I prefer Boris Eifman’s spectacle-ballets when he’s doing a psychological number on the driven heroes and heroines of Russian history and literature. His twisted, angular, percussive style, with its splay-footed jumps and kinky lifts, suits the dark goings-on of The Karamazovs, Red Giselle, Russian Hamlet, et al. Not that there isn’t plenty of torment in Who’s Who (at City Center through Thursday). It focuses on two Russian ballet dancers—Jews fleeing their country after the Revolution—who experience culture shock, career blight, victimization, and love in 1920s New York. But Eifman wants us to laugh, too. So Max and Alex turn into Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot. A sleazy slum gangster returns one of their sparkly ballet jackets, stolen when they tried to hawk it in a Brooklyn flea market; that means they owe him, for life—nobody doesn’t pay Johnny. No problem, they hide out by getting jobs as female nightclub dancers.
Actually, there is a problem. It’s Eifman’s. As Slava Okunev’s brilliant silver set moves from its Brooklyn Bridge look to its club look, the two virtuosic buddies enter an audition gaudily rigged out and tripping over their high heels. Yet in the very next scene, they’re at the front of a chorus line in Okunev’s black-and-silver dresses, wearing little Louise Brooks wigs and looking fabulous. Then, comforting lovely Lynn backstage after she’s been beaten up by Johnny, Alex sports melon-sized falsies poking out from his kimono. Max lets himself get so deeply into drag life that he’s already dancing under the chuppah with movie director Bill when he flees his wedding for Mother Russia. With Johnny accidentally killed by his own reptilian henchmen, Alex and Lynn marry and start a ballet company that blends the danse d’école with modern ideas—just like George Balanchine, except that the choreography is by Eifman.
The fevered dancing—pile-driving into an anachronistic mix of Ellington, Brubeck, Shaw, Rachmaninoff, Joplin, Barber, et al.—never stops. Just off the boat, the immigrants plunge into an energetic homeland celebration to klezmer music. Max and Alex cross-dress while dancing; the director hoofs it as he dollies; Johnny prowls with scissoring legs; the heroes confide their homesickness and frustration to each other in leaps and spins. I saw only cast B and thought Yuri Smekalov (Alex), Constantin Matulevsky (Max), and Natalia Povorozniuk (Lynn) were wonderful, less given to the lusty Eifman acting style that can turn characters into caricatures. The high point is a splendid duet in which Alex teaches Lynn to dance on pointe and fall in love with him at the same time. How can a ballet so visually stunning and theatrically savvy be so dumb?
Some years ago, Douglas Dunn moved away from his post-Cunningham coolness (which was never very cool) to what seem like magnificently bizarre investigations of strange tribes. Before his new Muscle Shoals at Danspace St. Mark’s, video artist Charles Atlas’s paraphernalia anagrams the title on a huge screen: “as ouch smells,” “he calms souls,” and so on. Prepare to enter the intoxicating miasma of interpretation.
Atlas, seated as part of the scene, fills the backdrop with volcanic patterns and other designs, including manipulated images of the performers, and projects the data from a stationary camera and a hand-held one. The denizens of this world—no, planet—are strange indeed. When Carol Mullins’s lighting gradually reveals Miriam Hess, Sean Mueller, Beth Simons, Christopher Williams, and Kindra Windish, they’re wearing geometrically shaped head-coverings (costumes also by Atlas). As they gradually uncage, they show painted faces. Jazz legend Steve Lacy’s score, played live by Lacy on soprano sax and Petja Kaufman on harpsichord, is as oddly fascinating as the activities. These creatures are angular and disconnected in their behavior—shivering, snaking along, wagging their tongues, grooming one another, having mock battles, and making elaborate faces into the camera, which throws their popping eyes and rubber mouths onto the screen.
Dunn, an intergalactic anthropologist in disguise, enters to our laughter. It’s not just the box on his head and the two sticks he’s brought along, or his deep, weary, robotic voice; it’s the whole innocent, befuddled-scholar persona he reveals through his oral reports, as, on a three-day visit, he tries to describe and interpret the behavior on view. He tends to point the camera at his own feet. The others pay him no heed, but “continue to move in sinuous complications,” even when he essays a stick dance to attract their attention. (“Obviously that was ineffectual.”) He dreams they invite him to join them in what he presumes are everyday activities. They do have language, it turns out; they speak briefly (but not to him) in artificial voices whose wantonly convoluted words he can’t make much sense of. When, on his last day, they rise from sleep—having grown huge carbuncles under their leotards—and move from languidness into growling competition, he’s no closer to understanding.
Why is this work so moving? The fondness and the communication gap make me think of choreographers and their wild dancers. Of age and youth. “Please,” the explorer asks his superiors, “allow me another stroll in their midst before you transmit me to another dimension.”
Risa Jaroslow makes works about communities you can imagine living in. People who inhabit them dance together; they also know when to leave one another alone and when to step in to help. They can be feisty or serene. I love the fact that three women come to assist Rashaun Mitchell down from Michael Phillips’s shoulder after a frisky duet, the same way they earlier took Eun Jung Gonzalez from her perch on Mitchell after a courtship dance. You can see Jaroslow’s homage to shtetl life as well as her contemporary sensibility in the juicy, playful, tender movement of Fidl—performed to Alicia Svigals’s fine klezmer score and expanded, for its premiere in the Harkness Dance Project’s season at the Duke, from a trio to a quintet.
The community in the new Strings Attached is delineated by the recorded memories of female musicians (including the choreographer’s bassist mother) making it in the man’s world of 20th-century America, and by the four women who play Diedre Murray’s richly tuneful score for harp, violin, viola, and cello. Designer Perry Gunther stretches five miked red cords from floor to ceiling for strong women (Rachel Bernsen, Elise Knudson, Jessica Loof, Laura Peterson, and Nicole Sherman) to strum. Clint E.B. Ramos’s costumes help convey their tricky status: pants, jackets they shed and don, high heels that must be cast aside.
There are bits of pantomime—Peterson and Sherman enter in tails and give each other a bluff handshake—but the precarious positions in the music field and the sisterhood that the narrators describe are conveyed mostly by the press and tumble of the choreography. The women watch Loof almost disapprovingly as she moves tempestuously on the floor, then pick her up and dance her into a good mood. Peterson lands in a dive on Knudson’s shoulder and falls sensationally off. Their actions and physical dialogues are as fluent, variegated, and disciplined as the melodies we hear and the unseen musicians they embody.