Jamie Cunningham and Tina Croll, broadly experienced choreographers, developed an elegant structure for letting veteran dancers share their gifts, both physical and verbal. Since 1998, they’ve staged a dozen versions of From the Horse’s Mouth around the country and around town, recruiting performers of modern, ballet, show dancing, and various ethnic forms. The project has been documented in a film by Sharon Kinney. On August 9 Cunningham and Croll broke new ground, taking a diverse cast to Lincoln Center’s South Plaza and mounting a version called A Balkan Brass Band Meets a Horse of a Different Color, commissioned by Lincoln Center Out of Doors.
Despite record-breaking heat, a bunch of brass players (Zlatne Uste, American-born musicians playing traditional Balkan tunes) thundered away on one edge of the plaza, while a lithe corps of dancers, their sneakers a concession to the concrete surface, loped gently around the stone planters and benches. This performance signaled several firsts for the durable show: first live band, first outdoor staging, first time in the round. Also the first time movers who did not speak were part of the cast—among them an ensemble of men doing Balkan dances—and the first time big groups took the stage together during the monologues. All these innovations seemed dictated by the large outdoor venue; spectators had plenty to look at while individual performers talked. As The Horse’s Mouth evolves, what comes out of the artists’ mouths becomes increasingly interesting. Rajika Puri, an East Indian dancer, recited fragments of a 16th-century Sanskrit text that interspersed melody with speech, onomatopoeia with rhythmic syllables. One dancer, Jim Martin, sang an Irish immigration song. La Conja delivered a flamenco chant. Others, as usual, told personal anecdotes. The piece has a loopy appeal and is infinitely variable; director Croll this time performed sections of a meditative work in which sticks hidden in her delicately printed sleeves extended her reach. Diana Byer, director of the New York Theatre Ballet, picked her way across the concrete in pointe shoes and recalled her Vegas debut. She stole the show in a beflowered hoopskirt designed by Sylvia Taalsohn for NYTB’s recent Alice in Wonderland Follies. In a gracious nod to the setting and the family audience, Arthur Aviles wore a black dance belt under his red dress; at previous outings he’s worn no underwear at all.
The next edition of Horse’s Mouth, a benefit for the Actor’s Fund honoring dance in Broadway musicals, is scheduled for a Broadway house in April.
Last month, Kitty Lunn’s six-year-old Infinity Dance Theater appeared at the Kaye Playhouse. Finding the right repertory for a troupe in which some members use wheelchairs is a challenge. In Manhattan, where irony is a lingua franca and sentimental expression a danger, it’s easy to see the troupe’s interactions slipping into bathos. At the Kaye only two of the 10 performers were on wheels, and several pieces were performed entirely by “standing dancers,” notably Peter Pucci’s Hoop-La, a Deco-style romp for seven bearing 21 hula hoops. At first you wonder why Hoop-La, beautifully executed, is on this bill—it would be a crowd pleaser anywhere—but then you notice the visual echoes between the hoops and the wheels on the chairs.
Making the transition from a curiosity—a troupe that gives pride of place to disabled and aging artists—to a company with a truly original voice will require rethinking both musical and choreographic choices; using Pucci is a step in the right direction. He also made a new work for Lunn, a clean, tight solo with music by Don Cherry and elegant lighting by Burke J. Wilmore, in which the plucky mover winds up standing alongside her chair in a snowstorm. Wheelchairs, like ice skates, radically alter the rhythm and tempo of dance; finding satisfying mergers is the challenge facing Infinity.