When it comes to layering and intercutting disparate texts and images, no one can match Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson of Big Dance Theater. The mysterious resonance that emanates from their works transcends their sources. In building a script for Plan B, Len Jenkin, Lazar, and Molly Hickok turned to Richard Nixon’s “secret” Oval Office tapes and the diaries of Kaspar Hauser, the “wild child” of 19th-century Germany; passages from the Old Testament; archival film of Matsumoto Koshiro, the great Kabuki actor; and composer Gary Lucas’s “reinterpretations” of Taiwanese movie music from the 1950s.
In the stunning collage, innocence and honesty are held up against venality and duplicity. Tymberly Canale gives an extraordinary performance as a female version of Hauser—stuffed into deconstructed 19th-century clothes (by Claudia Stephens), playing with a toy horse on wheels, being crudely “educated” by harsh hands and imperious voices. She is also the guileless emissary that the nameless politician (Lazar) and his henchwoman Rose (Hickok) train to deliver a briefcase full of cash. The instructions drummed into the pol’s messenger overlap with Hauser’s lessons in social behavior and language. Both stories end badly. Hauser is mysteriously murdered. The “drop” is aborted, and the loyal Rose takes the blame.
Words can’t convey the complexity, pathos, wit, and fluidity with which this tale twists and winds. Lazar, Canale, Hickok, and Kate Johnson hand around props and wheel others as part of the rhythmic fabric. A tape recorder, reels turning, gets carried on someone’s back. A little greenhouse on wheels serves by turns as office, shelter, prison, and—tilted—tomb. Headphones are clamped on Canale; telephones and pine twig-masked mics appear out of nowhere. Lazar, wearing a suggestion of Japanese robes, speaks some of Nixon’s private office mutterings to hilarious effect, and uses his pungent language (“I will not be bogged down in day-to-day bouillabaisse!”) to cow his colleague.
Lights, sound, and imagery collaborate. When Canale speaks Hauser’s pathetic words about discovering the world at 16, Jane Shaw’s sound apparatus gives her voice eerie resonance, and Jay Ryan’s brief blackouts jump-cut her poses and interrupt her speech. Hickok sings, sweet-voiced, a chirpy little Taiwanese song, and when the marvelous performers whip out fans and perform movements based on the archival Kabuki film, we accept the dancing as a weird composite of elaborate machinations, obliqueness, and a skill mastered. At the end, the silver streamers that curtain the rear wall part, and Canale walks through them as Taiwanese voices sing, and the little toy horse follows her into . . . paradise? Then we hear the slam of a heavy door and the lights go out.
To José Limón, male dancing had nothing to do with multiple turns or gravity-defying leaps. It was about strength of character as well as physical strength, about nobility and the treachery that could undo it. Two years before his death in 1972, he created The Unsung, which featured solos for the eight men in his company and allied each with a notable Native American chief. Only seven fine men perform on Program A at the Joyce (Roel Seeber, Kurt Douglas, Charles Scott, Francisco Ruvalcaba, Raphaël Boumaïla, Robert Regala, and Jonathan Riedel). The beautiful, arduous dance unfurls in a suspended silence punctuated by pounding feet, slapping hands, whirring arms, and sudden falls—its opening group passage almost daunting in the profusion of changing architectural patterns.
German choreographer Susanne Linke’s new Extreme Beauty is arduous in a different way, especially following The Unsung with no intermission. Linke seems to be equating fashion madness and Botox angst with the deeper things of life. The five women (Kathryn Alter, Brenna Monroe-Cook, Ryoko Kudo, Kristen Foote, and Roxane D’Orléans Juste) advancing over and over in a phalanx to harsh, silence-laden music by György Kurtág (Salvatore Sciarrino also contributed to the score), and in dark light (by Ted Sullivan), are genuinely grim, as opposed to runway-arrogant.
During the long work, the dancers rearrange parts of their dark, flowing, one-sleeved garments by Marian Williams, or exchange them for others. And grimness gradually builds to nameless dread (clenched bodies, spasms, and sudden outbursts). The five start shoving each other around. Then, in the section called “Initiation,” each crosses the front of the stage in a corridor of light, wearing a stretchy little black dress. Things perk up. Are we auditioning a chosen virgin here? Not exactly. The women rig out D’Orléans Juste in a hoopskirt, a satin gown, jewels that resemble barbed wire, and a crown of fashionable thorns. They slap her cheeks. The heavy-handed symbolism founders in the piece’s final lightweight vision: Foote in chic black-and-white with go-go boots. The others twitch as the curtain falls.
After this ordeal, Lar Lubovitch’s Concerto Six Twenty-Two seems like a gift from heaven. Mozart! Wonderfully musical dancing! The unfolding and interlocking space patterns seem, in this context, to reference Limón and his mentor, Doris Humphrey. The robust, bounding, scampering elation creates the image of an angelic community at play. Kurt Douglas is a standout. So are the trio passages for D’Orléans Juste, Ruvalcaba, and Alter. Riedel and Scott perform the famous, often excerpted adagio duet, which, despite occasional strained moments, remains a beautiful and moving expression of male tenderness. The piece suits the company to perfection.