You don’t go to a performance of Jeremy Nelson’s work to watch troubled relationships play out or high-tech bodies bash one another around. Nelson and his accomplices treat dancing as a lovely, daring everyday business. We may infer playfulness, tenderness, competitiveness, or other qualities from its rhythms and designs, but that’s at our discretion, not his insistence. Nelson, who danced in England with Siobhan Davies and Second Stride before working here with Stephen Petronio from 1984 to 1992, has staked out a choreographic territory in which movement rules—transforming space with uniting and splitting patterns, redefining time, experimenting with gravity.
His style combines precision with softness and occasional precariousness. A dancer will slice neatly through the air, yet perhaps push the steps a little beyond comfort or equilibrium. In the “work” his small societies engage in, people never look rushed or dangerously impetuous, even though their tasks are bewitchingly complex. And complexity never results in hyper-density. Sometimes the performers simply walk away after a highly active burst of motion. Maybe they sit on the sidelines and watch. Stillness pits the action, just as silences stud the music of Douglas Henderson (for the 2002 SightUnseen and the 2003 Bridge of Fools) and David Watson (for the new Accent Elimination). In the first of these, performed in front of Louis Lara Malvacías’s brilliant backdrop suggesting geometric pictures within pictures, some of the dancers (Malvacías, Nelson, Gretchen Pallo, Rebecca Pearl, Rebecca Serrell, and Francis A. Stansky) may be as still as trees while others kite around. In the male trio Bridge of Fools, Nelson, Malvacías, and Stansky—often on the floor—watch one another closely.
Carol Mullins’s splendid lighting was the only decor for Bridge. Accent Elimination was performed against another Malvacías backdrop: two spare lines of cryptic symbols and a huge red feather on unbleached muslin. This new work richly mines Nelson’s skill at juxtaposing lushness with leanness, refinement with a touch of roughness—as in the clunky falls that occur as voices and lightly clattering sounds surface in Henderson’s score, or in the way someone reaches out to hook a foot around someone else’s leg to thwart a tumble or redirect a step. Nelson investigates ingenious leans and occasional topplings for five dancers wearing clever-odd outfits by Malvacías; a person may brace another who’s canted off balance, or allow him- or herself to be leaned on. Stansky carries Pallo on his shoulder as if she were a statue being transported to a new location.
Nelson doesn’t seem to be eliminating accents, as the title implies, but allowing personal differences to show, say in a wonderful unison passage for Meredith McCanse and Omagbitse Omagbeni, or to shine more obviously, as when Omagbeni and Serrell slowly assume various balances. You watch Accent Elimination the way you might watch an ant colony, fascinated by the comings and goings, wondering what this collision or that sudden switch to synchrony might mean. Of course, you are watching not ants but dancers executing challenging maneuvers that we understand intuitively. And in this choreographer’s world, with its peaceful ingenuity and flashes of risky brilliance, everyone is an individual and conformity a choice.
In Risa Jaroslow’s work, peacefulness has always been not just a quality, but a value. For some years now, her choreography has combined highly trained dancers with people drawn from a variety of community workshops she’s taught, and her own expertise at melding them into a functioning society has grown. Created in a post–9-11, pre–11-2 world, her new Whole Sky explores personal ideas about wholeness—expressed through a collage of taped voices that periodically interrupts Steve Elson’s music—and a vision of a utopian society. The breathing that begins the piece, and Jaroslow’s quietly sensuous opening solo, seem to infuse a cluster of still figures with life. Fully awakened, Takemi Kitamura, Elise Knudson, Omagbitse Omagbeni (again!), Rommel Salveron, and Christopher Williams move as a clump into fluid supports, opening their faces to the sky, each moving as an individual as they travel together.
Everyone who falls is caught. Hands reach to help, nurture, support. Midwife Nancy Rosenweig, a former dancer, soothes Jaroslow, skips lightly with her. Three women gather to hold and guide psychotherapist Adwoa Akhu. Everyone, including Chris Cruz and Attila Pomlenyi from the LGBT youth workshop and John F. Regan Jr. of the New York Fire Department, helps Kitamura to walk in air—her foot on this one’s shoulder, that one’s back, this one’s hands—strong grasps keeping her safe. One person’s private motifs are multiplied, or woven into phrases for everyone. Regan, carried in aloft, is incorporated into a gently pulsing horde while his taped voice speaks of his passionately pursued hobbies: social dancing and Irish step dancing. Seconds later, pairs are two-stepping and waltzing. In one of the many intriguing uses of Barbara Bickart’s videos, a woman’s body is projected onto Salveron’s T-shirt; whatever that was meant to convey, it emphasizes the empathy that permeates the group.
Less than an hour long, Night Sky, for all its solid structural underpinnings, seems a little more diffuse than Jaroslow’s other recent works. It flows so smoothly, without sparks of feistiness, pointed connections, or temporary dissonance, that it’s almost lulling. Still, in these dark times, it glows with human goodness—no small gift.