Anyone who saw Jeremy Nelson’s Accent Elimination at Danspace in 2004 might notice that it looks different at Dance Theater Workshop. DTW’s black box and David Tirosh’s changeeable lighting give the rushing, off-kilter encounters of five superb dancers a city streets edge that was softened by the vaulted white space and warm wood floor of St. Mark’s Church and Carol Mullins’s lighting. David Watson’s* music, with its intermittent roaring-crowd sounds, seemed less threatening there.
Nelson’s choreography seethes with off-kilter movement that can melt sensuously and in a second—maybe even simultaneously—slice into space with steely precision. The bodies of his five superb dancers (Meredith McCanse, Omagbitse Omagbene, Gretchen Pallo, Rebecca Serrell, and Francis A. Stansky) seem as complex as their various imaginative, layered outfits by Luis Lara Malvacías. At DTW, Accent Elimination also looks riskier than I remembered it, its timings more split-second. I’m aware of how individuals collide and of one resonant image that Nelson develops into a motif. Sitting on the floor, legs stuck out straight in front of her like a doll, McCanse slowly topples sideways without changing her position. Throughout the work, although the people kiting around appear only subliminally aware of one another, someone will notice a seated colleague about to tip over and race to catch the weight, cushion the fall.
In Nelson’s new Mean Piece, as in the older one, the performers (joined by Lawrence Casella) come and go, treating the rich, fluid choreography as a demanding daily task. Because Nelson recycles and varies themes, his characters don’t seem get any further in their lives. They’re still churning around as the lights fade. It’s the real increasing fatigue of the dancers, their sweat, and their disordered clothes that movingly map progression and development. You want to hug them, damp as they are, the minute the performance is over.
Nelson, like Stephen Petronio, in whose company he danced for eight years, doesn’t tell stories but builds images of individuals operating in a society. In Mean Piece, their interactions are a little, well, mean, and their solo explosions tantrummy. Incipient drama lurks in a space defined by Malvacías’s backdrop of slender vertical ropes slanting forward at the bottom and squared, string-caged light pillars, maybe four feet high, three of which flank the stage on either side.
Serrell begins the piece by racing in a circle. Within seconds, everyone is running, veering, reeling, and dodging. Pavel Zustiak’s sound score begins with a rumble like that of a train frozen in motion, getting neither louder nor softer. Odd, temperamental moves crop up: fidgety little bounces in place with clenched fists bobbing, interferences, tackles. Tirosh’s lighting isn’t gaudy, but it emphasizes irrationality and moodiness. He lays windows of light on the floor, or L- and Z-shaped beams; darkness suddenly surrounds a trio.
The dancers are more obviously aware of one another than in other pieces of Nelson’s that I’ve seen. Omagbene and McCanse stare penetratingly at Serrell, closing in so that she has to bend slightly backward. As the women exchange roles, and Pallo and Stansky join the game, the gestures signaling aggression and response broaden and diffuse into a small choreographic maelstrom. The dancers don’t act out anger; they simply buzz about like the bees that swarm in Zustiak’s score—causing one springing, tumbling phrase to impinge on another, or diverting the flow of a pattern. When Stansky hurls himself on Pallo and she falls, the act is violent, but not the execution. When McCanse, Stansky, and Pallo wrangle with elbows linked, they seem to be coping with movements better done alone. When Casella walks backward, lugging Pallo, she kicks her legs as if she wanted to be walking, but accepts his intervention. The whole piece leaves the audience tingling with the aliveness of it.
*Correction: This name has been corrected.