I don’t lose sleep pondering the diversity of the New York dance scene, but the subject does seep into my brain at times. In the vaulted white space of St. Mark’s church, Pam Tanowitz’s dancers make quirky, sharp-edged movements that suggest deconstructed ballet to music by the noted contemporary composer Charles Wuorinen. Seldom in unison, scattered about the space, the performers seem both isolated from one another yet bound together by a shared vocabulary and style. We see that they are different from one another in looks and personal dynamics, but Tanowitz doesn’t encourage us to probe their individuality
A few days later, in Dance Theater Workshop’s black box (with a temporarily white floor), the four dancers in RoseAnne Spradlin’s Survive Cycle lash themselves into fits. Often they work in a square format that might as well be a prizefight arena. They look as if contained rage is tearing them apart. We immediately learn how different they are from one another via the huge projected close-ups of each one’s face that linger on the back wall. Chris Peck’s drastic music, performed live and electronically, rubs at them like a finger insistently probing a wound. Unlike Tanowitz’s people, they rarely appear dancerly, even though only accomplished dancers could manage what they do to their bodies.
Both Tanowitz’s program, in which several dances and a piano piece by Wuorinen merge into one intermissionless longer one, and Survive Cycle could be considered expressions of contemporary life, either taking apart or ignoring established dance vocabularies. Both are polished pieces of work, but Spradlin, as usual, strives for a vision of rawness.
Tanowitz plays with our perspective of the church. Set designer Jennifer A. Cooper has covered with red fabric the low carpeted risers opposite the audience and the pillows arranged as front-row seating. At one point during Pendant (Introduction), with recorded music by Dan Siegler, Melissa Togood is gesturing on one of the side risers; William Petroni performs some athletic moves behind the red-upholstered steps, slipping in and out of view; and Stasia Blyskal half vanishes behind the other set of stairs. That leaves Theresa Ling and Uta Takemura dancing in and out of unison in the main area. Suddenly the door to the dressing room opens and in the lit interior, we see Petroni, Blyskal, and Rashaun Mitchell embraced, while downstage, Takemura performs a coolly jittery little solo.
In its edgy rigor, Wuorinen’s music complements Tanowitz’s choreography. Although she doesn’t illustrate the composer’s every twist, she honors his structures and textures. During The Blue Bamboula (played live by pianist Blair McMillan), when Mitchell and Blyskal are dancing together, the other three cluster into plastiques and tableaux behind them. We infer emotions the way we do from briefly glimpsed street-corner encounters: Togood falls, and Takemura and Ling stare down at her; Takemura and Petroni embrace; Mitchell grasps Blyskal and runs her along in front of him along as if she were a luggage dolly. That the women are all dressed alike (by Yukie Okuyama) in black tops and maroon half skirts reinforces the formality that underlies the work’s eccentricities.
Tanowitz messes creatively with the classical vocabulary. In Grand Bamboula, guest artist Elizabeth Walker of the New York City Ballet does her bourrées bent over, strolls along on pointe, wobbles, takes time out to sit on a red platform, and does a quick, stiff reprise of the opening moments of George Balanchine’s Serenade. Storage (2005) set to Wuorinen’s powerful Five for cello and orchestra, most elegantly conveys Tanowitz’s aesthetic. There’s always something interesting and unexpected to look at, and pressure cooking beneath the surface. Watching it is like glimpsing a society that has forgotten most of its rituals but is going to perform the fragments that remain as beautifully as it can.
The people in Spradlin’s Survive Cycle have no such optimism. Their world has fallen into ruin and is still collapsing around and within them. Perhaps they can crash their way back to a saner, more loving environment, perhaps not. Walter Dundervill, Paige Martin, Cédrix Andrieux, and Tasha Taylor look calm enough when we first gaze at their huge heads in Glen Fogel’s video portraits. By the time they enter, however, nicely dressed in black and white outfits by Jennifer Goggans and Spradlin, Chris Peck has ratcheted up the hum of his amplified guitar and other sounds, and the music begins shuddering its way into our and their nervous systems.
At first, bleakly lit by Joe Lavasseur, the four stand in a square formation—two facing front, two facing back—and shimmy their torsos from side to side. They might be on a train. But the quaking and shuddering escalate (as do the sounds) and take over the dancers’ bodies. It’s terrifying. Even as they’re falling apart, they also seem to be trying to express something to one another or to the world at large. They thrash and gesticulate passionately, quaking so much they’re physically incoherent. For a second or two, I catch readable gestures coursing through Dundervill; he grabs his crotch, he points to what might be guns. It seems almost shocking that Spradlin, with a formalist’s precision, repeats sequences like this that you’d think were unrepeatable. At one point, the men push the women toward each other; later the women do the same with the men. Andrieux repeats his wilting, shaking solo almost exactly.
When people fall on one another, attack clumsily, or meet in sexually charged ways, I think of old cartoons that show what happens to someone who sticks his finger in an electric socket and what ensues when a second person touches the first. In one encounter between, as I remember, Dundervill and Taylor, he lifts and flings her around him so that her legs fly apart; they repeat this over and over as if stuck in the pattern. Peck’s reiterated grating exacerbate the effects of drenching sweat, gasping breaths, and the heat of body against body.
In a darkly enigmatic patch of calm near the end, the dancers exit and reenter carrying what appear to be large, immature, stuffed ravens (Dundervill has his perched on his head, Andrieux holds his upside down by the feet. . .). In the same instant, they throw the birds to the ground, then pick them up and leave.
This event signals some kind of change. With bewildering rapidity, the video shows flashes of bright-colored fabric and scissors amid dark shifting barriers. The dancers return bearing bundles and start arranging on the floor what at first seem to be clothes. It takes a minute or two to realize there are no complete garments in the design that’s gradually filling the stage; everything has been cut up. Carefully each performer lays out the pieces, matching colors and fragments until the floor is a crazy quilt in which the destroyed acquire a new beauty and meaning. Meanwhile, their heads, now talking, again appear one by one on the back wall. They speak frankly, sometimes with difficulty, about surviving the loss of love and about the tensions that arose during rehearsals for the performance we’ve been watching.
Spradlin’s works always hit a nerve. This latest one is especially harsh. Her heroic colleagues didn’t just contribute to the process and perform the completed piece; they survived it.