Once upon a time, Eliot Feld made beautiful, expressive ballets. Then he became fascinated by repetition, paring down his movement vocabulary to suit. He carried this element over into equipment pieces—dancers pitting themselves against stairs, ramps, ropes, and more—shedding and re-forming companies as he went.
His recent Mandance Project is something of a misnomer. Although one of his two Joyce programs features Horse, a Taiwanese male trio directed by Wu-Kang Chen, and two of the three solos on the other program are performed by Chen, the evening’s other star is a woman, Ha-Chi Yu. And in Feld’s The Spaghetti Ballet, Yu and Wei-Chia Su (male) are joined by Heather Lang and Mary Randolph, as well as by three forceful little girls from Ballet Tech’s training ground, the New York City public school of which Feld is the founder and artistic director.
One new solo, Dust, comes close to being an installation. In a vast roofed, black-mesh room, Chen wanders numbly amid myriad scraps of newspaper. When the 36 black industrial fans flanking the enclosure move into high speed, the papers shoot up and fall in a constant storm cycle. They fill the room, stick to his head, wrap his ankles. John Luther Adams’s music is full of sirens and pounding drums. There’s not much for Chen to do but stand his ground, run, skid, fall, and curl up. The symbolism is potent (waste, pollution, etc.) and the stage picture striking, but the work keeps going at the same level, and Chen’s feelings play no role. The 2004 Proverb is a similar blend of action and stasis: The wonderful Chen really dances in it, but the emphasis is on the two lights embedded in his gloves and the mesmerizing, blurry choreography that his shadows perform on the backdrop.
The gorgeous Yu, a graduate of Ballet Tech’s school, brings an enthralling sensuousness to Feld’s new Radiance, set to the virtuosic hammered dulcimer music by Laraaji (his Ambient 3: Day of Radiance, produced by Brian Eno). The solo echoes earlier ones Feld made for Buffy Miller: A woman, wearing a handsome, if distractingly draped costume (this one by Loie Delft), traces a path around the stage—repeating steps and gestures, filtering in new ones, rarely stopping. This piece of Feld’s does grow and change, not just in terms of the choreography but through Yu’s rapt dancing—the way she arches her body under the shafts of light with which designer Tyler Micoleau maps out her journey, the way her long hair swings out as she turns back and forth, the sensitivity of her arms as they gather and press away the air.
Feld’s sense of humor can be delicious, but at times he gets cute or throws good taste out the window, as in The Spaghetti Ballet, Feld’s jokey, catch-as-catch-can parody of a spaghetti western, set to movie music by Ennio Morricone. Even if the guy wearing prison stripes is played by a woman (Lang) and survives execution, electric-chair spasms in strobe lights aren’t funny. And there’s not much point to Yu (as a blind girl) feeling up Lang’s crotch, if she doesn’t register that something is missing (at this point, Lang has morphed from a leggy blonde showgirl with a horse’s tail into a pot-bellied guy). One highlight of this caper is the ensemble—the three very small “Mexicans” (Cristina Chen, Julia Jacobson, Xenia Nelson), who wear translucent sombreros that cover them down to the shoulders and do their feisty or sneaky steps in perfect unison. It’s also enjoyable to watch starving Yu dive into the immense pot of pasta that Su has been preparing (with difficulty) and disappear. And it’s inevitable that Feld would create a duet for Yu and Lang, in which Lang pushes a wheeled, jail-cell door around while Yu desperately climbs its flexible bars (ingenious set pieces by Mimi Lien).
Maybe Feld believes that since many westerns strain credibility, he doesn’t need plot logic. The lights go up on a giant figure in a long black coat and black hat silhouetted against the sky. It’s Yu, and she pretty quickly reveals that the rest of her attire is stilts, boots, white undies, and a black garter belt. She’s also packing. Feld falls in love with some of his images, running the old in-and-out-the-doors gag into the ground. Stagehands manipulate scenery, the four adult dancers change costumes and roles on the run, and Lang comments on the bad horse joke she tells. Fine, but is there a story buried here? Could Feld afford to get Woody Allen as a dramaturg?
An opening night bonus: Ballet Tech students of all ages and sizes going through their classroom paces in a cleverly choreographed demonstration.