Every moment in a work by Sally Gross appears to be immaculate, chosen with care. Yet under essentially calm surfaces, mischief and mystery lurk. When in Gross’s 2006 With Music, Tanja Meding suddenly erupts into a few seconds of quick, violent motion, it’s as if a frog had dived into a pond and disturbed its still mirror. Maria Parshina is lying on the floor when Gross’s new The Pleasure of Stillness begins, and although she’s also repeating a pattern, the odd ways in which she twists and rolls suggest emotional heat.
Gross, who has been making wry, small-scale pieces since the 1960s, doesn’t hurry things. In the opening of With Music, while musician Robert Poss plucks clear, single notes from his guitar, five women in cotton dresses (Jamie Di Mare, Heather Lee, Gabriela Simon, Meding, and Parshina) are grouped in profile against a blue background, bathed in golden light (designed by Blu). In their own time, the women take steps that advance and retreat irregularly, bending forward and back as they go, raising their arms high, and twisting to look behind them. Watching their informally canonic design unfold is deeply satisfying.
Poss accompanies the women’s actions very sensitively—sometimes backing his mellow guitar with electronic additions that include a low, vibrating hum and a beat that sounds like the clop-clop of horses’ hooves. In one of the most engrossing passages, Lee and Simon sit side by side on chairs. At first Lee seems to be training Simon—taking one of her hands, moving her arm. Could they be writing? No. Soon they’re making something together with give-and-take care and concentration. We never understand exactly what delicate thing they’re molding, only the complexity of the task and the purity of their concentration. Later, on the floor, the other three women collaborate briefly on their own manual project.
In The Pleasure of Stillness, the women (minus Lee) interact in more tactile ways with one another, again to subtle music supplied by Poss. As the title implies, they are often resting or waiting. Meding squats a while before suddenly toppling. After Di Mare has wormed on her side to where Parshina lies in a pool of light, the two of them stay there for a few moments. Meanwhile, Simon stands alone at the rear of the space, her back to us, still making the gestures with which she, Di Mare, and Meding began the piece. The images that remain are of women curled up together, spoon fashion, or two kneeling for a moment, as if at a Japanese tea party, and the other two coming to sit briefly on their laps. The back wall turns red, but they remain contained.
Gross herself is still performing. Lean and taut as a cat and as light on her feet, she dances her new Songs to three Leonard Cohen songs. Blu opens a door of light for her on the floor. The music takes me back—takes her back too, I think. Feet planted, she bends and twists slowly, walks into a new song as if finding her way back into a memory. But after intermission, she expostulates in an energetic flood of Yiddish. One and Another dates from 1983, and whether you understand the language or not, Gross’s hands and body repeatedly, wittily, lay out alternatives (I imagine possibilities like “a man can go this way, or he can go that way”) that propel the tale she’s telling.
She dances With Words No. 2 (2006) to the voice of the late Joseph Chaikin rehearsing Samuel Becket’s How It Is. Karen Robbins’s sparse video shows a slanted window and, later, an image of Gross lying on the floor moving in synch with the live performer. Chaikin’s strong voice, reiterating questions and one-word answers, creates a rhythmic interrogation. At the end, another window lights up on the back wall and while Chaikin speaks of “someone. . .whose dream I am,” Gross lays her arms against it.
The final performance of Gross’s season was packed. Among those looking for seats were were the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Someone trying to be helpful, asked her, “Are you with him?” Jeanne-Claude drew herself up and said “for 50 years!.” Sally Gross hasn’t been mated to dance for quite that long, but her work bespeaks a long relationship with it that’s both tough and tender.