Dance is a space-hungry art. The movement forms shapes and lays out patterns; it needs room to show them. The concept of place often goes beyond the actual walls and floor of a theater to suggest an imagined site as specific as a castle ballroom, as porous as the chambers of a mind.
In new works by Jeremy Nelson and Luis Lara Malvacías, Julian Barnett, and Ivy Baldwin, the performance space becomes confining, almost claustrophobic—an arena in which people dispute and grapple with themselves, one another, and the surrounding environment. Once having entered it, they rarely, if ever, leave.
Nelson and Lara Malvacías have been partners in life and art for years now. Both choreograph and perform; the latter provides striking designs. Sooner Than You Think, the last event in the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Festival, centers on the separations they endure in the course of their busy careers. They’re all too familiar with lonely hotel rooms, meetings in foreign airports, phone calls between hours-apart time zones. In Sooner, two very large folding screens designed by Lara Malvacías pen the men in and keep them apart. Set at angles with their plain wood sides out, the screens become walls, between and around which the two men dart, never meeting, never seeing each other even when close. They appear and disappear, always in a rush. Nelson is more pent-up, delineating the space with precise gestures or slicing through it. Lara Malvacías is more volatile, banging his head over and over against the edge of a panel or performing a fascinatingly dramatic and temperamental monologue in gibberish. Ivo Bol’s score underlays their travels with quiet throbbings, rumblings, and other muted sounds that mate suggestively with projected videos of landscapes seen from a fast train (by Lara Malvacías and David Tirosh). Occasionally, there are loud explosions.
Eight performers act as stagehands and features of the landscape, like trees or impassive pedestrians. They race in and plant books and other objects on the shelves on the screens’ wooden sides, and as quickly remove them. For the choreographers, no place is home for long. The assistants turn the screens inside out to reveal “rooms”—half with faux Spanish tiles, half with a subtler green pattern—in whose corners the two men huddle. The screens get pulled around by ropes, separated into panels, laid on their sides and joined to form a pen.
Oddly, the rich, variegated movement—usually one of the joys of Nelson’s choreography—is the least expressive aspect of Sooner Than You Think. The tale of separation and longing emerges most vividly through the ingenious shifting décor and the rhythmic changes that frustration induces in lovers who can’t always be together.
Julian Barnett is a terrific dancer—small and powerful, nimble, unpredictable; he can melt one moment and explode the next. You may remember him in works by Larry Keigwin and Johannes Wieland. He began choreographing seriously in 2003, and his Sound Memory reveals that he has smart, original concepts and the talent to see them through. Even though about halfway through the 50-minute piece the choreography starts grinding its wheels, it swiftly regains traction and charges ahead.
The theme of Sound Memory is explained by its title (if I hear, say, Sting letting loose with “I’ll Be Watching You,” I’m suddenly 20 years younger and in a car heading north). In Barnett’s work, music triggers action and behavior along with recollection. Hanna Kivioja and Justin Ternullo begin seated among the spectators ranged around four sides of the church. Like iPod junkies on the subway, they’re tethered to their private music, but Barnett is channeling an earlier decade. When they rise from their chairs and move into the area that Amanda K. Ringger has ingeniously framed in a strip of light, the headphone cords stretching out behind them end in boomboxes. Once unhooked, Kivioja and Ternullo try moving together—rarely touching or touching in awkwardly connected ways. Perhaps they’re discovering how their separate musical tastes might match.
In the blackout that ends their duet, we hear rattling noises, and a slim, green pencil of light along the floor reveals on onslaught of hurled audio cassettes. There could be 50 of them. When Barnett enters, he’s got a boom box too. For the remainder of the dance, the three spend a lot of time crawling around, examining cassettes, stuffing them into the machines, punching buttons, and watching one another warily. But they also dance alone or simultaneously—wildly and wonderfully—as if the jumble of music that we hear were trying to sort itself out in their bodies. The blond, Finnish-born Kivioja looks like a picture-book farm girl, but when she starts lunging deeply, she displays a boldly sensual extravagance. Ternullo’s limbs pull him in all directions at once, and strange coordinations are one of Barnett’s specialties.
Most of the music must be determined by chance (although at some point you realize that sound designer Stephan Moore is playing an active role). When Kivioja begins a solo, Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata sneaks in, then Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon” takes over. One-upmanship also intrudes. Barnett walks away with Ternullo’s boom box, and its owner follows him, as if still leashed to it. When the two men tussle, Kivioja pursues them around the room, spinning a boom box on the floor like a top until its music smears.
Whatever these three are doing in this surreal musical memory bank, they’ve come here with the intent to do it. And they achieve a certain consensus by absorbing one another’s steps. In the end, they hook their boom boxes to three decorative hanging wires (stage design by Solomon Weisbard), set them swinging in the dimming light, and leave the space.
It’s hard to believe that Ivy Baldwin has been choreographing for ten years; she formed a small company the same year she collected her MFA from NYU-Tisch (yes, I knew her when). Since then, she’s become a bright feature of the “downtown” scene in New York and shown her work at festivals abroad. She strikes me as a hunter-gatherer sort of choreographer—foraging for one thing, finding another, and mixing them together in weird, mysterious, and compelling ways until they have only misty affinities with their natural states. The title of her new Bear Crown comes from the name of a beer that she and her colleagues drank during a residency in Romania. That was an Olympic year. Being in Romania quickened her awareness of its dark past and more hopeful future. There is no beer drinking in Bear Crown, but there are hints of crowns and royalty (sports stars and the dynastic sort), athleticism, competitions, animal behavior, a repressive society, and splintering team spirit.
Bear Crown happens in a strangely barren place. The area between DTW’s dark-gray brick walls is transformed by Chlöe Z[[STET NO PERIOD ON INITIAL]]] Brown’s elegant lighting into zones of warmth, chill, or interrogation-room brightness. The only object onstage is a semicircular tier of three steep, broad steps, designed by Mendel Rabinovitch. Glowing like copper, it makes you think of a platform for a throne and the dais where Olympian champions stand to receive their medals. Baldwin makes sure we get an impression of grandeur right away. I can’t recall seeing a purple velvet curtain at DTW before or listening to a lengthy overture. Justin Jones’s music (at this point and throughout the dance) loops mangled sounds of human fervor, explosions, rumbles of traffic, and what could be a host of pealing bells. The program credits additional music to Bonnie Tyler and Tchaikovsky, so maybe Jones sampled the “1812 Overture.”
Mindy Nelson introduces a walk that becomes a motif. Holding her slightly bent arms out to the sides, her fingers curled into loose fists, she takes two steps, and then slams one foot behind and across the other. This is a triumphal march that could easily trip her up. Nelson, Baldwin, Anna Carapetyan, Lawrence Cassella, and Katie Workum stand and churn their bodies around, shoving the air with those same semi-fists. But intermittently, one or another will pause and clench her hands until they shake—sometimes mimicking body-builder stances, sometimes not.
Baldwin, with the collaboration of her performers, shapes the work provocatively. Often actions start out one way and become something else. Shielding one’s eyes, or caressing one’s face with hands like animal paws, morph into a sparring match. Whimsy acquires a sharp edge as the chorusing women chat with Cassella, all of them reclining like cats. “My, what lovely bear rug you’ve got there! Did you get it at the bear rug store?” he inquires in honeyed tones. They return the question. The very funny sequence builds into a duet in which Baldwin and Cassella, at first standing close enough to kiss, argue about which of them loves the other one more, getting increasingly far apart as they wrangle.
The piece is not all gestural. The performers race around. They leap. They hop heavily along intricate paths. Nor is everything deceptively sweet. Workum and Cassella struggle to force Nelson’s striving arms down; it’s hard to tell whether they’re restraining her or enabling her. After Carapetyan has performed an exhausting solo, Workum hurls her against the walls, the proscenium, the aisles. Following each punishment, Workum looks at the others, who’re standing in a rank. Taking their impassivity for orders, she hauls Carapetyan to her feet and continues. The shadow of former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu hovers over the space. Yet in the end, the dancers, clustered, kneel on one knee and open their arms and chest to a downpour of light. Whatever events this hall-of-mirrors arena hosts, winning trophies is not in the cards.