I’ve lost count of how many times Eliot Feld has dissolved, reconstituted, and renamed his company. At present, his Ballet Tech is, alas, in limbo as a performing entity. However, he has a faithful audience that can fill the Joyce—a theater whose renovation into a house for dance was spearheaded by the Ballet Tech Foundation—and a cadre of devoted dancers (some trained since childhood in the tuition-free school he started in 1978), plus willing guests. Setbacks in terms of funding haven’t been able to keep him out of the studio. His Mandance Project offers three programs featuring a total of eight ballets, seven of which are premieres. Mimi Lien’s flexible front “curtain” sets up the season’s techno-athletic ambience. White fabric is tied to suspended silvery poles—each bent in two places—that swing and clank when moved, and glint in Allen Lee Hughes’s imaginative lighting.
You might wonder about the “man” in the project’s name, since Patricia Tuthill performs, along with New York City Ballet principal Damian Woetzel, NYCB corps member Sean Suozzi, and Ballet Tech dancers Wu-Kang Chen, Nickemil Concepcion, and Jason Jordan. Tuthill—at least in Program A—performs as just one of the guys. In Rumors, lined up along the back of the stage, she and the three other Ballet Tech alums swing by one or both hands looped through overhead nooses; their feet touch the floor, but they’re as unstable as straw dummies in a wind. The hanging poles, divested of fabric, foreground the dance, and David Lang’s score reinforces the stage picture with sounds that suggest bamboo sticks jostling together. Dressed severely in Camille Assaf’s black unitards chopped into bands and irregular patches, the four slip out of the ropes to forage in Feld’s muscular style. The push and pull of a lifted leg powers a lifted hip; the dancers’ arms wreathe close to their torsos; their shoulders jerk out wicked little shrugs. The effect is of people constantly realigning their body parts to pump the air like greased and curiously seductive machinery. Rumors‘ performers end the piece dangling again from their ropes; questions roused by the drastic images remain unanswered.
Feet are the big deal in A Stair Dance, which is dedicated to the late, great tapper Gregory Hines, and seems unfinished. Suozzi and the Ballet Tech four take swift but quiet steps up, down, and along five little pushed-together staircases. The music—Tokyo/Vermont Counterpoint, by one of Feld’s favorite composers, Steve Reich—goads them in their rhythmic patterns, and they take a break only to wipe the sweat off the stairs.
The terrific opener, Backchat, states Feld’s interest in athletic challenges and scenery-as-equipment vividly and succinctly. Chen, Concepcion, and Jordan hang by their hands from a handsome plywood wall, walk up it, somersault down it, and, in profile, lunge along the floor as if pasted to it—moving with superbly smooth muscularity through their surprising interchanges and the gabbling layers of Paul Lansky’s music (Idle Chatter).
Three male solos complete the program. In Yazoo (created for Mikhail Baryshnikov) Chen, a hat jammed down over his ears, droops, swivels, staggers, and plays his body brilliantly, with the slightly weary, preoccupied fervor of the old bluesmen and jug bands heard on tape. In Jawbone, Woetzel, wonderfully easy, moseys around the stage in “conversation” with Evan Ziporyn playing David Lang’s jazz for bass clarinet. Woetzel displays some jumps (but not huge ones), some tricky skater-ish turns, fine dancing, and charming manners.
Proverb, for Suozzi, expands and contracts in darkness to Reich’s ecstatic eponymous piece for overlapping voices that repeat a single line of text. Here the gimmick is two handheld lights with which this splendid young dancer conceals, reveals, or highlights himself. Because of them, his shadow on the backdrop becomes immense, a hill he can never climb.
Playful moments aside, Feld’s performers have a single-minded look. They treat steps as private adventures, or deals they relish but don’t comment on. This is one of the greatest gifts his choreography and direction offer them.