You’ve parked your pickup. Johnny Cash is singing on the jukebox. Why not belly up to the bar and grab a beer? Well, you can’t. David Neumann and Steven Rishard may punctuate the music by flipping open cans and wiping froth off their mouths, but this is Stacy Dawson’s loveable ruckus, Best Western, at P.S. 122. And the tiny, poisonous-looking bar is where Rebecca Wisocky drapes herself boozily to lip-synch Patsy Cline into a desk lamp.
Dawson has shone in the dance-theater works of Annie-B Parson and collaborated with Neumann on Pearl River, with its nutty send-up of film corn. In Best Western she smartly intercuts, repeats, echoes, and varies images and gestures so that the piece feels like a hallucination—hilarious, but respectful of the songs that drive it. Country music’s major themes—loneliness, unfaithful lovers, heavy drinking, life on the road—slur into one another. Not only do the songs we hear exude those subjects in honeyed sorrow, the singers live them. Dawson plays Loretta Lynn, Neumann (in a platinum wig) is George Jones. Andrew Dinwiddie, wearing a suit, turns out to be Conway Twitty. And drag star Poison Eve sings “I Don’t Want to Play House” as a towering Tammy Wynette. Katie Workum as I forget who has a violent singing-wrestling duet with Rishard (the tour-bus driver). Jenny Seastone Stern, as his adolescent kid, witnesses the domestic squabble and takes the sadness into her backup singing. Ideas spring from nowhere. Here’s the spry graybeard (Flloyd) who opened the show, rocking Neumann on his lap like a baby. Presto, this same old guy becomes a table for someone else to stand on. Lip-synching permits freedoms beyond Nashville’s ken: Wisocky can cartwheel while mouthing Cline.
Under Frank DenDanto III’s festive ceiling bulbs, the performers slide from bickering and loving and drinking and telling whoppers to clustering around a mike and letting us know what heartbreak is. Neumann, in a dazzlingly sleazy performance, is so pissed he can’t get his glasses into his pocket, but joins mournful choruses of repentance like “I’m paying now.” It’s nice when the performers sing in their own voices: “It takes a worried man to sing a worried song.” Suddenly they seem smaller, tireder, and simpler, like all who take comfort from the sweet misery of country music.
Behold Bold Sam Dog. Who but Susan Rethorst would contrive such a title—plain and succinct, yet pranksome—for a dance? Rethorst is a thoroughly modern woman, yet I see her work and think of Emily Dickinson. Touches of impishness color her solid, serene, even prim onstage presence. The dance phrases she creates juxtapose simplicity with sudden surprises and intricate turns of mind. Mild rambunctiousness erupts from calm and is in turn tempered by it.
Behold Bold (at Danspace St. Mark’s at the start of February) isn’t a flashy work, or one that tries to tell stories. Its scale is modest. Every move shows meticulous workmanship, even when Rethorst’s purpose is to convey awkwardness. Jodi Melnick and Vicky Shick are its undisputed heroines, continuing their fascinating tasks unruffled as Erin Fitzgerald, Taryn Griggs, and Sarah Perron quietly pass through or invade the goings on—altering what we think we understand. Much of the evening happens in silence, but Shostakovitch’s Jazz Suite, Waltz 2 bursts shockingly in, and, once, we hear the Beatles singing, “Here come old Flat Top . . . ”
Shick and Melnick—beautiful women—articulate everything into luminousness, whether one is gently moving the other, or they’re batting away something we can’t see, or Melnick is watching Shick gravely slip her limbs into pockets of air. All the dancing looks gently askew, unmoored, though never out of control. Small, dithery movements vie with strong, squared-off ones. At one point, Rethorst lopes heavily in circles, slogging along, like some sort of guardian of perimeters; as she’s finishing, she quite artlessly pulls herself up by the seat of her pants. Toward the end, three women stand straight, a partner behind each peering around to look at us. That’s how I see Rethorst’s dance, as if I’m glancing from behind a tree into a half-hidden, gently alluring world.
40Up celebrated its fifth anniversary with a season called “Grace,” featuring 35 choreographers and incorporating some younger artists among the typical over-40 ones. A statement about “Grace” began with Emerson’s words: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared with what lies within us.” Most of the works I saw at the Duke on 42nd Street honored beauty and the dancer as an emblem of spirit under adversity. To begin and end the evening, Janis Brenner, high on the theater’s side balcony, performed two of Meredith Monk’s superb Songs From the Hill, with their astonishing vocal changes; even in a black box, her singing evoked a desert landscape and the frail power of the individual within it. It was intriguing that Brenner also danced two fine, small solos by Mary Wigman from the 1929 suite Shifting Landscape; both are happy—one, Pastorale, almost languid. In both, the dancer’s hands trace filigrees on Alpine air that you’re sure is balmy.
Zvi Gotheiner’s choreography has a romantic intensity. Music and feelings mold lush, sweeping movement and charged intimacies. In an excerpt from his 1994 Fragile, June Balish was a sensuously playful nymph with jutting hips and Duncanesque flow. Dirk Platzek moved through Gotheiner’s 1995 Solo to Scarlatti with the powerful muscularity of an animal and the human burden of self-awareness. In a troubled trio from the choreographer’s 2001 Interiors—performed to Scott Killian’s music by Todd Allen, Barbara Koch, and the marvelously vulnerable Kuan Hui Chew—a couple’s vying for a child was shaped as an unstopping current of desire and cruelty. Ying-Ying Shiau and Chew in their collaborative Contour and Todd Allen and Amos Pinhasi in Pinhasi’s Willows stressed the gentler contentions of love. With the women, you felt the power of circles; with the men, the push and pull, the bracing against loss.
A solo, wonderfully performed, can seem like a spiritual journey. In Portuguese Blues by Sara Pearson and Patrik Widrig, Widrig danced to Amalia Rodrigues’s haunting fados, blending quickness and lush softness—a Pierrot Lunaire tumbling beneath the moon. Nina Watt gave us José Limón’s 1942 Chaconne (to Bach’s unaccompanied violin), drawing more subtleties and nuances from this elegant, rather prolix solo than I’d have dreamed possible.
A welcome counter to all this introspective beauty: Sara Pearson in an engaging, brave, sometimes irritatingly over-the-top performance of her Dr. Pearson’s Guide to Loss and Fear. While vaulting about, she cataloged in a Russo-Yiddish accent everything she was afraid of losing, with a major digression (sans accent) into the day she lost her virginity. She almost calmed down at the end. “I’m afraid of losing you,” she told us, “and you and you and you.” Amen.