Balletmakers spent centuries perfecting an approach to gravity—ignoring it the way one ignores a bad smell or aspiring to transcend it. Eliot Feld attacks the force differently, going well beyond even modern dance’s relish of the earth’s pull. For the past few years, he’s played athletic games that trick gravity with the aid of structures—ramps, hanging ropes, poles, parallel bars, giant peg boards, suspended mazes, plywood walls, and now trampolines. These new and recent pieces can be heroic in scale, like the stunning 2005 Sir Isaac’s Apple that set Juilliard’s dance division students in contrapuntal maneuvers on a stage-sized ramp, or small, like those performed at the Joyce this week by members of his own pickup group.
The first solo of Op.Boing brings out the rapture in athleticism. In Jane Cox’s starkly eerie lighting, the steeply slanted trampoline positioned in profile bears the shadows of the apparatus that supports it. Falling sideways against it and rebounding, Jason Jordan yields almost languorously to its resilience and makes his swings around its side pole soar. But as Adam Sliwinski of So Percussion ratchets up his attack on drums and woodblocks (music by Iannis Xenakis), Jordan’s exploratory games turn into challenges: He prints a leap on the tramp or splats face down like a smashed fly. By the end, he’s vaulting into air turns before striking and bouncing off.
Reset in its traditional table position by a small army of technicians, the trampoline now supports horizontal moves. Christopher Vo’s initial bounces develop quietly from a prone position, escalating into jackknives and back arches. He’s never fully vertical; if he lands on his feet, they slide backward across the elastic surface. Vo downplays effort; he sometimes resembles a rag doll buffeted into momentarily perfect positions. In the third part of Op.Boing (Feld has a knack for terrible titles), the trampoline is again slanted, but this time facing the audience. While members of So Percussion strike an array of instruments, three adept guys (Anthony Bryant, Brett Perry, and Shamel Pitts, all Juilliard students) add counterpoint and crossovers to the rebound repertory, along with jaunty twists and pumping hips.
The liability of trampoline work is the predictable rhythm it sets up. Its beauty lies in the way it makes gravity complicit in flight and pits an illusion of effortlessness against the muscular attack that turns these five men into champions. Splendid dancer Wu-Kang Chen is more independent in Ugha Bugha: All he has to contend with in his leaps, shoulder stands, and rollovers are small tin cans attached to his legs.
Pursuing Odette, a fine solo for Ha-Chi Yu to a Mahler adagietto, is prop-free. Feld subverts Swan Lake’s image of an enchanted princess-swan and her evil look-alike into a struggle between a woman and her body. The costume is a black dress draped over white tights and a bra top. Yu wears a white pointe shoe on one foot; her other foot and calf are bare. Arching her back, darting into an arabesque, preening imaginary feathers, or turning a distraught hand-to-brow gesture into a beak, she exudes swan-ness. But Yu, strong and pliant, is equally beautiful when she lies on the floor and loops her legs around her torso, snaring and untangling herself. Since the leg with the pointe shoe is always a little bent when she steps out on both feet, classical technique itself becomes both limitation and challenge.
Five kids from Feld’s Ballet Tech school negotiate A Stair Dance (2004) with rhythmic and spatial adroitness. Vo streaks through Behold the Man (2002) with electric bulbs strapped all over him. I’m wondering why Feld still uses the word ballet in connection with his choreography. He’s built a whole other movement world: Humans engage single-mindedly with structures they’ve made and forces they can’t fully control.