Hot-Shot Formalist


At the very end of Ben Munisteri’s 2004 Turbine Mines, Danica Hoviak and Jeremy Smith dance together. That’s something deeper than “executing a duet.” And I realize I’ve been missing that quality all evening in Jacob’s Pillow’s Doris Duke Studio Theater—not necessarily the tenderness (underscored by Vangelis’s score for the film Blade Runner), but simply the dancers’ mutual acknowledgement that what they do has an impact on each other. Something of the same thoughtful intensity colors Smith and Munisteri’s performance of an excerpt from Munisteri’s 1998 Late Night Sugar Flight, set to a Satie Gymnopédie.

Munisteri deserves the often lavish praise he’s received for his craftsmanship. His dances are not about breaking your heart. The choreography presents clear, hard-edged designs, both in terms of space patterns and bodily movements. The legibility of these makes it easy to see how he repeats, reconfigures, and varies motifs, and how he alters the stage picture with comings and goings. He finds ways to juxtapose big, space-filling moves (many of them understatedly balletic), pauses, and small, quirky gestures. His brand of formalism is easy on the eyes and admirably inventive, although with less of the wild streak that surfaced in earlier works with titles like I Am an Angry Little Frog (2000) and fewer of the club-kid moves left over from Munisteri’s days as a founding member of Doug Elkins’s company. But the Ben Munisteri Dance Project consists of only six people plus the choreographer; we get to know them well over the course of an evening. And somehow the intimate scale sets us up for an atmosphere that’s a bit more tribal, one in which implications and influences would be allowed to sink in.

In the visually striking premiere, Thunderblood, the dancers relate to one another through design and proximity. Wearing unitards in a variety of saturated colors, against the equally intense hues that lighting designer Kathy Kaufmann projects against the backdrop, they sometimes resemble units of modular furniture. Although Evrem Celimli’s music for violin, bass, and electronic percussion brings to mind an easy-going film score, Munisteri evokes clean-edged Modernism. Dancers hold up squared-off arms and close them like a book. Smith forms a base on which others are carefully stacked. Smith and Kyle Lang kneel on all fours, and Lisa Wheeler stands on their butts.

There’s a nice moment when Christine McMillan—who comes and goes in a variety of stellar solo appearances—is watched by Hoviak and Devon Fitchett, who then step up beside her and join in. Later Smith, supine, sticks his feet up and Fitchett leans sideways against them in a long slant. When she gets tossed to Lang, Wheeler tries the lean. Like Fitchett, she turns her head to look down at Smith, but unlike Fitchett, she does the lean again and again. Shortly thereafter, the dance just stops.

Wit and non sequiturs are factors in Munisteri’s style. In Not Human (2005) to a potpourri of music (Eno, Poulenc, et al), dancers prowl while a cat yowls; when the soundtrack provides a much larger feline’s roars, they erupt into skitters and flyaway leaps. Belly crawls and voguing struts get equal time with pirouettes, and in one clever exit, the dancers jump rope rapidly backward sans ropes.

In Turbine Mines, the performers also use one another casually as furniture, and the choreography riffs subtly off the scraps of pseudo-scientific Blade Runner dialogue and reverent oration, barely intelligible in the waves of new-Age-y music. The news here is a brief passage in which the dancers spiral their torsos, which are most often vertical and held. Do I detect references to a hidden human-nonhuman dichotomy?

Munisteri’s smart choreography is never predictable on a moment to-moment basis. There’s always something interesting to look at. It’s because he’s become so adroit that I wish for more resonance, more daring.

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