In the ’70s, Douglas Dunn wrote an extended play on words. It began, “Talking is talking/Dancing is dancing.” About halfway through came the line “Dancing is talking/Talking is dancing.” In Aerobia, a sly satire on self-improvement fads, Dunn’s choreography and Jim Neu’s text form beguiling rhythmic partnerships, collide, and conspire, while managing to convey not exactly a plot, but a society of the future and a place where it hangs out.
Through last Sunday at P.S. 122, audiences entered a surreal gym by Mimi Gross, dominated by a “tree” of red plastic vanes and vivified by Carol Mullins’s lighting. Neu, as Aerobia’s owner, introduces the philosophy in a wry, slowed-down rap, and later wheels in a free-form juice bar to deliver soothing, bartender-style observations, such as “Everybody’s the same in different ways.” Newcomer Dunn and habitués Jennifer L. Howard, Hope Mohr, Beth Simons, and Christopher Williams are not simply bent on improving their abs; the program fosters “socioaerobics.” Tricked out in Gross’s bright-colored Lycra workout attire, with glitter in their hair and on their faces, the four members talk and dance and dance and talk, via voice-overs and live dialogue. To scraps of cheerfully rinky-dink music, they work their bodies while getting to know one another and indulging in dubiously skewed platitudes and enigmatic truths like “The body you forget may be your own” and “Some of my biggest surprises are me.”
The younger denizens of Aerobia do not engage in conventional exercises; they dance vigorously. Dunn’s style keeps everyone’s feet and legs elongated and busy, but this is no balleticized warm-up. As is usual with him, curious gestures, hits and misses, odd body twists, and tricks of timing produce a rich and surprise-pitted texture. In his wonderful opening solo, Dunn’s movement and words occasionally hit dead on, more often leap and tumble companionably together. Sometimes he lurks in the background, trying to pick up the younger dancers’ routines, but he helps out in elaborate group maneuvers.
Non-literal though Aerobia is, relationships develop. Mohr and Howard become buddies. Dunn and Williams have an oblique dialogue. Simons creates confusion by pretending to be twins (each dishes the other to establish credibility). These folks are pretty self-centered, but as they pursue the mantra “Aerobia turns who you are into who you want to be,” they mention with some surprise that being themselves has somehow brought them together. In Aerobia, shallowness runs pretty deep.
Even if the program for Bebe Miller’s Verge at the Duke hadn’t lauded her dancers’ contributions to the piece, I’d have guessed their involvement. As in most of her works, they don’t show steps; they form a society, bringing relevant personal baggage with them. Their behavior comes across as warm, instinctual, yet governed by codes both personal and public. They look like us, although they perform acts we could never do or would never dare do. “Relax,” Ted Johnson tells Darrell Jones; Jones stands patiently while Johnson vigorously attempts to mold his mouth into a smile.
Miller has been working with text for some time now: private memories (sometimes in a voice-over) and sociopolitical inquiry. Movement serves as a tempestuous statement of subtext. In the Bessie-winning Verge, the four dancers are unobtrusively miked, and Talvin Wilks, rather than Miller, wrote the text. There’s no linear narrative. The same few sentences, repeated in varying contexts, alter in meaning. Cross-purposes abound. Standing almost face-to-face, Johnson and Angie Hauser Robinson speak at each other: “Don’t go.” “Come closer.” “I have to go.” “Stay with me.” Johnson attempts the same dialogue with Jones, and doesn’t even notice how differently he reacts. An exchange based on “How does it feel?”/”It feels good” acquires a range of meanings—some concerned, some sexual, some unfathomable.
These people’s habitat is open to the world: Scott Pask’s white wall angles like the corner of a room. A raised strip of grass runs across the back. One slipcovered chair sits to the side. Michael Mazzola’s lighting is as clear and spare and imaginative as Hahn Rowe’s music. The dancers sometimes move fluidly, sometimes explosively. They strut, they prance. They fumble their way into alliances. At one point, Melissa Wynn looks as rangy and alert as a wildcat. Suddenly someone will just stop or wander away. As in all Miller’s pieces, people’s actions are inexplicable, yet completely understandable. Their desires, their frustrations, their thoughtful moments, their flashes of daring, their moments of connection, and their loneliness are ours.
Like the city of Havana, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba mixes faded beauty with grit and Latin verve. At City Center—where the company’s founder-director Alicia Alonso starred with Ballet Theatre in the ’40s—we’re not used to such softly curving arms and delicately yearning upper bodies, not even in the romantic-era icon Giselle. Some of the deportment seems to come from an earlier decade. Despite frankly dazzling pyrotechnics, a kind of gentleness pervades the program of highlights. Part of this results from the dancers’ composure and deceptive ease. You watch Oscar Torrado begin the pas de deux from Sleeping Beauty and think, “He’s never going to be able to jump.” Then with little preparation he leaves the ground, revolves several times in the air, and lands clean as a whistle. The marvelous Lorna Feijóo never loses her charm as she churns out an even string of fouettés or as, regrettably, she turns a dive into her lover’s arms into a contortionist’s trick. In scenes from Coppélia, Viengsay Valdés assumes a balance on point; then, while her partner, Víctor Gilí, looks on admiringly, she hovers there, rock steady, for an eternity. Alihaydée Carreño does the same thing in Don Quixote.
The company specializes in turns, leaps, and balances. When a man rotates his partner, you’re aware of his hands on her waist, so firmly and so many times does he spin her. All this might seem vulgar, were it not for the almost eerie ease. You sense it even in the flash of Don Q, when the endearingly cocky Joel Carreño unleashes a series of impeccable backward turns in attitude.
Alonso’s restaging of the classics is idiosyncratic. Giselle‘s Wilis point the hapless Hilarion toward the lake with a chillingly effective military snap of the arm; on the other hand, their bent-over runs suggest stomach cramps more than malevolence. As a consequence of the company’s shoestring budget, production values vary. Costumes range from bronze and gold grandeur to tackiness. A painted blue swag hangs over everything, including a nighttime forest. The lighting is unflattering, and the balance in the recorded music is so curious that well-known scores sound unfamiliar. But when someone delivers a perfect multiple pirouette like a surprise gift, you forget all that.