Watch naked people dance, and you become a voyeur. The sight isn’t common, and it’s hard to avoid focusing overmuch on the one male body part that spectacularly defies choreographic control. Daniel Léveillé, whose Montreal-based company performed at Danspace Project St. Mark’s, takes spectatorship into account. So does choreographer Erwin Kokkelkoren, who with Bert Oele directs the Dutch dance-theater group Les Enfants Terribles, recently closed at La MaMa. The four nude dancers in Léveillé’s Amour, acide, et noix don’t just invite our gaze, they demand it. After a very slow fade up of Marc Parent’s lighting, they march forward in a clump and stare at us. We stare back: Frédéric Boivin, tall and bald; David Kilburn, tall and not bald; Dave St-Pierre, the smallest man; and Ivana Milicevic, the woman. Their bodies are not sculptural objects, despite the enhancing lighting; they are vulnerably human. But tough.
Léveillé’s choreography alienates the performers from their own bodies. All the moves in their minimal vocabulary are abrupt, isolated by pauses. They hunker, they jump and land heavily, they wrench themselves into turns so violently that they have trouble stopping. They twist and lift one leg behind them, they stand and confront us, they turn around and kneel to offer us their butts. They gasp until they have to exhale. And they do this mostly to the lusciously flowing music of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.
With one another, they are usually businesslike. Milicevic positions St-Pierre’s hands so he can assist her jump, then gestures to him to put his foot in her hand so she can toss him. There are many such encounters and only one smooth, slow passage in which they roll on the floor, packed close as sardines. Tenderness surfaces rarely: a quick kiss, a lick, a moment in which St-Pierre, behind Kilburn, worms his way between the taller man’s arm and body to nestle against him.
All this is as disturbing as it is compelling. Léveillé isn’t just showing passive spectators a world of naked people; he forces us into the participatory act of confronting our taboos and desires.
Oele and Kokkelkoren’s Body presents the human form as a site of ordeal, of vanity, and occasionally of tenderness and eroticism. We’re no more voyeurs than the performers are vis-à-vis one another. When the lights go on, Willem Aerts, naked, is hanging by his wrists, the balls of his feet barely touching the floor. For 15 minutes we and the rest of the cast watch his feet adjust, his rib cage heave. We feel his excruciating discomfort (he also acts it a bit). In this company of three men, two young women, and two older women, only tiny, elfin, gray-haired Cam Kornman is exempt from physical ordeal; she sweetens the proceedings by telling stories of her past loves. The other senior woman, Emma van de Mey, takes off her blouse and preens dreamily in a cage/display case that has descended. They sit out the gestural dancing that becomes almost too fast to do.
In a setting that looks something like a hospital, the creators explore pain and pleasure in accord with conventional gender roles. Jorge Arbert chases Ina Stockem, repeatedly hauling her in by her ponytail; she comes to expect it. Arbert and Vincent Verburg fight ferociously, gradually stripping down; they grab each other’s nipples and you imagine worse. You begin to smell them. It’s alarmingly real. The two younger women are the nurturers. They stroke and lick and cradle the exhausted men. It’s the women, too, who sometimes sit at the back and show each other the contents of their handbags. The young women get lugged about and set down like statues in ways they’d rather not be posed, the guys becoming increasingly harassed and competitive. There’s no “story.” Body is one of those disjointed worlds in which things happen and then other things happen—perplexing, infuriating, touching.
Our eyes met. “Cocktail party in the twilight zone,” he offered, bemused. Part II of Sarah Michelson’s Shadowmann (at P.S.122 through Sunday) has that effect. Performers who in Part I layered odd activities onto the immense, transformed Kitchen inhabit P.S.122’s small downstairs space, turned by Frank DenDanto III into what could be a suburban living room: white carpet, flowered chintz curtains, and three ringleted, pre-teen nymphs (Dylan Page, Adrienne Swan, and Lucy Watson) in sky blue tunics. When not draped lethargically against a wall, they open and close the curtains and serve wine and cheese. (One of them has a moment of rebellion—dancing in the spotlit street outside the window.)
The other performers are pretty numb too, whether Mike Iveson and Paige Martin are muttering to each other in German, or Parker Lutz and Michelson—wearing emerald tops, patterned trunks, and panty hose—are dancing vigorously, or Greg Zuccolo is standing at a threshold, mechanically opening and shutting the door before entering. There’s a lot of glassy-eyed dancing—clean, decisive, busy-legged—cutting across the space in bursts to Iveson’s spare piano music. Some of the movement is obsessive; Iveson stands wheeling his arms and lunging, as if he’s forgotten how not to do it. Occasionally, they fall asleep.
Operating on a high wire between fastidious design and the illusion of spontaneous behavior, Michelson’s pieces tease you with the tension between the two. One curtain opens on a blank wall, another on the caged window. Don’t think that isn’t somehow important. “Fucking glaube nicht,” says Michelson at one point, shadowing an earlier remark by Lutz. What’s not to be believed? A whispered tale? A whole way of life? This dance? Whatever it is, I believe it, whether I understand it or not.