If you attended all nine performances in the 12th annual DancenOw/NYC festival, including the DancemOpolitan cabaret of events at Joe’s pub that began Thursday, you’d know a lot about contemporary dance in New York. That was the point of this marathon sampler. That your head might fall off by the time you processed works by 85 different groups was a minor inconvenience.
Each evening, however, was compact. Robin Staff, DancenOw’s co-founder (with Tamara Greenfield), artistic director, and the festival producer, set time limits on the pieces by established and emerging choreographers (selected from well over three hundred applicants). Twelve works in the first Base Camp program? No sweat, out in under two hours. The intermission was longer than the average dance.
It’s tempting to ponder possible trends. But do you call women wearing comfy, informal white clothes performing soft, springy, athletic, mildly acrobatic steps a trend, or just a coincidence? I also find myself noting the that quite often dancers working in unison and close contact act as if it would be bad manners to look at one another. Is this just a hand-me-down from the corps de ballet or from the deliberately non-committal performing style of some 1960s radicals? Or does the behavior consciously or unconsciously express the anonymous closeness of city streets and our sealed-off modes of electronic communication?
For instance, I don’t really know what’s going on with the five women in Jenny Rocha’s Breaking her fall. Wearing black lace dresses and red elastic braces on one leg, they windmill their arms vigorously in concert, fold into the floor, bounce in a startled but slightly mechanical way, and do other interesting things to repetitive, pulsing music by Ryuichi Sakamoto. Why does one often leave and then return? Search me.
Christine Elmo, Eun Jung Gonzalez, and Rebekah Morin are beleaguered in Elise Knudson’s In Idle. They pop out from behind corrugated cardboard structures (by Xenia Diente), scamper and hobble around, have problems balancing on one leg, and run in place getting nowhere. Knudson, garbed like a workman, disrupts their traffic patterns by moving the set. When she traps the women behind the tallest construction, they finally have a common cause, and, while the lights fade, they press against the cardboard as if it were a closing prison door .
The hazards in a mysterious, quite intriguing excerpt from Aynsley Vandenbrouke’s Full Circle are more playful in nature. To live music by Leanne Darling (played by Darling on violin, with electrically looped melodies, and John Wieczorek), and in near total darkness, two women in white train flashlights on two others—making them jump-rope over beams, penning them in, spotlighting their squiggling feet—before each gets her own lamp and tries in vain to pinpoint everyone else’s fast-moving steps. In Adrienne Westwood’s equally enigmatic excerpt from Two Short Dreams Remembered, a costume stars. Women in white unroll Lindsay Fisher from a long piece of red taffeta that they then fashion into a long gown. Beautiful and powerful, she is both their creature and their queen—swishing her immense skirt, treating them as her couch, being upended by them.
I’m gratified when performers relate naturally to one another. The three luscious women dancer-collaborators in Karl Anderson’s sensitive Squint to Focus make us believe that they are together in a common process or ritual that involves occasional dissent (at one point Rachel Lynch John, and Erin Reck gradually pen Theresa Duhon between them; then standing calmly, each meaningfully lifts a leg to rest a foot on her shoulder). Rachel Mckinstry and Liz Riga, in their very witty running into open doors, are frequently suspicious of each other, after they they rise from crumpled positions on a pile of books, where they’ve been lying while Tom Waits sings “Dead and Lovely.” Their tennis whites reinforce the image of rivalry as they crawl doggedly on their bellies and repeat over and over a sequence of sharp, strong moves—every lunge a statement. At the end (surprise!), they recite a Girl Scout law. It doesn’t have to make sense that in Jimena Paz’s W4, John Funk meticulously, sometimes irritably, describes the placement of objects in his apartment and the weather. What’s entertaining is how Carolyn Hall and Paz, busily dancing, seem to conspire in prompting him and echoing his words.
Ariane Anthony’s eccentric little drama, Cold Feet, is all about relationships among strangers. For a while it seems as if the main preoccupation of six odd characters (Anthony—wearing a hat and long skirts, clutching a handbag–makes a convincingly proper senior citizen) is securing a seat on four-person bench. But they also enthusiastically spout well-worn proverbs and intone shocked variations on “Oh no, it’s absolutely not that!” The latter remarks apply not only to mundane situations but to, say, Anthony and Monica Olsson cozily sandwiching tall Garth Edwin Sunderland between them, while Vincent McCloskey and Cedric Neugebauer lounge on the bench and ogle them.
Solos often express various kinds of journeys. In Lend Me Your Hot Licks, Todd Allen seems to be probing his way into self-confidence as he repeats phrases to the strong (but not especially hot) live guitar playing of Stephen Lyman. He softens his gestures, almost as if rinsing himself clean before retreating into darkness. Deborah Lohse also returns to where she began her ELIAS—sitting huddled in a pool of light. Shaven-headed, long limbed, elastic, and fascinating, Lohse conveys the vagaries of a troubled mind by altering the speed and scale of the curious shapes she pulls her body into. Tami Stronach’s Pandora’s Solo (from a longer work) does build to a climax, and Isadora Wolfe brilliantly conveys the nuances of temptation induced by the sight of that mythic closed box. That the solo relates strongly to its music by Something Obvious reminds me how rare that connection is these days.
Music and the making of it are the substance of the terrific and rousing finale by eight members of Step Afrika. The slow singing of “Wade in the Water” by a choir-robed quartet (C. Brian Williams, Cornelius Bates, Tamika McIntosh, and lead singer Sumayya Ali) and Brian McCollum’s moment of silent prayer as a black-robed preacher don’t fully prepare us for what happens next. McCollum dons rubber boots with a rings of bells around one ankle and starts making the floor resound with his foot rhythms. The piece melds spirituals, gumboot dancing of South Africa, tap, and the form of stepping created by African American college students. Delonte Briggs joins McCollum. Mfon Akpan, wearing a long white dress, taps on a piece of black marley, and high-heeled Kirstin Ledford does her own intricate stepping. The singers start moving too, and together the eight create a jubilation of rhythm and spirit that harks back to the essence of dancing: people moving together in harmony for the greater good.