Transforming Spirits


Eliot Feld celebrated American spirit and diversity at the opening gala of his Ballet Tech’s Joyce season (through May 5). Two of his school’s finest graduates, Jason Jordon and Jassen Virolas, shine in the 1997 Yo Johann—a terrific piece of choreography that shows the men’s chops as well as affectionate dependence and street-smart competition. Nine women evoke our island state in Pacific Dances, set to mellow Hawaiian guitar. They’re lovely, and so is the ballet, though its modest vocabulary of simple rippling toe-steps, sensuous hip rolls, and curling gestures seems overworked. Its guiding image is a huge sheet of white silk, manipulated by other dancers and beautifully lit by Allen Hughes to become huge waves, gently billowing surf, a nymph’s garment, a room. Some of the school’s teenage students warm our cockles with the bouncy, folksy Apple Pie. These performers, especially a couple of endearing spindly boys, don’t yet have fully polished technique, but they dance—something many of them mightn’t have thought of doing had it not been for Ballet Tech’s free tuition.

Lincoln Portrait is half tribute to melting-pot America, half patriotic rallying cry. Aaron Copland wrote Fanfare for the Common Man and Lincoln Portrait (incorporating stirring words by our 16th president) during World War II. To Fanfare, Feld sets a horde of people weaving back and forth across the stage—humans of all ages and races, in modern dress and 19th-century costume. Arranged on bleachers, they become the spectators for blue-clad dancers, who prance through hoedown patterns and form star bursts and wheels. Ha-Chi Yu leaps by with an American flag. Actor Sam Waterston recites Copland’s text. Perhaps in allusion to what the Civil War accomplished, a black woman in a long white dress walks in, and a “family of man” assembles around her.

In the context of today’s complex brushfire wars with widespread, hidden enemies, Lincoln’s words sprout ironies. “The dogma of the quiet past is unequal to the stormypresent.” Would that justify curtailing our freedoms so that government of, by, and for the people “shall not perish from the earth”?

Several Lucinda Childses grace her elegant solo program at the Kitchen through April 20: the dancer, the actress, and the dancer’s younger self. In an excerpt from her Dance, Childs treads lightly through Philip Glass’s score behind her own image from the film Sol LeWitt created for the work’s 1979 premiere. Sometimes we see only her austerely beautiful black-and-white alter ego, shot from different distances, sometimes looming over us; then Pat Dignan’s lighting reveals the equally glamorous flesh-and-blood Childs, now 23 years older, tracing the same springy patterns.

A transformed Kitchen matches the fastidiousness of Childs’s work. Black carpet eliminates distracting reflections and, in Underwater, an excerpt from the Glass-Robert Wilson opera White Raven, intensifies the blue-lit backdrop, the huge compass needle that swings down across it, and Childs in her royal-blue suit. She looks cool as Garbo as she speaks of blue—its science, its energy, its mystique. But her voice is an urgent, witchy whisper, and her gestures seem to push invisible menaces away, while nearby a sea monster festooned with black seaweed (Johanna Hegenscheidt) watches. Childs finally passes through the audience and climbs a ladder behind us. She burns every second into our brains.

She moves sparingly in Description of a Description (2000), on a high, tilted white platform, flanked by black curtains that slowly descend, isolating her even more perilously. (Hans Peter Kuhn created both set—with Mathias Hofman—and score.) She looks fine in stylish black pants and shirt by Gabriel Berry, but she is not fine. The eloquent words she speaks, written by Susan Sontag in 1987, gradually position her as a woman in distress. On a small-town street, a man falls; she helps him up; she learns he got out of prison three weeks ago. But as she meditates exhaustively on this event—her voice coming now from her, now from various speakers positioned around the space—we understand a deeper dilemma. “Is it true we were happy once?” she asks over and over. When she collapses, it isn’t just the man in the street we see.

Jody Sperling’s engrossing solo programat Joyce Soho hinged on transformation. A scholar and critic as well as a performer-choreographer, Sperling has long been studying and reconstructing the dances of Loie Fuller—fin de siècle mistress of fabric and light, and the inspiration for Sperling’s new Dance of the Elements, to piano music by Chopin, Ravel, Falla, et al. Being a postmodern person, Sperling shows the preparation, inserting long wands into her voluminous white silk robe, which David Ferri will magic with light. In “Earth,” she’s a woman with vast wings; in “Water,” she goes deeper into metamorphosis, roiling and swirling, engulfed in silk foam; in “Wind,” Fuller’s famous lily image becomes a small tornado. “Fire” begins low, with red-lit fabric rising. In the waltz of “Ether,” we see Sperling’s body again—the woman within.

Like solo dancers of old, Sperling develops vivid images with relative brevity. In Cheap, to sweet piano music by Roberto Pace and the occasional sound of a flickering movie projector, she emerges into a spotlight dressed in a striped shirt, trunks, and knee pads, but her moves are those of a novice in an old-time music hall whose main gimmick is to link a wrist and ankle with elastic rope and squirm decoratively and triumphantly through it. Degas’s statue of a little dancer comes to horrid life in Bunhead’s Back!; Melissa Rodnon wears a worried mask (by Joshua Blaker) on the back of her head and a wig over her face. Walking in splayed fourth position, she’s a travesty of the discipline-stiffened student (she has a magnificent “back bend” but trouble leaning forward). In a solo version of Washed Up, Sperling becomes the fairy-tale mermaid who loved a human, revealing dreamy, marine yearnings and then the painful reality (wonderfully imagined) of walking.

The transformations are more complex in Orlando, inspired by Virginia Woolf’s eponymous novel and set to music by Quentin Chiappetta. As Woolf’s gender-shifting hero-heroine, the corseted Sperling dons a jockstrap and makes sure it shows through her bloomers like a codpiece. Sometimes she’s tough, lashing the air with a stick, sometimes softer, and sometimes indeterminate as she jumps through a modern equivalent of the Elizabethan galliard. You feel confusion seething, as if her sensibilities were changing in spite of her.

Rod Rodgers, who died March 24, was always searching to understand what it meant to be a black American man in dance. His gentle works from the ’60s, like Tangents and Percussion Suite, transformed the softness in his nature and his work with Erick Hawkins into idyllic African rituals. But inspired by the leaders of Black Liberation, he shouldered the dramas of oppression and violence, most memorably in Box (1972). And himself became a leader, a teacher, an example for many.