Theater archives

Rebecca Stenn, Ben Munisteri, and Nancy Bannon Play Fresh Games


Choreographers can get weary of trawling for ideas and following hallowed processes. When that happens, some tackle more ambitious projects; others challenge themselves with unfamiliar approaches. Rebecca Stenn and Ben Munisteri formed their own companies in the mid 1990s—she after dancing with Momix, he an alumnus of Doug Elkins’s group. Both have been successful, and there’s no reason to believe that either is tired of being the sole choreographer of a company. However, for the program “Chopped and Screwed,” they decided to entertain and stimulate themselves by riffing off each other’s and their own choreography. Here’s the deal: Each composes a short dance; each then presents a remix of the other’s work, followed by a new version of his or her own original.

They set rules. No adding new material to the remixes. No transferring movement designed for arms to the feet. On the Joyce’s blog, they also maintain that they’re not making variations on the original, but I think they slightly misconstrue the term variation, as it’s used in music, when they say that it “implies maintaining the original’s original sequence.” Like many composers, they re-order sequences, retrograde them, change the tempo and dynamics. Nor, as far as I could determine, are they obligated to use everything in the original.

You see the process most clearly when a particularly vivid move or spatial pattern recurs only subtly altered in space and time. Munisteri ends his “theme”—the “Arabica” section from his 2002 Muse of Fire—with an informal, clumped-together lineup facing the audience. In his Arabica 3.0, the same dancers (Christine McMillan, Eric Sean Fogel, Katie Weir, and Heather N. Seagraves) assume the same pose but facing left on the left edge of the stage. In Munisteri’s Mirah #2, he re-introduces a run-around from Stenn’s Mirah. Less obvious reiterations may involve a single gesture, even a twitch.

The choreographers’ own styles shine through their remixes. Stenn’s work tends to be a bit earthier, while Munisteri blends ballet steps and other light, quick footwork with freer, looser stuff. He also likes legible structures. His energetic, percussive Mirah #2 (set to music by Jay Weissman, rather than to the songs by Mirah and Spectratone International that accompany Stenn’s Mirah and Mirah #3) often sets movements chasing one another in clear canons. Stenn has chosen to re-mix Munisteri’s Arabica as a duet for McMillan and Fogel that avoids the rapid spins and jumps of Munisteri’s original (or slows jumps down so they can’t leave the floor) and gives prominence to embraces and leanings together of the two.

Both three-part pieces are attractive and well-made. Additional variety is provided by changes of music (Munisteri, a very musical choreographer, sets his Arabica 3.0 to an edited version of the Andante of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto; Weissman adds live cello to his sound design for Stenn’s Arabica 2.0 duet). The costume changes also affect how we perceive the same movements. Designer Eric Jackson Bradley (also one of Stenn’s dancers) dresses Stenn, Faith Pilger, Trebien Pollard, John-Mario Sevilla, and himself in svelte gray outfits for Mirah #2 and in dresses and other casual attire for Mirah #3.

The performers are all accomplished, although I’m surprised that Stenn and her dancers maintain such a neutral demeanor, especially the women (Pilger keeps her gaze down or inward much of the time). The choreography presents them as a tight ensemble, but they refuse to play that up. McMillan’s alert presence in Arabica not only cements relationships; it helps focus the choreography.

The most recent version of Nancy Bannon’s The Pod Project doesn’t so much challenge our definitions of dance as ignore them. Once a notable performer in choreography by Doug Varone, Tere O’Connor, and others, Bannon has veered toward a compelling mix of theater and installation, with, yes, a little dancing thrown in. The large, dark space at DNA has become a maze of tall cylinders, maybe six feet in diameter, made of translucent plastic. Each contains a little scene, three minutes in length. Thirteen “rooms,” 13 spectators at any given show, 13 guides to take us around.

There’s an intriguing, low-profile kind of choreography that’s crucial to the performance. The black-clad assistants literally guide us, and in between the chime that signals the end of one “visit” and the beginning of the next, they walk us to our next appointment by putting their hands on our shoulders. As we traverse circuitous paths, we pass other pairs—the guides attentive, the spectators almost zombie-like. Even people I know avoid my eyes. In this strangely unnerving dance, we look like inmates of some extra-terrestrial initiation center, being given our daily outing.

The anonymity and sameness of these recurring processions contrast remarkably with the pungency of what we experience when the chime sounds and our guide pulls aside a curtain and gently pushes us into a pod (or to a position to gaze into it via a window). Bannon has scripted and directed these scenes brilliantly, and for maximum contrast. We spend three minutes in a dank space under a pod with a motionless, slumbering homeless person (Zach Blane), his face concealed by his hoodie, while in the bathroom pod above, a naked woman (Xan Burley) sobs ceaselessly. Wherever you are in your journey, you hear her weeping, just as you hear Stephanie Liapis exclaim “ouch” several times when something goes wrong with her contact lens.

Some characters are silent, like Toni Melaas (Netta Yerushalmy in some performances), who whips her body around inches from her visitor, or A. Apostol, who—in The Pod Project’s spookiest scene—sits at the bottom of a dimly lit well and slowly turns to gaze up at you, revealing that she’s nursing what looks like a white cat (stuffed but moving slightly as it sucks). Others are very talkative. Bob Moss—wearing a dressing gown and surrounded by books—invites me to sit down in his cozy den, while he slyly disses the other performers as inexperienced, compared with those in the glory days of theater; at the same time, he sagely commends Bannon and advises me to keep an open mind. Tricia Nelson (dressed like Heidi, blond pigtails and all) bustles in after I’ve seated myself at a restaurant table and rattles off the menu specials (improbably long German words). No, she’s not going to offer me water; she’s going to play a lovely melody on the rims of the trayful of glasses.

Some performers address each visitor as a friend, a confidant, although our ability to interact with them is circumscribed. Marc Kenison—absurdly jolly for a human caterpillar immobilized in a striped chrysalis—speaks of his interest in playing squash, maybe with his dentist, and tearfully, over-defensively denies that he’s gay (in case I might be thinking that he is). He quickly acknowledges a remark of mine, but doesn’t deviate from his text. When Jennifer Gillespie, in 19th-century attire, takes me to her very humble domain, I sit down on the camp cot with her, while she speaks movingly of her hopeless love for a man who’s attracted to her prettier sister. I shake my head when she says she’s plain, and listen with sympathy to her Chekhovian tale. I touch her shoulder, but I don’t speak. I say “of course,” though, when Risa Steinberg (black dress, heels, pearls) asks me if I’ll dance with her. And it’s impossible not to speak to Liapis, when she’s very close to me in a red-rope line, trying on a series of wigs for my approval, appearing crazier by the second. “Ouch!” she says, and I’m gone. Three minutes, and another’s life awaits me.