Who’d have thought you could bring back the ’60s—those heady days of Judson Dance Theater and beyond? Surely no one could recapture the delight, outrage, and instructive boredom engendered by concerts that challenged every notion of what dance was. It took a Russian-born ballet star to theatricalize the heritage of postmodern dance.
For some spectators, I dare say, boredom could figure during White Oak Dance Project’s two-and-a-half-hour PASTForward, but the program has been brilliantly planned by artistic director Mikhail Baryshnikov and the show’s director-writer, David Gordon, to engage eyes and minds. Slides, film clips, and voice-overs introduce period, project, and choreographers Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Gordon, Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, and Simone Forti. Peter Richards’s live videowork offers occasional side-view close-ups. In the big Brooklyn Academy of Music, you might not notice precisely how Emily Coates stacks sponges in Childs’s wonderful 1964 Carnation, or the way her fingers walk to find just where to stick a hair roller into the lettuce drainer she’s inverted over her head, but the camera zooms you in.
We’re invited to make comparisons. In a 2000 variation of Gordon’s 1975 Chair Dance, Baryshnikov cockily strides onto and off a chair while a march plays, then exits with a spin in the air. Raquel Aedo, Emmanuèle Phuon, and Keith Sabado perform the original piece’s witty maneuvers on folding seats gravely and in silence—now in sync, now not. When they do it again, humming the march and doubled by video, their ragged, out-of-breath voices humanize—even dramatize—their moves.
Rainer’s landmark Trio A from 1966—a long string of movements whose variety in spatial design contrasts with its uninflected delivery—is first run backward by Phuon and Rosalynde LeBlanc. Then, while Aedo starts at the beginning, Michael Lomeka jolts the placid dynamic by hustling around her, trying to engage her gaze, thus emphasizing her constantly changing focus. When seven dancers execute Trio A, each in his/her own time, to the Chambers Brothers rocking out “In the Midnight Hour”: instant spectacle! In a version of Brown’s 1965 Homemade, customized for Baryshnikov, we can compare the live performer’s odd gestures and facial expressions with his tiny 16mm image, flitting from the projector strapped to his back.
We can also compare the plain-Jane, formally scrupulous work of the 1960s and early 1970s with some of the choreographers’ current work, and trace the path from smart explorations of everyday movement to virtuosic dancing choreographed with an eye for the accidental and a love of anti-heroic behavior. In a trio from Brown’s 1990 Foray Forêt, dancers in golden costumes by former Judson choreographer Robert Rauschenberg slip around and glance off one another like sunlight angling past a tree. Watching the finale, Childs’s 1993 Concerto to Henryk Gorecki’s thunderous Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings, you can see how the precision with which she stacked those sponges carried over into the simple, rigorously patterned, rhythmic dances she began to make in the late ’60s, and their later complex variants. Gone are the days of thinking it manipulative to make the spectators’ pulses quicken. Concerto lifts the roof.
Baryshnikov and his marvelous colleagues attempt—most often successfully—to capture the casual-bodied aesthetic of the ’60s. (Baryshnikov may never perform Paxton’s 1964 Flat quite like the choreographer, but he’s arresting.) The choreographers have adjusted slightly to today’s pace (Rainer has dubbed this Trio A “pressured”). But wisely, Baryshnikov and Gordon remind us of the charms of the everyday. An augmented company performs Forti’s 1970 Scramble while the audience arrives, and the intrepid recruits clamber through her 1961 Huddle, another structured improvisation, during intermission. A large group drawn from the community crosses the stage in Steve Paxton’s 1967 Satisfyin Lover; old, young, black, white, slim, stocky, nimble, stiff, and profoundly individual of gait, they walk, maybe stop, maybe sit. And they walk again in Gordon’s Overture to “The Matter,“ one by one to the processional music for the Shades in Marius Petipa’s 1877 La Bayadère, while Baryshnikov arranges objects behind them. They swell the stage at the curtain call and in a burst of unfeigned exuberance that brings back the ’60s, they dance their hearts out with the White Oak pros.
In the 1970s, a strain of hedonism countered postmodern minimalism. Elisa Monte’s 1979 landmark duet Treading paired the rapid driving rhythms and repetitive patterns of Steve Reich’s 18 Musicians with lush, muscular movement. She and her husband, David Brown, oozed intently yet dreamily over and around each other—cooling potential eroticism into compelling sculpture. At the Joyce last week, the two celebrated the 20th anniversary of the company now known as Monte/Brown Dance by performing Treading again. They and the dance are as stunning as ever, and you can see in the duet the roots of their company’s now more extravagant style.
Both choreographers exploit the power of superb dancers whose legs shoot high and whose bodies arch until you think they might crack. With every kick, spin, or leap, they seem to cry out, “Oh my God!” in ecstasy or desperation. Even though each move is controlled, they look more impulsive than thoughtful. Their actions may imply desire or animosity, but they perform without specific dramatic intent.
In two new pieces, Brown creates elegant, slightly chill environments. SAS traps Fabrice Lamego and Caroline Nehr in a rectangle of light below hanging lamps. To warm voices (music by Brenda Fassi and Vuli Ndlela), they perform impassioned exercises—close yet separate. As they leave, she pulls an imaginary light cord and erases their world. Eight people walk on to begin 2Face and stand looking toward a fluorescent tube on the floor at the back. It may be a finish line, but they’re bent on individual missions that sometimes approach rat-race intensity. Encounters and moments of unison are rare. In one arresting image, Marden Ramos strides forward, the others hanging off him like a vast, breathing cloak. At the end, they line up again, but turn their heads to glance warily at us.
Both choreographers are at their best when they harness their love of rich movement to strong, clear forms, and when they’re succinct. Like Brown’s 1998 Testimony, Monte’s new Shattered runs out of steam before Michael Gordon’s apocalyptic music, Weather, crashes to its end. Clifton Taylor’s lightning flashes show a population flung apart, collapsing, and crawling together. Gorgeous Nadine Mose tackles a long solo as if she were Stravinsky’s Chosen Maiden, ready to dance herself to death for a little sunshine. The others walk in, look at her, and back out. Monte fluctuates between inventive movement and sore-thumb staples like ballet brisées performed with driven fervor.