The people in Elisa Monte’s choreographed worlds don’t have an easy time. They’re suspicious of one another and whatever lurks beyond the confines of the stage. Hostility and fear pressurize their big, difficult movements. The complicated ways women clamber around on men’s bodies imply eroticism without making it palpable. Monte’s work is admirable mainly for the power and beauty of her dancers and her ingenious strategies for displaying them.
The works shown during her company’s 25th anniversary season span 10 years. Volkmann Suite was made in 1996, Day’s Residue in 2000, and Shattered in 2001; Hardwood is a world premiere. Monte could have designed an evening that showed more aspects of her style. All the pieces except the earliest one feature the entire group of eight dancers. All are set to contemporary instrumental music played at rock-concert volume. During the obstinately repetitive last passages of Michael Gordon’s Weather, the accompaniment for Shattered, you can believe the violins are sawing the theater down.
The four dances are single-minded, none more so than the suite inspired by photos of dancers taken by Roy Volkmann. It sets a gold standard for strenuous partnering—with Tiffany Rea, Matthew Fisher, and Fabrice Lamego creating pyramids, climbing vines, and other stunning two- or three-person plastiques (Rodin sculptures and the Laocoön are invoked along with Volkmann’s images)—all performed with fluidity and exalted devotion.
When I say single-minded, I mean that whatever ambience Monte establishes in these works at the outset remains consistent throughout. Everything ends more or less as it began. Rarely does an individual emerge from the throng, although one of the evening’s high points is a brief solo by the marvelously lithe and intense Rea. In all three group dances, Monte employs an age-old symbol of community: Dancers cluster stage center and stare outward or form a ring. But once gathered, they’re liable to collapse, catapult outward, or wander close, twisty paths without acknowledging one another.
Day’s Residue is intriguing partly for the textural variety of the music: two movements of Vladimir Godár’s Concerto Grosso, with its tortured channeling of J.S. Bach themes. Monte has devised a vivid ongoing dance party, for which the women wear Karen Young’s billowing silk skirts over strappy black leotards, and the men sport sleeveless vests over their tights. Monte shows the dancers as both constrained and emboldened by Godár’s variegated score—bowing to one another, forming parallel lines in a contradance, separating into couples. A spirited but joyless unison prevails in a dream ballroom made all the spookier by Clifton Taylor’s frequent, dramatic changes of light.
Hardwood, named for one of the John King pieces it’s set to, creates a more threatening atmosphere, unleashing an animosity that seems somehow purposeless—a virus exacerbated by the driving string quartet music of King’s eponymous work and his All Steel, and later by feverish keyboard passages. The male dancers (Joseph Celej, Jon DeMone, Fisher, and Lamego) set the tone in their opening encounter when two bump into each other. Leaps express fierceness, not freedom. In this new work, Monte makes more out of differences. When the men and women (Amber Mayberry, Karen More, Maya Taylor, and Rea) wind into simultaneous duets, each pair has its own pattern. When all eight dancers form a diagonal, and the men hoist the women high, they do so in canon. When people fall and twist on the floor, others walk over and kick them without apparent hostility; no one retaliates or seems to mind.
Watching a work by Monte, I find myself craving an occasional release from the unremitting tension and high-potency, virtuosic unhappiness. She’s such a fluent choreographer that sometimes she seems to be obsessively spinning beautiful images beyond their power to hold us in thrall.