Douglas Dunn is no snob. He’s choreographed for the Paris Opera Ballet and shown work in just about every downtown New York venue (he’ll play Dance Theater Workshop next April). But he can accommodate to a studio or a park. Homestretch, a three-year project, celebrates his 35 years enlivening the city south of 23rd Street. In the mission statement on his website, he declares, “I dance to achieve a vital, non-heroic presence.” His presence is—has been since the 1970s—anti-heroic, but it’s in no way ordinary. He dances like a lanky ordinary Joe who happens to be a wild-man dreamer, testing equilibrium, checking where a flung limb will take him. He’s in control of the uncontrolled as a choreographer as well.
His two most recent projects place him and his dancers in anti-heroic settings. Multiple Undo happens simultaneously with Elke Rindfleisch’s Other Distortions at the Elevated Acre behind 55 Water Street, as part of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Sitelines 2006, a free festival of downtown site-specific lunchtime events continuing through August.
The site slants down from a river-viewing boardwalk and platform; it’s a complex of angled paths, benches, flower beds, a lawn, and wide concrete steps for sitting or climbing on. Echinacea, lavender, tall grass, and coreopsis soldier on in the heat. Promptly at 12:30 p.m., Rindfleisch, Jean Freebury, and Matthew Dailey, wearing bright yellow outfits, sculpt big, bold moves and freeze in poses with the river at their backs. Dunn and his six dancers start by skirmishing and rolling and jumping around on a narrow strip of turf. Usually the dancers have the whole lawn, but the day I watch a giant party tent encroaches. At some point, Dunn, belly down, sticks his head under the tent and starts worming in; he emerges shortly with a narrow gray trash can over his head and stumbles around for a while.
The collaboration wanders all over the site. At one point, Rindfleisch races down the concrete tiers, neatly avoiding the spectators, and tries to run up the side of the building, although her group tends to stay at the river end of the site. Dunn’s dancers—clad in Mimi Gross’s vivid Easter-egg-colored pants and tops, with matching sneakers—stud the park with solo and duet material (tender bench-sitting duets and more combative standing ones). On occasion, performers from the two pieces occupy the same area.
A man with a camera spots photo ops. Three people assembled for an outdoor power lunch completely ignore the event, until one of the dancers passes within three feet of their table and on beyond the place where a bemused worker has just trundled a wagon of supplies. A man holding a salad talks into his no-hands phone: “I’m watching, like, a ballet. Uh-huh. . . The baby up yet?” Another man, plugged into his music, stops two feet away from a Dunn dancer atop a bench, who appears to be wiggling and twisting her body through an invisible confined space. I wonder what song he hears her dancing to.
I have to leave shortly before the 45-minute event is over. Rindfleisch’s gang is into the second repetition of the choreography. Members of Dunn’s group (Liz Filbrun, Jessica Therese Martineau, Sari Nordman, Matt Sweeney, Jessica Weiss, and Kindra Windish) are standing on what’s left of the turf, arms raised, unmoving. The finale is coming up. You never know what you’ll find on your lunch break. Coincidental counterpoint is definitely a bonus.
In his loft on lower Broadway, Dunn presents Brisas del Caribe, a very different sort of event—about 20 minutes long, contained, and fairly tranquil. A pre-dinner snack. The taped music wanders from Couperin through Mozart to Mahler, with a significant detour into Tibetan chant. Dunn’s colleagues are four M.A. candidates in the dance department of NYU’s School of Education where he teaches. Not surprisingly, the work begins with a surprise. Lauren Albert, Hye Won (Jully) Hwang, Kyung-Ja Lee, and Hyun-Joo Su strike a series of poses, but while the three Korean women travel calmly across the room, Albert drops to the floor and sort of scrabbles to join them where they sit, their backs to us.
The women’s care is touching. They seem to have a vocabulary of moves and poses that they execute at different times, rarely in unison. One is a modified discus-thrower stance. In another, they face sideways leaning slightly back, their heads turned to us, their arms stretched down in front; they look like inexperienced beauty contest entrants. They also do a lot of hopping and jumping, but they’re not especially vigorous or weighted. Although Hwang flings her slender limbs into a fine solo, they seem to be tracing the movement lightly over a surface, their more energetic steps mild echoes of Dunn’s inimitable off-kilter, saint-in-the-desert dancing.
Enigmatic allusions to behavior crop up. Sometimes Albert reclines on the floor and watches. Sometimes the women clump or hold hands. Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde incites new images. Dunn lifts Albert as if carrying a dead child. The women walk on their knees. He twists, turns, and collapses; they fall back over him; he crawls out of the cage of their bodies. The opening gestures recur.
The Caribbean breezes that the title refers to aren’t in evidence.