’s elegant 1995 solo Commencement, to harpsichord music by Zygmunt Krauze, is all about a diagonal path; the weight of her swinging arm; her light, purposeful walk; her pauses to consider her journey. In Concerto, to Henryk Górecki’s tumultuous Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings, you devour a complex debate between circles and lines. In Childs’s concession to the tango, Variété de Variété (2000), for 14 to moody music by Mauricio Kagel, the dancers begin by advancing toward us with tightly crossing steps—the women wearing Gabriel Berry’s schoolgirlish gray smocks over black unitards—and the big news is a trio for Reigenborn, Sabado, and María de Lourdes Dávila.

Childs works with a scrupulously limited palette. In all these dances, the same steps recur: Light sautés and chassés and turns with one leg lifted low to the back are favorites, their airiness a contrast to the demanding rhythmic and spatial patterns. I prefer Childs plain, but I marvel at the richness she can create within simplicity, with or without frosting.

Jeraldyne Blunden, the founder of Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, died less than a year ago. She’d be proud of the way DCDC lit up the Joyce during its mid-October week there. New director Kevin Ward’s Sets and Chases pushes 11 performers up against Duke Ellington’s orchestra, recorded live in 1940. And how they dance! Avoiding stereotypes about jazz or being black, Ward brings out their individuality in a real dance party—spontaneity organized—whether that means Ricardo J. Garcia Cruz carrying on, or slow-dancing couples merging into caterpillar lines, or guys showing off for tiny Sherri “Sparkle” Williams, or any of the smart, happy goings-on.

Dwight Rhoden’s solo Growth (A Part of a Bigger Picture), to music by Steve Reich, shows off another side of the terrific Williams. Supple and powerful, dressed in a next-to-nothing that shows her buffness, she may pour an imaginary substance mystically from hand to hand, or stumble, but she’s a warrior. I wish Rhoden’s Sky Garden were as well-formed a piece. You can marvel at the dancers—dressed in garish, shiny sci-fi bondage outfits by Miho Morinoue—bombing around to Antonio Carlos Scott’s score, and Rhoden makes interesting high-wattage movement (people brandish their legs like weapons) that grabs you for about 20 minutes. But he gets drunk on choreography. After 20 more minutes, including bits of inexplicable drama, I’m numbed by meandering excess.

Donald McKayle and Ronald K. Brown collaborated on Children of the Passage, McKayle providing sharp visions of a decadent society—sort of a party from hell in old New Orleans (great clothes by Omotayo W. Olanja)—while Brown pulls the people out of darkness into loose-bodied African spiritual release. This epic journey is buoyed by members of the wonderful Dirty Dozen Brass Band. They, like the DCDC dancers, are up for anything.

Stephen Petronio’s marvelous dancers perform as if gearing up for an unknowable apocalypse. They have to be the strongest, the most tireless, yet dodgy and fluid enough to slip between crevices. In the Prelude to his Strange Attractors, last week at the Joyce, they’re shoulder to shoulder, melting into one another in tender desperation. But squint your eyes, and they resemble volatile matter bubbling around a central figure, Petronio. And in the two main sections of the dance, they’re almost constantly hurtling about.

The title refers to a moving magnetic point in a “seemingly chaotic field.” In one reiterated motif, dancers form a line or lines stretching away from us; from those lines, they burst out singly, then in pairs, and return to repel others. The impression throughout is one of unpredictable contagion. Part I’s dazzling opening solo for Michael Badger introduces the style we’ll see all evening multiplied by eight. His busy feet punch out balletic steps; little beats stud his springy, ground-covering passage. Yet his body is always canted, one limb pulling against another, one arm hauling him into a seesaw tilt, a leg swinging into a wide circle. This dancing is both beautiful and awkward, decisive yet buffeted by unseen forces. It’s a surprise when he defines a position. His gray silk pajamas (by Ghost) and Michael Nyman’s music—sweet, even saccharine at times—seem to slide about him.

Part II is more severe. The same patterns predominate, but the dancers wear tiny black trunks and skimpy turtlenecks, and two metal discs by Anish Kapoor hang above them, reflecting Ken Tabachnik’s lights. The score by UNKLE belts out a strong backbeat. Now the valiant performers bend their elbows and punch the air, yet still recall Part I’s plunging slipperiness and the Prelude’s nuzzlings and meltdowns. It ends enigmatically: One man and one woman stand like Adam and Eve discovering shame. Throughout the piece, Petronio’s use of space is complex and thrilling. Small events develop magically within or behind larger ones. However, his typically remorseless pace leaves no room for dynamic variation, for the dancers to grain the movement, for us to breathe.

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