Theater archives

Jeremy Nelson: Buried Roots


When I watch Jeremy Nelson’s choreography, I imagine enviously how performing it would feel. The floor would seem resilient, like velvet over foam. The air would be yours to rest on or cut through with easy precision. Your legs would swivel in well-oiled hip sockets. However difficult the dancing, it would seem like a task you’d enjoy executing. And you’d have friends ready to catch you on the fly.

Nelson makes dances about dancing. But although he doesn’t tell stories, he lets human behavior and other images drawn from life generate movement motifs. His works don’t usually “go” anywhere, which can make them seem long. On the other hand, it’s the way he recycles themes and gestures, varying them slightly, that makes you imagine you’re watching a peaceable colony at work and play.

Actually, on seeing his 2006 Mean Piece again, I realize that it does indeed have actions that range from meanness to violence, but none is performed with hostile intent. One phrase incorporates heavy stomps; several times, Meredith McCanse jiggles up and down, batting her hands like a little girl saying, “I won’t!” At one point, Jennifer Felton and Omagbitse Omagbemi stand close to Rebecca Serrell and lean so suspiciously toward her that she has to bend backward. And what about Lawrence Cassella butting Francis A. Stansky, or Stansky, McCanse, and Felton—arms linked—wrenching this way and that as they dance? Certainly Pavel Zustiak’s score, with its rumbling train and other more calamitous sounds, darkens the implications of Luis Lara Malvacías’s slanting curtain of ropes—even when Carol Mullins’s lighting turns it gold.

But although I catch what may be allusions to fractious children and schoolyard bullying in Mean Piece, they drift into the mind like flotsam on the tide of rich, variegated movement. That sort of thing happens with Nelson’s new Sail, too. His program lists as sources English country dancing, Maori hakas (ceremonial dances), spiraled wood-carving, rugby lineouts, and the sea (Nelson grew up in New Zealand). But these are buried in the choreography and in David Watson’s wonderful score at varying degrees of depth. They’re also hinted at in Malvacías’s décor: A pleated, cream-colored half-curtain gives the impression of sailcloth, and a standing sculpture is composed largely of wood and twisting ropes; disassembled, parts of it stand about like low screens or goals. The terrific layered costumes, also by Malvacías, blend the look of kilts with sports attire (everyone has an additional garment tied around the waist).

A group lifting a single dancer doesn’t look like a lineout’s ball toss, nor do the jaunty hops follow the pattern of any known country dance. Only when the performers sink into wide, bent-legged stances, or when Stansky tracks along to sounds that evoke nature, does a hint of Maori culture slip in. Still, the choreography does sail and skim, and hopping is practically a way of life. In one passage, McCanse and Omagbemi—running and skipping—enter from one side, loop around, and exit; they alternate the maneuver with Serrell and Stansky. I’m not sure why this simple design is so satisfying; maybe it’s because it builds a larger image of teamwork.

Sail is a vigorous, boisterous dance (those hops aren’t perky; they’re big, bold, and space-covering). Stansky and Omagbemi challenge each other to some stylized wrestling, legs hooked around the other. Nelson has a fine command of dynamics—the interplay of large movements and small ones, of motion and stillness. In both these dances, the performers often pause to watch one another, to gather strength. All six (Felton isn’t in Sail, but Nelson is) perform the movement as if it meant a great deal to them—as fluid, resilient, and risky as life.  

At, read Deborah Jowitt on Aviva Geismar and In Memoriam: Amanda Smith.