Dancers learn early on that they have to be in the right place at the right time doing the right steps in collaboration with others, but—with the possible exception of the Rockettes and their ilk—some individuality is encouraged. Although factory workers have a similar mandate, allowable variations and interactions are infinitesimal.
In her marvelous and deeply thoughtful new The Short-Cut,, Hilary Easton explores the tension between efficiency in dance and in life, and the need we all have for time to reflect as well as to initiate changes and respond to them. To facilitate her theme, she introduces text by Helen Schulman based on the ideas of the “time study” man, Frederick Winslow Taylor who, beginning in the late 19th century, developed strategies for improving manual workers’ output and increasing profits for the companies that employed them. The speaker might be Taylor himself. The excellent actor Steven Ratazzi (looking somewhat like a younger, dapper, and quite nimble version of Bob Hoskins) controls portions of the dancing with stopwatch, notepad, and warnings, while articulating Taylorian precepts, such as “The system must come first.”
“Work” for Leslie Cuyjet, Aaron Draper, Brian Gerke, Blossom Leilani, and Emily Stone is, of course, dancing: The phrases Easton has devised for them are juicy and springy, yet precise, focused. Even when movements must be repeated over and over to convey the theme of exacting and tiring labor, they never become less interesting to watch.
In the beginning we see what might be a pre-Taylor work scene. The terrific dancers (wearing becoming blue, gray, black, and white workaday clothes by Eric Jackson Bradley) pursue movement jobs in their own time—occasionally slipping into unison, resting briefly when they feel like it, walking to new spots, taking account of one another. Reforms begin when Ratazzi times Leilani’s solo, disapprovingly holding up a paper with the results. She tries to improve her timing without destroying the necessary dynamics of the phrase; it’s longer. The third time, she prunes away all but a few crucial motions. Success! Overseen by Ratazzi, workers train workers: Cuyjet eggs on, encourages, and scolds Gerke as he advances toward us in a short, exhausting phrase. Draper does the same with Stone. Over and over the trainees return to the starting line and begin again, making more and more mistakes as they exhaust themselves in dogged pursuit of perfection.
If I’ve made the hour-long piece sound cut and dried, I’ve given the wrong impression. The Short-Cut is rich in contrasts. And Easton has directed the performers in such a way that her choreographic language clearly stands for their life’s work in all its glory. In one session, Leilani copies Draper to learn a long diagonal progression, gradually adding her own imaginative ideas to his and, with him, creating something finer. The way people pause and gaze slightly upward as if needing time to think, watch one another carefully and sympathetically, and collaborate on complex clusters and chains and lifts not only endears them to us; it redirects how we construe dancing. Thomas Cabaniss’s recorded score for piano, strings, and percussion plays a vital role in shaping our perceptions—providing stentorian, driving drum passages; tumbling piano sequences; achingly sweet violin melodies; and much more.
Perhaps mindful that Taylor’s improvements once caused controversy because they often resulted in job reductions and managerial abuses, Easton gradually involves Ratazzi in the choreography. He not only follows the five performers closely to scrutinize their movements; he begins to touch them, copy them, be manipulated by them. At one point when he has ended up sitting on the floor, Leilani lunges gently over at him like a curious lioness trying to get a scent. After this, he sounds less certain and fumbles his words, seduced by the creativity he deplores. He who studies the body’s efficiency potential is suddenly talking about vertebrae as pearls strung along the spine. After a lovely sequence that juxtaposes and interlaces a tender resting duet between Leilani and Draper and a relaxed, adventurous, yet exacting trio for the other three, the five cluster and stare past us, and Ratazzi clicks his stopwatch one last time.
Easton’s own demanding job at the Lincoln Center Institute arts education program means we don’t see her choreography as often as I’d like. Her last work, the poetic Frost Palace premiered in January 2003. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait so long for the next one.