Some virtuosic dancers are like cold steel, slicing the air around them. Those in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (at City Center through December 31) are metal that’s been in the fire for a while—warm and beyond-belief pliant, yet able to whip off big movements at top speed and end in a full stop, maybe on one leg. They devour dancing as if famished for it. I love their rapacious power, even as I look for those who discover nuances within that force. To watch Matthew Rushing in Alonzo King’s fine Following the Subtle Current Upstream is to see King’s title embodied and redefined.
Ronald K. Brown’s new Serving Nia starts off with an Ailey treasure, Renee Robinson, as one of several manifestations of Nia, who gives dance lessons in spiritual serenity. Who would not follow this woman? Her steps seem to both soothe and incite. Loving but powerful, she sinks into Brown’s vocabulary: Africa’s deeply bent legs, high-lifting knees, and swinging arms, passed through a contemporary lens.
Brown’s dances all refer to a search for inner peace, but the journey can be pitted with violence. Nia is more tranquil. We see people threading between still figures, a fallen man being raised by his comrades. Asha Thomas (one of the Nias) leads the three men—Rushing, Vernard J. Gilmore, and Glenn A. Sims—into a diagonal line to watch and learn from Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell and then from Robinson. Every small solo seems to bear an important message. The music shifts from jazz (Roy Brooks, Branford Marsalis) to Omatayo Wunmi Olaiya’s drums and back to jazz (Dizzy Gillespie playing “Swing Low Sweet Cadillac”). The end suggests a transfer of potency from the three Nias to three others: Rosalyn Sanders, Venus Hall, and Cheryl Rowley-Gaskins. Rich in its choreography and its feeling, Serving Nia ends without quite bringing a sense of completion—perhaps because the men, even as watchers, have been gone from the stage for so long.
Like many Ailey designers, Brenda Dolan, who lit Serving Nia, tends to enmesh the dancers in beams filtered through smoke, pin them in squares of light, suddenly turn their turf a lurid red. Sometimes the changes seem irrational or distracting, the effects too splashy, but the lusciousness seduces me in the same way the dancers do.
The world of Lisa Race keeps tilting. Maybe it’s because in her pieces dancers are liable to wheel between being right side up and upside down. Yet nothing looks effortful; their joints are lined with plush. Race’s new Social Climb, presented by Dance Theater Workshop last month at the Duke on a shared program with Ellis Wood, involves struggle, but no tension. “What could be better than hiking?” asks Paul Matteson. Immediately, his companions—Anna Sofia Kallinikidou, Jennifer Nugent, and Mark Stuver—turn themselves into a peak for him to scale, and the dance becomes a long, fluid process of sliding and vaulting over one another, of climbing, toppling, and being caught. Against Michael Wall’s bright score, the performers speak of other obstacles and fears. I’m caught up in the beauty and imaginativeness of the evolving formations; the body you least expect to see surface spurts up from the group in a shape you never expected to see. I do sometimes feel that Race and the dancers get on a roll—unable to stop, or punctuate, or veer in a new direction—drunk on momentum, sating us with loveliness.
Wood is not about loveliness. The Germanic edge to her memorable premiere’s title, Funktionlust Slut, answers the Kurt Weill echoes in Daniel Bernard Roumain’s now sweet, now ominous music. This is one ferocious piece. Women lie flat on their faces on the floor, stick their rumps up in the air, and inch along. “It’s no problem; I can do this,” says one of them about the physical rigors that life (and Wood) demands of them. Leslie Johnson, Jennifer Phillips, Michelle LaRue, and Wood plunge, stumble, cry out, and laugh hysterically. Phillips futilely thrashes her arms around. She, Johnson, and LaRue slip out of their Naoka Nagata duds and leave the stage in their panties while Wood works herself into a lather of drastic, hurtling movement and stark pauses. “I want it!” she tells us. “I have a fire in my house. I’m hot.” She makes the words sound like a hopeful boast. And as if to convince themselves of their sexiness, the others crawl back in and start curling their mouths around words, threatening to suck them dry.
“Shtick!” says Penny Campbell accusingly to Peter Schmitz, who has started worrying his shirt with his teeth. But, she goes on, “Shtick, I love it!” and spells out the word with exaggerated intonations that tug at her body. As it has for the past 10 years, Improvisation Festival/New York comes downtown with December. Comes tumbling and vaulting and wisecracking and striking veins of beauty; and, yes, shtick is inevitable.
Like most people in the overflow crowd at Danspace St. Mark’s on December 2, I love watching dancers improvise because at best they’re so unguarded, so at risk. Improv is a very kinesthetic form of dance. I find myself trying to predict responses. In Tuning Effect, Chris Aiken and Peter Bingham (the latter a contact improvisation legend from Vancouver) start out separately, exploring slow, curvy paths with their forearms. Who’ll be the first to break the pattern? (As André Gribou begins his inventive explorations on piano and synthesizer, Bingham melts beautifully to his knees.) I love the men’s alertness to each other and their surroundings (a baby wails once, and Bingham moans softly in sympathy), their sparing use of bravura, their tolerance for clumsiness.
Campbell, Schmitz, Terry Creach, and Susan Sgorbati, who call themselves the Giants of Science, teach an improvisation workshop together at Bennington every summer. They know one another’s strategies, and foiling them is sometimes as much fun as complying. Trumpeters Arthur Brooks and Bill Heminway, and Jeremy Harlos on bass, goad and support the goings-on with breathy sputters or sudden melodic fragments. Still, Sgorbati can hardly have anticipated just how the other three—having slid in a clump to the floor—would respond to her arrival on the scene. As she circles them, they keep scrunching around to follow her with their gaze; seeing this, she becomes a leader, gesturing to them to do who-knows-what.
Eleven crack dancers associated with the company of Rosane Chamecki and Andrea Lerner have perhaps not improvised together so frequently, but their work, while not completely satisfying, projects a quite engrossing atmosphere. It’s as if we’re looking into a plaza at some sleepy time of day. People watch motionless or walk to stand in new proximity to someone else. There’s very little physical contact. Within this landscape, explosions of dancing (Maria Hassabi: breathtaking) and odd moments of intimacy (Sarah Michelson and Osmany Tellez) vanish unacknowledged.