First Flights


Todd Williams performed with the New York City Ballet from 1990 to 1994 and with Stephen Petronio’s company from 1995 to 2002. Both lineages mate companionably in his splendid dancing—soft yet muscular, precise yet free-flowing. He has only recently begun to choreograph. His company, WilliamsWorks, which opened the 92nd Y’s 2006 Harkness Dance Festival, was founded in 1995.

Williams showed three pieces in the new, medium-sized theater in the Joan Weill Center (home of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center and its school). The first is mystical, the second bizarrely comical (or maybe not), and the third festive. Three tall panels designed by Michael Oruch are covered with different fabrics for the first two dances and stand bare and white for the third. Williams is still developing his craft; he has ambitious ambitions that are not always visible in the finished work.

The diagram he provided in the program to clarify 108—an important number in both sacred and scientific texts—shows a dot ringed by two concentric circles, with a triangle wedged between them. Each point of the triangle houses another tiny triangle. Onstage the design comes and goes—not just because Andrew Cowan, Mei-Hua Wang, Thad Wong, Wen-Shuan Yang, Kimberly Young, and Williams—wearing Oruch and Robin McKay’s dresses, long for the men, short for the women—are in motion much of the time, but because when they travel the paths laid out by David Ferri’s lighting design, they tend to do so with big, juicy movements, complicated by gestures. This is not about geometry made celestially plain, as was the case with Laura Dean’s dances of the 1970s. Williams’s spatial intent and the mystical aura are clearest when some of the performers hold still. For example, Yang, Young, and Williams spell one another in a pattern close to center—one lying supine, head toward the audience; one running around the inner circle; and one turning slowly in the middle, arms wreathing around the body, hands tying silky knots or resting in meditation position below the navel.

In some curious way, the flaws and irregularities, when not simply disorganized, are the most interesting aspect of the piece. There are occasional near collisions. A person travelling sometimes has to step over someone on the floor. Strangest of all, very near the end, Wong struggles to his feet and starts grappling with Yang. Finally, John Toenjes’s original score, which has begun with soft gongs and built to gamelan-like density, simplifies again as if a cycle has been completed. And maybe it has.

Exquisite Corpse takes its name from a party game appropriated by the surrealist writers as one of their chance strategies. You write a word on a piece of paper, fold it over, and hand it to the next person, who repeats the process, resulting in a “found sentence.” Perhaps Williams and co-creator Glen Rumsey used a related strategy in planning and performance. But the two men also play on the title in another way. Swathed in cream-colored draperies with fake-feather edging, faces veiled and wearing headdresses, they toddle and stagger about trippily like dead runway models who’ve escaped their graves. Words like “Hate to break it to you but it’s out of my control” erupt from the remix of Dresden Dolls’ “Gravity” plus “random selections by the performers.” As the men carry on, occasionally leaping in orderly unison, they lose or discard parts of their attire; at one point, they’re connected by one of the drapes in what could be a weird allusion to 19th-century ballet’s scarf dances. They yank the drapes off the panels and try to arrange them neatly. Then they re-dress each other and exit tangling together. Williams performed a well-received satiric solo at Joe’s Pub. Exquisite Corpse, with its mordant humor, has the air of a high-brow club act gone awry .

I hand it to Williams for striving to come up with unusual processes to create a work. The title of Value Intensity refers to Carl Jung’s word association tests, and Williams apparently correlates reactions to words with certain movement values. The results are most interesting in three improvised passages: a crabbed lurking and stretching floor solo by Alison Clancy, a duet in which Cowan keeps collapsing against Clancy, and a slightly more conventional one in which Wong hauls Yang around. The patterns for all 12 dancers may refer to archetypal shapes, but as rendered in strenuous, space-covering, high-wattage dance steps to live music by Toenjes for guitar, percussion and keyboard-synthesizer, they mostly tell us “This is the big closing number.” Appropriately, percussionist Tigger Benford lalys down a strong rock beat. Williams pulls out all the strategies from the compositional warehouse: three-part counterpoint, canon, vertical lines that accordion and multiply, and so on. The designs are beguiling at moments, but, like everything on the program, Value Intensity is erratic; when it works, it works.

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