Theater archives

Jennifer Muller Takes a Bath and Saves the Planet


Jennifer Muller was choreographing well before she founded her company in 1974. And what a dancer she was! I still remember the opening of her 1973 Tub. She lay, her head thrown back, in a translucent, claw-foot tub; Richard Nelson’s lighting enhanced the painterly image, and when she dipped her long hair in the water and whipped it in an arc, every drop sparkled. I don’t think I’d seen anyone dance in a wet dress before. Burt Alcantara’s score incorporated ocean waves for her as she crawled on what might suddenly have become a beach.

In the revival of Tub for the 35th anniversary of Jennifer Muller/The Works, Jeff Croiter’s lighting is based on Nelson’s, Mariana Cardenas has replaced Muller in the bath, and it’s Rosie Lani Fiedelman and Susanna Bozzetti who join her for some voluptuous liquid dancing and water games. Tall Duane Gosa plays the solitary swimmer who enters to stalk the perimeter of the stage, his very long legs made even longer by the swim fins he wears. Two additional men (Gen Hashimoto and Pascal Rekoert) join the women, and Rekoert ends up in the tub with Fiedelman.

Tub revealed Muller’s talent for creating lush, sexy movement (at that time, inspired by her years as a dancer in José Limón’s company) and for intriguing ideas. Those talents, plus her generous spirit and the beautiful dancers she has always attracted, have made The Works (and her choreography for other groups) well known both in the U.S. and abroad. The company’s workshops and other teaching stints have reached numerous young people.

The piece also reveals an ongoing liability in Muller’s work. She tends to make long, drawn-out dances. It’s as if, in the half-hour Tub, she wanted to explore every aspect of water that struck her: It cleanses, it soothes, it’s used in rituals, and it can engender mopping-up and spirited games with towels. In service of that omnibus idea, she elected not to follow through on the startling beauty of the opening image.

Bench, which received its world premiere at the Joyce this season, is also long, and this time the subject is even more multifaceted and complicated. Inspired by Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Bench is the fourth piece Muller has choreographed about the environment, In it, she attempts to link the ongoing global devastation with destructive human behavior. In order to make that proposition danceable (rather than, say, having performers toss cans around and switch on power tools), Muller has defined harmful behavior via the seven deadly sins. In the program, she matches Envy with Covetous Earth, Greed with Violated Earth, Wrath with Violent Earth, and so on. And she lists which of her 12 dancers will most prominently enact each sin and the damage it causes to nature, while Kevin Harkins’s video projections trace the planet’s course from a fiery beginning to a devastated end. It’s a choreographic scheme fraught with pitfalls.

The opening of Bench makes a resonant visual statement. The performers, dressed in white clothing by Eduardo S. Wilder, sit side by side on an extremely long white bench, men and women alternating. When the men lean forward, the women lean back, and vice versa, as if to affirm an innocent, balanced state of nature. While people shift minimally in these even, opposing tides, the music (drawn from four of Jocelyn Pook’s CDs) begins with pattering percussion and a nasal voice. Various brief, simultaneous interactions—a slight turn, a gesture, a look—begin to change the architecture of the line and create crests and gaps.

Very shortly, the group fans out, and Seiko Fujita, a vibrant sprite with two-tone hair, bursts memorably into dancing. Warning: Do not look at the program and try to figure out what sin she’s committing, or if she’s committing the one she’s supposed to be particularly guilty of (Envy) now. Over the course of the work people engage in various dancerly activities at the same time, although sometimes groups of them retreat to the bench. What Muller can’t show us is how the snatches of temperament that fly between people can be affecting anything greater than their colleagues (the world, for instance). We know that greed plays a major role in the over-harvesting and over-mining of natural resources, but how is a choreographer to convey that, except in a program note?

We perceive Lust when Jen Peters gets very seductive with her hips, and the other women pull the ogling men back to their seats on the bench. Everyone begins to squirm with sexual fever. Then it’s over. Pride? Did I see that in a duet for Elizabeth Disharoon and Rekoert? When they’re joined by Fujita, Fiedelman, and Gosa, we must be experiencing Envy. At the time, I didn’t really grasp—or try to—what was so envious about their doings, but I suppose that dragging Fujita away while everyone watches could indicate covetousness. Fights mean Wrath. Disharoon hits Rekoert. He carries in Cardenas’s motionless body; Hashimoto tries to revive her while Fiedelman inches closer. She (a terrific performer) also takes a turn being dead. Abdul Latif and Bozzetti (Sloth) have a moment of collapse downstage, but nothing in this dance looks lazy.

Bench is a big shaggy dog of a piece; you watch beautiful people agonize and dance to beat the band, and occasionally fragments of meaning glint teasingly beneath the distracting, sometimes alluring surface. Pauses, upward glances, a return to the bench, green lighting, and the music’s “Kyrie” constitute the final “Lost Earth—A Prayer for Renewal.” I hope that the god it’s addressed to can interpret this nobly intentioned message better than I can.

The program closes with Muller’s 2005 Momentum. I regret that—because of another commitment and an initial misunderstanding as to the length of the program (over two hours counting two intermissions and a late start)—I had to leave before it ended. It’s one of Muller’s propulsive, happy pieces. People in bright clothing bring a rhythmatized, busy-streets energy to their comings and goings, their show-off moments, and their jazzy encounters—all set to music by Yello. “Appropriate for ages 8 and up” says the press release. Nothing wrong with that. No puzzles here, just very fine dancing.