Theater archives

Tiger Balm


At the start of Garth Fagan’s Prelude, Norwood Pennewell sails onto the Joyce stage with a velvety jump and hovers there on one leg, anchoring silence, as if steadied by serenity and cooperative currents of air. Fagan’s trademark piece bears the epigraph “Discipline Is Freedom.” If everyone on the planet practiced such sweet discipline, the world would be a safer place.

The dancers in the Rochester-based company, here until Sunday, reveal an unorthodox virtuosity filtered through something approaching spirituality. When, in the 1999 Woza, Sharon Skepple stands on one leg, bends over, and unfolds her other leg into improbable positions in the air above, her action seems less a stunt than a profoundly delightful statement about control. At one point in Prelude, Natalie Rogers stands off to the side, one leg bent, the other straight out in the air like a flag; it takes a while to realize that this woman is balancing on only the ball of her foot.

In Fagan’s choreography, unusual moments spice underlying order. During one duet in the beautiful new Music of the Line/Words in the Shape, Chris Morrison pauses to press his face to Sharon Skepple’s curled-over back; in another, Rogers lays her cheek against Pennewell’s knee. While Pennewell dances through a circle of four women, they cant to the side but keep their heads straight, as if peering around trees. The dance, to music by John Adams, makes striking use of small, shifting groups. Pennewell and Morrison stand, immobile, and Rogers, gazing intently toward us, lances an arabesque between these two tall columns before they reposition themselves so she can arch back over Pennewell’s thigh. Not everything is slow—Bill Ferguson bounds around Skepple and Nicolette Depass before another trio (the troupe’s wonderful founding member Steve Humphrey with Erin Barnett and Joel Valentin) materializes.

The company dedicated In Memoriam (reworked from an earlier piece) to the victims and survivors of September 11. The tribute juxtaposes marching with standing in place, slow balances with sudden bursts of energy, while, in an extraordinary recording, Jan Garbarek’s saxophone pierces 16th-century music by Cristóbal de Morales. Yet for all Music‘s skittering feet, big jumps, and complex flow of regroupings, in this new piece Fagan and the dancers create a core of tranquillity and ease in adversity that spreads an even deeper and more touching blessing over these thorny times.

Doug Elkins, reformed postmodern wiseass and slicked-down club kid, still cooks up a lot of mischief. His two-part The Look of Love (at the Duke last month) encases rambunctious young-love behavior in a kind of easy formalism. The movements that he gives his seven charming and adventurous dancers don’t always jibe predictably with the lyrics of 14 songs by Burt Bacharach and four by the engagingly eccentric Daniel Johnston, with his toy instruments and cracking voice. Yet Elkins finds intriguing ways to allude to content and expand upon it. At the end of “What’s New, Pussycat,” an elegantly organized sextet, three dancers’ heads suddenly poke out from between the legs of their partners, who are reclining on the floor; without looking, the partners push those heads right back where they came from. In “Long Day, Short Night,” Alexander Escalante keeps kissing a wildly reluctant Brian Caggiano, who’s romancing Fritha Pengelly (leaving, alas, after seven years with the company). Elkins doesn’t highlight gesture or attitude; the three just keep boiling closely about one another—friendly despite these little conflicts.

Elkins has tamed the break-dancing moves that used to stud his choreography, and blended them into a spunky, witty, nonchalantly athletic style. In “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” Sharon Estacio, unimpressed by Escalante’s line, dispatches him with a handstand that powers a no-nonsense kick. The handkerchief Caggiano lends Charemaine Seet in “If I Never Get to Love You” inspires a little bullfight. “You’ll Never Get to Heaven,” featuring the impish Bernard Brown, flashes a quick pietà.

Some of the highlights: the marvelously passionate and tiger-soft Estacio uptight in “Walking the Cow” (she’s become a finely nuanced performer), Rebecca Chisman and Escalante drastically tender in “If I Never Get to Love You,” and the three men ironically and hilariously inept at knock-’em-down machismo, to the welcome fast thrust of “Tower of Strength.” (The piece’s liability is that so many of the songs have a loping, medium-paced pulse; this seduces Elkins and makes the evening lag at times.)

Given its delectable and playful surface, The Look of Love ends up being a pretty wise dance.

Heidi Latsky is a potent substance in a small, sleek package. When, in her October concerts at Danspace, Latsky launches herself into “What Would You Have Done?” from her 1999 Worst Case Scenario, she all but sets fires wherever she treads. She throws her right arm in the air until you think it’ll drop off; she shakes obsessively. But this small woman is so powerful you can’t doubt she’ll win whatever battle she’s fighting. The balance between thrashing, full-throttle dancing and control is astonishing. Ever heard of immaculate mayhem?

Because of her size, we’re used to seeing her hoisted off the ground—years ago with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane, more recently teamed with big Lawrence Goldhuber. It’s nice that in her agreeable new duet, Just Watch!, to juicy live music by Roderick L. Jackson and Marty Beller, she only gets tossed over Todd Allen’s shoulder toward the end. Much of the time they stay close but separated, in unison, all their attention on the bold game they’re playing.

Each piece segues into the next, guided by Robert Wierzel’s lighting and the mostly live music. One group work, I’m Dying to Lift You, doesn’t quite come off, although I enjoy keyboard player Kathleen Supové, performing Randall Woolf’s score in shorts; the antics of James Martin, the only man in the cast of eight; and Bella Malinka (who taught ballet to a zillion kids at the High School of Performing Arts from 1949 to 1981) playing a small but queenly diva. The piece rambles. A lot of shapely butts get wiggled at the audience.

In her 1999 One Apart, Latsky manages a very large group (25) with far more clarity. To music by Mozart and Andrew Poppy she combines hearty dancing with gestural passages—people lying on their backs, for instance, and “conversing” with their upraised feet, or sticking out their tongues and holding their faces as if inner demons were erupting. I’m impressed by the way Latsky makes our eyes work—setting Janet Lilly dancing in the center of the St. Mark’s sanctuary while little, quick duets hold down the corners. She makes this potentially unwieldy crew seem like a society of individuals with a zest for organized festivity.