Theater archives

High on Speed


The public’s thirst for cross-cultural artistic cocktails seems on the rise, and choreographers are responding in increasingly daring ways. Quick!, which opened the final Fall for Dance program, puts Nina Rajarani of the London-based Sristi-Nina Rajarani Dance Creations in the lead as an intrepid mixmaster. Picture Ash Mukherjee, Seshadri Iyengar, Sooraj Subramanian, and PN Vikas—barefoot but wearing black pants, white shirts, and ties—whipping off the wheeling, snapping gestures and stamping footwork of Bharata Natyam. A screen shows videos of cars in a London street—sometimes speeded up, sometimes slow enough for a filmed image of one of the men to thread through the traffic. The glass door of a hi-tech elevator opens and close, opens and closes, sometimes delivering him to a never-seen office.

In Rajarani’s skillful hands, a onetime temple-dance style usually performed by women in saris becomes a vehicle for expressing the daily, cutthroat rat-race of urban businessmen. Why not? In both professions, you have to be precise to succeed, and be able to maintain poise and a rapid pace whether the task involves navigating fiendishly complex gestures or runaway spreadsheets. You wouldn’t believe the speed of composer-vocalist Y Yadavan’s tongue as he articulates the syllables that guide and emphasize the choreography.

Between bouts of splendid dancing, the men check themselves out in imaginary mirrors, straighten their ties, ream out their ears. Violinist Kumar Raghunathan, flautist KJ Vijay, and percussionist Balaji Krishnamurthy move from the sidelines to create an obstacle course for the dancers and join them for some lively rhythmic disputation around a table that’s carried on. A brief passage of after-work squabbling is a bit awkward, but Quick! goes down like a mango smoothie with a terrific punch.

If prizes were handed out for rapidity of movement, Camille A. Brown would be a blue- ribbon winner. At least, for most of her The Evolution Of A Secured Feminism. Wearing beige pants and one-half of a fitted jacket over a tight top, with a cap pulled down over her eyes, she’s a bundle of fast-twitch uncertainty. As she rattles out taut, fidgety gestures to Ella Fitzgerald’s breathless interpretation of “Lover Come Back to Me, Brown occasionally manages a spine ripple that makes her look like a snake trying to shed its skin. A pool of light on the floor traps her for a while, but she breaks free of it and asks for our applause.

Brown, formerly a member of Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, is a knockout performer and a very talented young choreographer, but the title of this solo isn’t the only awkward thing about it. In the last section, she sprawls languidly on a chair, intermittently miming the words of “Guess Who I Saw Today,” as recorded by Nancy Wilson. The vignette is fine, but with its sly buildup and heart-tugging ending (the singer saw her man with another woman), it doesn’t convince me that this beguiling dancer is truly as free to celebrate her womanhood as the program tells us she is.

Kinky velocity also molds an excerpt from Jorma Elo’s Brake the Eyes, premiered by the Boston Ballet in March and danced at City Center by eight fine members of the company. These twitches don’t seem to be a product of emotional distress or neurological conditions; they’re just features of Elo-ese that we’ve come to know from his previous works. The sought-after Finnish choreographer throws in just enough big leaps and whizzing spins and handsome arabesques for us to identify the vocabulary as ballet-based. Ballet deranged might be more accurate, and the dull roars that interrupt or bleed through music by Mozart (mostly for piano or piano and violin) emphasize the climate of sabotage. In this voluble, never-stopping ballet a duet is an endurance test in which partners paw the air, writhe, jut their elbows, and ripple their spines at each other. Brake your eyes, Elo says, and then makes that impossible.

The highlight of the production is Larissa Ponomarenko. A skinny waif in a tawdry, gilt-infused tutu and soft slippers, she stands turned-in and drooping as the curtain rises. If it weren’t for her occasional business-like walk or shooting-arrow arabesque, she’d look like a doll gradually losing its stuffing. It’s she who introduces the chicken-pecking head swivels that infect her colleagues. She’s mic’d , and as she wanders around or ventures into dancing, she frequently cries out or expostulates in Russian (I think I heard her comment on the darkness). Ponamarenko’s go-for-broke performance is astonishing; you want to take this rumpled soul home, shake her out, and feed her lots of borscht.

An excerpt from Nkululeko, choreographed and performed by nine members of Via Katlehong Dance, is not just fast but hectic. Originally a community group, VKD is now comprised of professional dancers (all male) adept at Pantsula, Gumboot, and tap. I’d love them more if they didn’t try so hard to charm us. Nevertheless, their zeal and enthusiasm are irrestistible, even though their show could stand a little more structuring (the quickie street fight and apparent death of one character are awkwardly inserted).

Pantsula originated in the ’80s, among the Zulu, I believe; the word itself refers to a sharp dresser and, according to one encyclopedia entry, one showing “challenging self-confidence.” That description would fit the three guys in silk shirts who twirl canes and step lively. That Pantsula and Hip Hop have bonded leads to more crazy-legged moves. I’m wilder about the Gumboot dances, though. They’ve come a long way from their brave origins in the dark, wet mines where men labored in semi-slavery. The bold, bright rhythms created by clapping, the stamp of rubber boots and the slap of hands against legs and feet speak of joy and empowerment through shared art-making.

The only slow item on this Fall for Dance program was Elisa Monte’s famous 1979 duet Treading, performed by Tiffany Rhea and Matthew Fisher. Looking now at its smooth, sensuous unfoldings to music by Steve Reich, you can see it as an early example of a classical pas de deux voiced in modern dance. Almost throughout, the performers are on the floor—the man lying with raised legs, say, and the woman wrapped around his feet like a small mammal on a smaller perch. Arching and rolling, the two manipulate the erotic into the sculptural without ever quite losing their heat.

How wonderful it feels to be in City Center and see the seldom-used second balcony filled, and people from just-past-toddlerdom to old age having a wonderful time watching dance. For $10 a pop! At the intermission and after the show, the audience spills into the passageway between buildings that bridges 55th and 56th Streets to buy drinks and snacks, chat, and try out dance steps. Fall for Dance is a great gift to the dance world and to the city.