I’ve always been impressed by choreographers who not only want us to experience dancing in an unusual way, but want us to understand how that new vision is coming about. Without being didactic, they nudge us with subliminal instructions, like “Watch what happens when I repeat this to different music, when I run it backward, when I have the dancers face a different direction, when I change the audience-performer relationship, when I create a picture too complex for you to grasp in its entirety.” Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp in her early days, Meredith Monk, Trisha Brown, John Jasperse, Elizabeth Streb, and Trajal Harrell are among those who’ve given my eyes and mind a jolt.
It doesn’t surprise me that Alan Good, who spent 16 years dancing in Cunningham’s company, lays out an intriguing and undemanding viewing job for spectators of his new Omnibus. The setting is unusual to begin with: a long, narrow studio in the New Dance Group’s 38th Street headquarters. Because the audience, divided into two small banks, is seated at either end, our focus is always deep, with the opposite watchers as the backdrop. Good lays out his plan in the program: “The dance’s structure follows two rules. We perform each of its twenty parts twice, first to one audience and then to the other. After the introduction, we perform consecutive parts at the same time.”
I am very up for this.
Although I soon discover that I apparently can’t count to 20, that doesn’t seem to make much difference. I can certainly detect that there are many separate short sections, because Good starts us off easy. The dancers stop, walk to a new location, and repeat what they just did or begin something new. Matt Ehlert adjusts the lighting to suit, and Good’s sound score offers a sequential variety of noises (rhythmic clicking, piano music, surf, a rooster, birds, crickets, bells, etc.). Minha Cha, Megan Sipe, Luis Gabriel Zaragoza, and Good are an attractive bunch, despite Ashley Mikal’s not very attractive costumes (long, open vests over shorts for the men, bunchy tunics over shorts for the women). Since they perform each sequence twice—once orienting it toward us or close to us, and then repeating it “for” the other half of the room—we get to know them very well. The two perspectives make different aspects of the movement or different dancers swim into prominence.
The movement is, as I’d expect, influenced by Cunningham’s vision of dancers as alert people with predominantly erect spines; long, probing legs; and busy feet—people not buffeted by emotional storms. Still, these four are lively, not always dry, and their very attentiveness to one another and the task at hand is expressive (Evans has an especial knack for making the space around her seem alive). And early on, off-kilter steps intrude—for example, performers running bent over, arms winging wildly as they go.
I enjoy watching oddities creep in and the picture become more complex. Evans and Cha shake hands, and (as a result?) Cha is thrown backward, staggering. Then she scampers toward Evans to try it again. We see the little encounter, of course, with Cha falling away from us, and again with her backing toward us. Or vice versa. After a while, two sections occur simultaneously, one aimed at us and one that we’ve just seen, or are about to see, played for the other group. But since in reality we see everything all the time, past, present, and future swirl around beguilingly. Good has also arranged it that one soloist or group may have to invade the other faction’s zone in order to fulfill the choreography. Good, racing along in his solo, passes through a duet by Sipe and Zaragoza, acknowledging them on the way. The effect is startling, so accustomed have we become to the image of separate orbits.
The technically demanding steps become increasingly imaginative, as do the encounters between individuals and groups. I occasionally think, “What’s that about?”— maybe when Zaragoza starts slapping his hips, or when everyone saunters along, elbows crooked and palms facing up. The 45-minute Omnibus engages us on several levels: with its smart choreography, its intent dancers, and the illusion of busy urban communities that it inevitably creates.