The audience partied on the stage of New York University’s Skirball Center after the concerts shared by Chris Elam and Larry Keigwin. Upstairs in the lobby, folks scarfed up guacamole and downed drinks from the free bar; downstairs in the theater they danced, while a dj cranked up the sound. The celebration wasn’t just in honor of the choreographers, their companies, and a slew of other performers. The Skirball had commissioned new works by Elam and Keigwin as part of its mission to interest the NYU community, especially students, in contemporary dance. If it takes a party to draw a crowd, so be it. In any case, the audience appeared thrilled. And that included some way past middle-aged people who’d never heard of either of these two extremely gifted young choreographers.
Seeing Elam’s work and Keigwin’s in one night certainly emphasizes the contrasts between them. Elam, abetted by his studies in Balinese dance and other forms, has built a style of movement on his own hyper-limber body. The result is anything but acrobatic. When, in his startling 1997 solo, Cast Iron Crutches, he clasps his hands between his legs and bends over until he looks like a walking egg, or wraps his limbs around one another in improbable ways, you may wonder fleetingly about the condition of his joints, but you’re more likely to ponder what tribal conventions or inner struggles have caused these deviations from the dancerly norm. When the music (by John Williams) is full of sighing, throbbing violins, and Burke Williams provides corridors of light and throws Elam’s shadow on the backdrop, illusions of journeying—perhaps along some evolutionary path—loom large.
The endearingly peculiar five dancers who populate his new Future Perfect World also look as if some hereditary influence or personality trait had skewed their minds and bodies and made their goals difficult to attain. The piece seems to be happening on some small, sunny, unknown planet. As it begins, Elam, holding a large yellow ball, walks uncertainly through barely parted curtains, regards us, and exits. When the curtain opens fully, Jennifer Harmer is standing bent way forward, her curved arms reaching for another ball that’s suspended some distance away. It rises, but she seldom abandons that curious posture, except when she stands tall to tiptoe about or leaps in wild abandon. In her white party dress (the suitably strange costumes are by Sarah McMillan and Lesly Wolf), she sometimes resembles a broken doll, yet she’s avid for something unreachable. To a medley of music that includes “Motherless Child” and Turkish songs, Brynne Billingsley, Elam, Harmer, Coco Karol, and Luke Wiley wander on and off the stage. They toddle cheerfully about with no evident goal. Often they stop and stare, and the music too falls silent. They try very hard to accomplish things. But what things? Their own limber bodies apparently baffle them, even though they tangle themselves into remarkable and absurd group structures. They can balance for a while on one leg, yet topple over doing quite simple things, as when, in a duet, Wiley attempts to kneel beside the seated Karol. They seem to believe that pulling on their own noses might lead to something.
Larry Keigwin and Chris Elam
When Elton John begins to sing “Rocket Man,” they wake from slumber. Karol covers her face with one hand, and Elam carries her away, swimming her through space. Billingsley and Wiley leave too (in their underwear). Harmer is left inching along the floor on her belly, reaching for a ball that descends from an unlikely heaven. At 45 minutes, Future Perfect feels long, but Elam is a true original, and his vision of humans as awkward, naïve, and eager is both comical and curiously touching.
Keigwin, too, avoids “pretty” dancing, especially in his darker pieces. And his compelling 2004 Natural Selection also suggests an evolutionary journey. Even though his remarkable dancers—he, Julian Barnett, Alexander Gish, Liz Riga, Ying-Ying Shau, and Nicole Walcott—wear dressy clothes, they start out scrabbling around, loose as monkeys, stopping suddenly to stare in one direction or another. The music, Michaell Gordon’s Weather, with its driving pulse and a section that sounds like a Witches’ Sabbath, provides a microclimate that abets their vigorous struggles. They scramble over one another and through the colonnade of arches provided by others’ backbends. They hit the stage’s bare rear wall and attempt to clamber up, although only Shau, with the help of her friends, can actually run along it.
Keigwin also has a very big talent for creating entertaining, light-hearted romps for groups of people—assembling them into clever patterns while still bringing out traces of individuality. In Caffeinated, he makes nine members of the NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts’ Second Avenue Dance Company look like a multitude (disclaimer: I’m on the Tisch faculty). The dancers, each clutching a styrofoam cup, form overlapping parades, lineups, clusters, individual breakouts, and scurrying confabs of two or three. Accompanying their tightly organized, near-perpetual high, Philip Glass’s music (Glasspiece #3) has never sounded so wound up and ready to explode.
Bolero NYC marks Keigwin’s second use of Ravel’s eponymous escalation into frenzy. This time he and his company are joined by 46 volunteers of all ages and sizes—everyone wearing assorted red, black, white, and gray clothes. It’s New York, folks—only brighter and better. Keigwin can empty a stage, refill it, wheel it like a top, and bring it to a sudden stop with a sure hand for theatrical build. Crowd flow may stop while people fix their hair and tuck in their shirts, examine unwelcome pimples or pull out cell phones. Pedestrian traffic coalesces when orderly hordes unfurl umbrellas and wait for the rain to pass; then, amid all the black umbrellas, one renegade opens a red one. Gradually, one man forces the horde into the opening behind the stage’s huge sliding door; for a starling moment, just before he closes the door on the last stragglers, there, utterly alone on stage, stands an 18-month-old baby, staring gravely at us.
Amid the fray, Keigwin draws our attention to, say, a mother who fusses over her little girl’s appearance, a worried woman who appears confused by everything, a very tall man who strides across in a suit and returns wearing only a red tie and a red Speedo, a woman walking two identical dogs in red coats, a posse of would-be teen models, a chubby diva surrounded by prowling men. And more. By the time Ravel’s horns are braying and the cymbals are crashing, everyone’s prancing down a red carpet flourishing a balloon.
Larry Keigwin may not need Broadway, but Broadway could certainly use him.