Karinne Keithley, in addition to choreographing, performing, and composing, is also a writer and an English teacher. Her dances make postmodern inroads into existing texts or facts of history in a clever-naive style. Tenderenda is, in her words, a “sideways adaptation” of a novel by Hugo Ball, co-instigator and chronicler of the obstreperous early-20th-century Dada performances. In Keithley’s script, Ball’s nutty hero, Saint Laurentius Tenderenda, has been swallowed by a bear (Jeff Larson), whose grunts, roars, ravings, and retchings are interpreted and written down by Uda (Keithley), one of three children lost in the woods. Excerpts from Ball’s text are handed out for us to read at leisure, while from the choir loft Peter Schmitz delivers Keithley’s text in a quiet, faintly sardonic tone.
I used the word homespun in relation to Keithley’s 2002 Islander, and the press release for her new Tenderenda notes that the bizarre fairy tale “suspiciously resembles a kindergarten play.” Some of its most beguiling eccentricities do suggest children’s theatricals: the clumsy peasantish costumes; the eight women who stand stiffly or walk around waving their arms (they’re the trees); and the uncomfortably stoic way Uda, Witolde (Katy Pyle), and Gnimm (Chris Yon) line up looking as if they’ve forgotten what comes next. The funniest moment may be when Witolde, hitherto content to lie down in the woods and cover herself with a tiny patchwork quilt, gets on a pretend telephone with her uncaring, jet-setting mother (heard on tape) and wails her tribulations.
There are magical, funny, and poignant moments in Tenderenda, but this ambitious work doesn’t fully succeed. Perhaps Keithley needs a dramaturge who’d advocate pruning, tightening, and thinking more about the dance-text balance and stylistic consistency (the five big handsome canvases by five different artists that border the scene are somehow at odds with the absurdist tone).
At first, I wondered if the paintings might all be takes on Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’Herbe. I think I was wrong, but the idea of translation runs through the evening. While Keithley dances a prefatory solo, Wooded Place, Caroline Bergvall’s taped voice recites English renderings of the opening line of Dante’s Inferno. Keithley, astray in a forest like the poet in his midlife crisis, traces possible paths in quite interesting movement delivered with a neutral, self-effacing demeanor, while our ears quiver under centuries of translations—lyrical, ornate, stilted, convoluted, prosaic. (Dante’s wood is “dark,” “darksome,” “darkling,” “dusky,” “gloomy,” et al.) By the end of Tenderenda, Uda has become a tree by joining in the sort-of folk dance of the eight forest members, and Witolde has become a saint. I’m not sure what happens to Gnimm, except that it involves being suddenly in charge of a magical vineyard and doing a lot of drinking and peeing. Keithley’s score works very well, especially the sweet vocalizing of the performers. Tenderenda captures more of Ball’s poetic and rollicking craziness than his despairing vitriol.
Merce Cunningham has had a powerful influence on Anita Cheng, but I’d hardly call her a Mercette. Yes, she makes storyless pieces that present excellently trained dancers (with erect spines, level gazes, and probing legs) doing what they do best in lucid, interesting patterns unallied with the musical accompaniment. Her collaborator, Ronaldo Kiel, creates striking media designs. Cheng, however, has her own clear, modest voice. The choreography of the dances grouped as “Parallax” emphasizes shifting lines of tension in space—sometimes by means of individuals traveling past one another on individual missions, sometimes through group actions. For instance, in the 2001 Daybreak, there’s a fine passage in which Erika Bloom, Elyssa Byrnes, Kate Jewett, and Renée Smith gently push first one, then another forward. In the lovely new West of Winter, Byrnes, Smith, Blanca Cubillos-Román, and Cho-Ying Tsai, wearing loose, filmy white outfits by Yuki Okuyama, carry on intricate clustering displacements that involve pushing someone’s lifted leg down as if it were a turnstile.
This piece, with its darting aerial passages, is enhanced by Kiel’s swatch of blue light traveling along the side walls to fill the back one, later joined by a red-orange rectangle. And Gordon Beeferman’s score features soprano Lisa Bielawa in fascinating dialogue with her own taped voice. Against the dancers’ tranquil flurries, she conjures up storms. For Field Continuum (2004), with its light patter of drums played live by composer Jeff Arnal and Michael Evans, Kiel creates stunning vistas of colonnades sliding along the walls, looming, and receding. Kiel’s contribution to Cheng’s solo Ten Before Now After is also crucial. While Cheng slips from one legible pose into another, small video images of her join her shadow on the Joyce SoHo’s three white walls, sometimes in sync with her, sometimes not.The drawback to Cheng’s stylish, serene pieces is that they rarely develop momentum or show dynamic contrast, even in Field Continuum, whose designs for four women seem juicier, stronger, and more torqued. Except for an early work, Duet for Now (well danced by Victoria Lundell and Blake Pearson), all the works end inconclusively; the lights simply go out. The performers—striving, like good Cunninghamites, not to comment on their dancing or “act”—often look glassy, as if executing just another classroom exercise. I’m grateful for Jewett’s calm intensity and presence, for Byrnes’s awareness of the space around her.