A male ballet star performing a classical solo looks like a happy fellow (“For you, this turn, this nice big leap!”). A solo made and executed by a modern dancer tends to show you one mixed-up dude (“Let me dissect this trauma, this peculiar little adventure, for you”). My arguable generalization was prompted by two pieces that I saw on successive nights—both of them the work of dancer-choreographers who may or may not call themselves postmodern: Foofwa d’Imobilité and Nicholas Leichter. The former appeared in an evening-long display, the latter in a brief solo that ended a program of dances by his company.
Leichter is a New Yorker. His personal style mixes club-dancing and other movement ideas he’s come up with, plus what he learned in dance classes, and stirs them well. He presents himself as a guy itchy in his skin, on the move, his face and body refracting a storm of events, like a revolving mirror on a busy city street. In Love Letter, to Amy Winehouse’s song “Valerie,” he barely stirs from one spot, but he’s a muscular whirlwind of motion and thought. Rolling his shoulders and hips, flailing his arms and legs, he can look plushy one moment and as jerky as a video-game figure the next, expressions flitting across his face in freeze-frames. He stops dead at times or lets what he’s doing trail off, then snaps out of stillness with startling quickness. Eyes haunted, he tries to communicate something, then pauses as if to say, “No that’s not it; I’ll try again.” (I’ll come back to Leichter’s group choreography.)
Foofwa d’Imobilité is Swiss, but he lived here during the seven years he danced in Merce Cunningham’s company as Frédéric Gafner—always looking not only physically marvelous but more compelled by what he was doing than many of the others onstage. Benjamin de Bouillis, the title of his solo, is drawn from a mention in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which gives us a third name and a shadowy character not so much assumed as presented as a stand-in. D’Imobilité is happy in the limelight. By way of an overture, he lets down the shade that covers the studio theater’s huge west-facing windows, so that the sun shines directly in our eyes, and enumerates his interests—among them the artist’s relationship to the public. While we squint as his silhouette convulses, jerks, squirms, scuffles, quivers its fingers, drops to the floor with a thunk, the alarm on his watch goes off, and he remarks that he can see in the small free-standing mirror that “some folks have shades.” Here he is dancing remarkably like a man trying to shed his skin, and at the same time letting us know how pleased he is that we’re here watching him.
Benjamin de Bouillis, co-presented by the Baryshnikov Arts Center and Chez Bushwick, premiered in Geneva in 2005 and won the Swiss Dance and Choreography Prize in 2006. The piece was inspired by the ideas of neurologist Olaf Blanke—specifically by the notion of “décorporation.” That is, the ability to perceive your own body as if you were outside it—maybe at some distance away—or as if it had become alien, transformed. A work by video artist Alan Sondheim that precedes the dance offers clusters of stylized, bright-colored flora that sprout “real” (that is, filmed) human limbs or parts of a face, while a voice explains the digital processes involved. The traces of distorted, deconstructed humanity look as if something gaudier than a Venus flytrap were in the act of swallowing them.
D’Imobilité, now wearing a longish black-and-gold jacket and bare-legged except for black socks and shoes, is all but spat out of the elevator that opens onto the studio. Over the next 40 minutes or so, he considers visions of himself. Standing in place, he accumulates a phrase of simple gestures, reacting to sudden harsh breath sounds in Antoine Lengo’s collage score as if he felt the presence of some unseen other. He examines himself in the mirror, he walks, he does a remarkable long turn on one leg, he scratches his balls. The mirror, propelled by invisible hands, follows him around. And whatever gesture or dance step he performs, he’s always thinking, always checking himself and the reflected doppelganger who looks back at him like a family portrait on the parlor wall.
In one illuminating moment, Gabriel Forestieri (billed as “Absence onstage”) arranges a change of costume as if it’s atop an invisible body The dancer lies down next to this image of himself before slipping out of one set of garments and into the new ones. We too are his mirror, and for a while, he stands before us and takes his face apart—smiling, grimacing, mashing his cheeks, pulling his mouth askew. After each change, he wipes the expression away and carefully steps out of the space he was standing in, as if he were trying on selves the way you try on clothes in a store. He also plays the old game in which one’s own hand becomes an uncontrollable attacker. Marc Gaillard’s lighting and the sometimes eerie music or spoken words heighten the oddity.
A performer onstage automatically becomes the object of our gaze. In Benjamin de Bouillis, d’Imobilité offers something subtly different: a performer who obsessively imagines seeing himself as others do—a visual, corporeal presence whose feelings we can only guess at.
Leichter, in addition to soloing, dances in both the group pieces on his program (the first in DTW’s 2008 Guest Artist Series). One, yet another version of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, was commissioned in 2007 by the Brooklyn Philharmonic and performed with the orchestra; at DTW, Seiji Ozawa and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (recorded in 1968) pound it stunningly out.
Wearing gray coveralls by Mindy Nelson, the seven dancers bring to mind a small tribe of people who’ve come together for a purpose. Leichter is adept at patterning, and some of the finest moments are those that echo the beginning, when the performers press together like train cars or open out into hands-held chains and curious assists (one performer sits on a supine comrade’s upraised hands and feet as if enthroned). Leichter acknowledges the scenario that propels Stravinsky’s score, but obliquely. Dawn Robinson performs a long powerful solo, while the others bring in stools and watch her, but this doesn’t occur on the music written for the ending in which the sacrificial virgin dances herself to death.
Leichter’s choreography—with its blend of self-involved gestures, bold steps, and muscular undulations of hips, shoulders, and heads—hints at the games and struggles embedded in the original scenario. People yank on one another’s outstretched legs. Aaron Draper and Wendell Cooper grab each other’s heads in a prolonged combat. But the dramatic changes in the texture of this musical masterpiece don’t really allow for build unless a choreographer relates (in however innovative a way) to the story that Stravinsky and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky told back in 1913. So Leichter and his wonderfully interesting dancers come and go in Don Coleman’s changeable lighting, move fiercely or meditatively or yearningly, even join in a symbolic circle for a minute. But there’s no cumulative achievement to this “rite” that they’ve been knocking themselves out over.
These same vivid performers—Cooper, Draper, Leichter, Robinson, Lauren Basco, Mathew Heggem, and Naima Bigby Sullivan—people Leichter’s new Spanish Wells (lighting by Erik C. Bruce). And several group formations from Rite carry over into this piece. The title refers to a settlement on a little island in the Bahamas, where Spanish galleons once moored to take on water for the trip home to Europe. Leichter has chosen to interrupt the seething surf and calm seas of Claude Debussy’s La Mer with tidal outbursts by Winehouse, and to contrast terror, lust, and other powerful states with the atmosphere of a fiesta. The piece begins with Heggem kneeling, his hands wobbling and shaking—a recurring motif. The dancers—all of them in bright clothes with a flower tucked behind an ear or a lock of hair—whirl and fall as if a storm were propelling them. They crawl on hands and feet with a rhythmic hesitation, formalizing what might otherwise seem desperate. Heggem drags himself along with Bigby Sullivan on top of him. But they also break out in lush solos, snap their fingers, swing their hips, and saunter across the stage, wearing small feathered headdresses that could refer both to ancient pre-Hispanic cultures and carnival celebrants.
What Leichter has in mind remains a mystery, but what’s happening onstage is a pleasure to watch.