In the 1960s, at Judson Dance Theater, Deborah Hay was one of those who experimented with task and game structures as a way of putting pieces together. Despite the developments in her aesthetic since then, she has never lost that sense of dance as serious (and sometimes playful) play with form. During her recent Joyce Soho residency, she worked on shared solo material with four notable dancers, Wally Cardona, Mark Lorimer, Chrysa Parkinson, and Ros Warby, and—from the look of The Match—on strategies they might employ to interact in performance. (The plan is that later in the year, the four will build solos of their own on what Hay gave them.)
Every time Hay has come to New York from her Austin, Texas, home base in recent years, I’ve been fascinated by the interplay of humor and seriousness in her work. Quiet mystery yields to shenanigans via invisible transitions in ways that bring to mind the tricksters of American Indian ritual. The Match itself is changeable, subject to improvisation. The night I saw it, Warby was the one to start the program by trotting for ages around the sanctuary at St. Mark’s, mapping the space with her feet and her gaze, making only minute changes. That evening Cardona danced big and dodgy, emitting explosive vocal sounds, as if he were turning over vexing questions in his mind. Lorimer toddled doll-like, grunting increasingly clear demands: “Feed me” (eats fingers), “tickle me,” “love me.” Parkinson swayed and let tremors take over her long body.
Together they were often gravely silly: making faces, conversing in gibberish, working at lining up, trying out stances and attitudes. And then suddenly turning their heads to look in the same direction, as if some spirit had tickled their cheeks. The dancing—whether off-kilter or deliberately placed, flung or contained, stiff or limp—created an image of behavior in a society whose rules may be unfathomable to an outsider, but crystal clear to those who inhabit it.
Susan Rethorst’s work also delineates a world where the unexpected is a constant. Except that with Rethorst, changes can happen on a moment-to-moment basis. It’s as if she warehouses many stories and switches from one to another as she choreographs. She and her performers make extraordinary dancing look “daily” and the daily look extraordinary. When Jodi Melnick makes a somewhat tentative grand entrance to begin an excerpt from Rethorst’s 1998 Don’t Go Without Your Echo, she kicks up her heels with elegant twistiness, as if this were simply a pleasantly demanding chore. Later, she, Rethorst, and Taryn Griggs sit down and in unison clap their hands very quickly and close together under their chins, making “ooh” mouths like pleased little girls, and the effect is quite uncanny.
In a program note, Rethorst explains that, for this dance, she tackled the issues of territoriality and influences with deliberate borrowings (that explains the neon quotes and exclamation points that occasionally appear on the backdrop), also testing “the awkward, the uncool, the ridiculous.” Hence the endearingly unshowy chorus line (in which everyone is different) that crosses in the background, and Rethorst’s own clunky leaps. But her new oh oh oh is no less full of unexpected juxtapositions, and the formal precision with which she reiterates and reinserts modules make its beauties—the silkily askew movements, the not-quite-what-you-think-it-means gestures—all the more enigmatic. Twice, between forays into alert dancing, Jeanine Durning, Griggs, Melnick, and Vicky Shick sit snuggled together in pairs, coolly tangle their legs, and then unknot the formation to expel one of them.
Jeremy Nelson enters the world owned by these women like Odysseus wondering if he dare ask for hospitality. Scraps of Gershwin’s “Summertime” punctuate the silence—bluesy versions, hot-licks versions, violin serenades—and the women often look as if the living is easy. Nelson comes and goes (as do they), dancing low and wide, surveying them. Once, he and Melnick face each other; she wheels her arms around, smacks her fists against his shoulders, then strokes them (Durning and Griggs echo this). At the end, Shick lies supine, as she has before, and Griggs gently rearranges her and lies beside her. Nelson enters as he did at the beginning, stares, and leaves.
In Rethorst’s society people go about their business with care, dedication, wit, and fearlessness, and they are always fascinating to watch. Beautiful. The multiple images of daily life and daily dancing ripple through them. Shick’s legs don’t so much lift as drift upward, writing on air. Durning’s dancing tells one bit of life at a time, intensely. From bone-deep calm, Melnick gives us several stories at once.
May O’Donnell died February 1 at 97, having choreographed into her eighties. When I first came to New York, I took classes at her studio—most often with her associate, Gertrude Shurr. But it was May’s classes that I looked forward to. She was even more beautiful than she’d been as a young dancer in Martha Graham’s company. Serene, radiant, strong, she faced a cadre of bare-legged dancers whose muscles and ardor awed me and who made the demanding exercises look like their chief joy. When I saw her choreography onstage, I understood. She was teaching bodies to sing.