Radical New York choreographers of the ’60s enjoyed conflating process and product and showing how context alters perception. David Gordon has been charming audiences with these concepts—embedded in witty theater pieces—ever since. His new Private Lives of Dancers, at Danspace through Sunday, shows his Pick Up Performance Co. rehearsing and performing. The rehearsal, of course, is a performance. Tadej Brdnik, Tricia Brouk, Scott Cunningham, María de Lourdes Dávila, Karen Graham, and Valda Setterfield chat while they warm up or run through parts of the new piece. If they have a problem, stage manager Ed Fitzgerald feeds them their lines. What, they weren’t improvising?
These semi-fictitious characters bring their outside lives to rehearsal. Brouk has inveigled her mother into buying her a $3750 couch. Cunningham’s wife threw up all night. Dávila’s imprudent early marriages are discussed. And, as she dances, Graham mentions she has a doctor’s appointment and wonders if she could be pregnant. Gossip burgeons with the fluid walking patterns, just as gently wheeling arms and deflected courses create images of turnstiles and subtly shifting realities. Before long, charged by increasingly energetic dancing, the “truth” has become that Graham is pregnant, will marry “Jimmy” and stop dancing.
Gordon and his wife Setterfield begin the “day” with a domestic conversation, as they hinge together red, transparent-paned doors to form a folding screen (his responses consist mostly of sleepy yesses). Midway through Private Lives, they reverse these to show black sides. Jennifer Tipton’s magnificently imaginative lighting flashes for a second, then glimmers with cool theatricality; Alan Johnson stops the rehearsal-pianist stuff, adding his notes to Michael Gordon’s excellent taped score; and the group, now wearing black practice outfits, begins the “real” (?) dance. All the moves we’ve seen before appear altered, vibrant, and ones we haven’t seen enrich the texture. Setterfield crosses with serene elegance, and Gordon, behind the screens, struts back and forth as if hearing fragments of klezmer music. In the penultimate moments, he looks as if he’s signaling through flames or trying to get back into his own wonderful dance.
New York City Ballet has always developed choreographers within the company. Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins was encouraged by Balanchine, and he in turn has nurtured others. Christopher Wheeldon, responsible for the splendid Polyphonia, danced with NYCB until recently. Martins’s new find is corps member Melissa Barak, whose Telemann Overture Suite in E-Minor—made last spring for School of American Ballet students—is being performed during NYCB’s season (through February 24).
On New York State Theater’s big stage, the ballet looks modest, fresh, and neat. The dancers’ many springy pas de chats with one leg thrusting out match the buoyancy of Telemann’s music for small ensemble and flute. There’s nothing hidden or complex in this work; steps may be technically difficult, but the effect is one of simplicity. Barak finds ways to make us see individual dancers. In the opening section, each of four groups of three has a chance to break out of its grave striding and dance on its own. Carrie Lee Riggins and Amanda Edge appear to have a nice little conversation. (I’m happy to see Edge—who always dances full- heartedly, musically, and with a lovely spatial alertness—getting some meaty roles.)
Barak’s attractive choreography does leave a rather frontal, two-dimensional impression in terms of how she reveals the individual bodies. However, she’s 22. She’s got time. And talent.
Martins’s Quartet for Strings, set to Giuseppe Verdi’s E-minor quartet, was commissioned for Italy’s Verdi Festival. The choreography emphasizes the music’s effervescence with bouncy steps. Margaret Tracey wafts and springs across the stage and disappears. Yvonne Borree follows. Nikolaj Hübbe and Sébastien Marcovici dash on. Leaps, prances, and speedy skimmings ensue. Jennie Somogyi makes solitary entrances, and Martins capitalizes on her lushness.
As always, Martins manipulates his themes and varies the stage picture intelligently. Some ideas misfire. Marcovici barrels around, holding Borree aloft, struggling to adjust as her position keeps changing (this might work to witty effect with a real diva up there). In one solo, Somogyi keeps looking around for the others. Fine performer though she is, she can’t make this look real (an hour’s coaching with the late Jerome Robbins would have done the trick). In this minor effort, although Martins hits the music’s big changes and sometimes tracks it closely, his phrases often seem at odds with Verdi’s; your ear leads you to expect one kind of step and Martins gives you another.
Like quests, Tamar Rogoff’s rich and unusual pieces delve into other worlds that resonate with her own. For Daughter of a Pacifist Soldier (at La MaMa through January 20), she and her six performers spent eight months interviewing five veterans of three wars who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, bonding with them, and improvising on themes that arose. Rogoff came to the project through her father, a medical officer during World War II—a charming, witty doctor who nevertheless rarely touched his adoring daughter. The hair-raising taped memories of the veterans (Anfelt Albertsen, Ron Brown, Jaime Concepcion, John McCarthy, and Tom Rivera) mingle with Rogoff’s childhood memories. Speaking as Tamar, Onni Johnson reads extracts from Bernard Rogoff’s journals and letters written to his wife while he was slogging through Burma. Interwoven are fierce marches, a satiric scene on the set of a war film, and a fashion show pushing the military look.
If you think a piece built on so many words might be literal or message laden, you don’t know Rogoff. With Ralph Denzer (composer), David Ferri (lighting), Elizabeth Bourgeois (costumes), Sam Tresler (set), Maxine Kern (dramaturge), and powerful performers, she constructs a montage that gradually, obliquely closes in on your heart.
Jennifer Chang, Billy Clark, Rob Laqui, Paulo Pimentel, and Abigail Rasminsky dance solos when each one’s soldier-buddy speaks. Occasionally word and gesture coincide (like “airplane” and outspread arms), but more often the finely chosen movements serve as restrained underlining to what we hear. At the end, the veterans’ barely moving faces appear, one by one, on a screen at the back, seeming to listen to what “their” dancers tell them. “I hope” says Clark to Brown, “my dance was good enough.”
It takes a long time for one crucial fact to sink in: Bernard Rogoff, who wrote such beautiful, hopeful, passionate, and erotic letters to his wife, was also forever altered by his wartime experience. And Rogoff/Johnson, with her inexplicable insomnia, asks, “Whose system did I inherit—yours or the war’s?” Finally, a picture of young Major Rogoff grows until he fills the screen—distant and unbearably close, understood 16 years after his death.