Some dancegoers crave movement that’s difficult and exciting—maybe aggressively sexy. Some need a drama they can relate to, but one that’s also racier or more colorful than anything in their daily lives. Audiences who saw recent works by Neil Greenberg or Maguy Marin got neither. Marin’s startling Umwelt presents performers in an endless cycle of everyday acts, some of them you’d rather your neighbors didn’t see. Greenberg’s dancers tell only the stories that live in their bodies, and their movements—while difficult technically—twist and swing easily through space.
In Umwelt, Marin’s company (based in Rillieux-la-Pape, one of France’s national choreographic centers) returns to the Beckettian world of her 1981 May B, which was given its 555th performance last year. She quotes Samuel Beckett in her program essay: “Without here nor there nor ever approaching nor moving away from anything all the steps of the earth.” Two by two, three by three, her 12 diverse and interesting performers step out from behind the translucent reflective panels lined up across the stage, execute an action, and slip behind a panel further down the line. Often, their backs are to us. An offstage machine harasses their hair and garments, its roar augmented by Denis Mariotte’s sound design. A large mechanized spool pulls cord from a reel on the opposite side of the stage; passing over three electric guitars lying downstage, the cord sets off a hurricane of noise, often almost unbearably loud.
The piece is beautifully, enthrallingly monotonous: I couldn’t wait to see when an action would be repeated, who would perform it, how it would change or combine with another, and what new events would appear and, as quickly, disappear. Eating an apple, putting on a coat, wiping one’s nose become curiously compelling when several people, emerging from behind different panels, do it at the same time. They appear on and off in crowns, in helmets, in rabbit ears. They dandle baby dolls, flash cameras, point guns, pop pills, scrub the floor, pull their trousers up over bare buttocks. The ordinary becomes extraordinary, and vice versa: In one startling image, two men back briefly into view, each bearing a naked woman athwart his shoulders (this resonates with another passage in which people enter with a butchered animal carcass slung over their shoulders). The deliberate pace rarely quickens, and the only pauses occur when one or more people stop and, in a changing light, stare out from their ceaseless routines.
Eventually, they start dropping objects instead of exiting with them. Hats, cans, dolls, coats—the detritus of our days. Finally, the cord comes loose from its spindle and snakes slowly across the stage. The cacophony stops. In some parallel universe, Umwelt‘s litany of the mundane rolls on.
If the design of Umwelt is almost two-dimensional, Greenberg’s Quartet With Three Gay Men (2006) and his new Really Queer Dance With Harps are three-dimensional and richly layered. You can tell that the older dance grew out of improvisations. Luke Miller, Antonio Ramos, Colin Stilwell, and Greenberg are such individuals that when they each go their separate ways, your eye swoops around—alighting, say, on Ramos drumming his feet on the floor, or Miller whipping his long arms around his body. Even when Greenberg organizes movement into canons or unison dancing, the personal differences shine through.
As his titles suggest, Greenberg is preoccupied with how gender is traditionally defined. While RuPaul’s recorded voice sings lyrics like “Do your thing on the runway,” the men move in Michael Stiller’s beguiling light with a fluid extravagance and an awareness of their own sensuality. You come away with a memory of movement that turns and twists, swirls close and spreads out in space without claiming territory or showing muscle.
There are three harps in the new piece; they hold down center stage, and composer Zeena Parkins, Shelly Burgon, and Kristen Theriault wear identical dresses to play them. Here, Greenberg queries in poetic, unemphatic ways our habit of defining what’s “masculine” and what’s “feminine.” Does a man running and flapping his wrists convey an image different from a woman doing the same thing? Although sometimes only the women (Ellen Barnaby, Johnni Durango, Christine Elmo, and Paige Martin) are onstage, and sometimes only Miller, Ramos, Stilwell, and Nicholas Duran are in sight, they all inhabit the same complex, sunlit society. Greenberg danced in Merce Cunningham’s company for seven years, and his dancers, like Cunningham’s, give the impression of being on private forays through a fascinating world, their gestures responding imaginatively to variations in terrain and colored by Parkins’s vivid score (the harp strings are plucked sonorously, but also rubbed; the musicians strike the instruments’ wooden frames). The eight never touch or acknowledge one another until they reappear in a giddy coda that’s more welcome than any happily-ever-after.