Confession: I took Holy Communion in the renegade church of the Active Pelvis (does chicken count as hallowed?). On the occasion in question, I think of refusing the offering being passed around by saying “No thanks, I’m an atheist,” but decide, what the hell, and chomp on a small piece of rubbery breast.
Perhaps I should backtrack. The acolytes carrying the plates are dancers, the “church” is Dance New Amsterdam’s second-floor theater, and choreographer Clare Byrne is the force behind the “service.” Rounds, The First Last Dance or, The Last First Dance, or, An Ordination isn’t the first work in which Byrne has obliquely tackled her Catholic upbringing—either through satire or via contrasting visions of denial and rapture expressed in sensual, muscular, often abandoned dancing.
In Rounds, she collaborates with her sister, musician-singer -songwriter Mary Byrne, who acts as she-who-is-in-charge, and whose rock band, Hot Young Priest, provides the music for the 70-minute work. It’s M. Byrne who announces titles for songs we never hear, each announcement followed by a quick burst of sound from Chris Jansen on drums and Daniel Winn on bass (the composer also plays guitar, as does guest Mark Rogers). She parodies band-speak, “It’s so good to be back in New York City,” and asks spectators to think up titles for what we see. She orders the performers who’re sitting and grimacing hugely to laugh if they’re going to laugh (they comply with terrifying force), and summons her sister to a final ordeal that involves donning a red-feather mask, going to an area off to the side, and dancing as fast as she can until she has to stop.
The song lyrics printed in the program are weird, interesting, and gloomy (also unintelligible in the loud musical mix). For example, a little girl gets beaten on Christmas because she disobeys her mother’s orders and takes “wintergreen” from the pharmacy to her shaking, addicted father, locked in his room. I can’t figure out how the songs connect to what we see.
What we see is a lot of powerful, gutsy dancing—sometimes to music, sometimes in silence—by Sharon Estacio, Patrick Ferreri, Meredith Mandel, Jeffrey Peterson, and C. Byrne (all of whom contributed to the choreography). They’re dressed in white outfits with touches of red and gold that suggest martial arts attire, Japanese kimonos, sportswear, and more (costumes by Byrne and Estacio). Byrne’s style is characterized by a kind lavish athleticism. The dancers hurtle to the floor, rock back and forth, revolve on their shoulders, tumble embraced, crawl over and under partners, and hoist one another off the ground. They also sprint, leap, and spin. They rotate while balancing on one leg for a long time. Sometimes they give each other sotto voce cues or commands or describe a colleague’s actions. One recurring movement: They sit, brace themselves on their hands, and lift their pelvises off the floor, thrusting and undulating them feverishly. They make you aware of how their skin feels as body slides over body.
The audience is seated around three sides of the loft space’s main, performing area. Amanda K. Ringger’s sensitive lighting reveals us too. Since the dancers are often only a foot away from the first row of spectators, we feel their travails and their pleasure keenly. Some religious allusions—whether to Christianity or Eastern religions—are embedded in the dancing. Estacio and Mandel hold hands, caging Peterson between them, and pull each other to slam against him; this ordeal lasts quite a while. C. Byrne cradles the fallen Peterson, and he rises to stand over her on one leg, arms winging. People reach around and grasp a partner’s nipple through the shirt fabric to gently pull him or her to face a new direction.
Other references to spiritual practices are more overt. The performers sit briefly before the musicians, butts resting on heels, like Indian dancers acknowledging a guru; toward the end of the piece, three of them kneel or bow to rest a hand on a a selected spectator’s knee, as if both to bestow a blessing and to abase themselves. Then there’s the poultry ritual. While C. Byrne performs her penance of chicken-y dancing, the others ceremonious enter with covered dishes, put on plastic gloves, and de-bone chicken breasts, one per person, each plate set off in a tiny pool of light. The smell of poached fowl stands in for incense.
Rounds is an intriguing blend of the forthright and the mysterious, discipline and freedom, reverence and skepticism. I do wonder what the outcome is meant to be, if an outcome is part of the idea. After the climactic “communion,” who, if anyone is ordained or shriven? The performers return to the same dance motifs they performed when the piece began, seemingly unchanged by what has occurred. I, on the other hand, am heavier by one morsel of strangely hard-to-digest chicken and a head full of thoughts.