Black may be perennially chic, but in dance it’s the color of rigor. When drums sound in Jonathan Melville Pratt’s score for Larry Keigwin’s new Triptych at the Joyce, and seven dancers wearing black trunks with different, banded tops start vaulting on and off the stage, you know you’re not going to see warm-and-cuddly. Liz Riga’s hair, an unruly mop in the preceding Natural Selections (2004) and Love Songs (2006), is slicked back into a bun; so is Ashley Browne’s. When Brian Jones’s lighting for Kate Weare’s premiere, Lean-to, at Danspace the same week reveals Leslie Kraus staring at Adrian Clark and Douglas Gillespie—all dressed in black—alarms go off in your head, and the three haven’t even begun to move yet. The costumers—Karen Young for Triptych, Sarah Cubbage for Lean-to—knew what they were about.
One of Keigwin’s greatest gifts is for revealing the individuality of his champion dancers. He lets you see them; he allows you to love them. When Triptych begins, you’re already familiar with small, spry Ying-Ying Shiau; she’s the one who, with the help of her colleagues, runs along the back wall of the stage, about seven feet above the floor. You remember statuesque Riga in her two Love Songs duets with the somewhat smaller Julian Barnett—she clinging to his legs in the first one, in the end carrying him off. In their second duet, Barnett, no longer waggling his pelvis enticingly at her, is the needy one, and Riga is the triumphant bombshell that Nina Simone is singing about in “I Put a Spell on You.” You recall Alexander Gish loping close to the floor in the simian beginnings of Natural Selection (a terrific piece), or Nicole Wolcott clinging underneath Barnett like a baby monkey as he crawls along.
So when they perform the very formal Triptych, along with Browne, Matthew Baker, and Ryoji Sasamoto, you’re not seeing them simply as an ensemble. The choreography doesn’t focus on individuality, but the fact that you know them as individuals adds pungency to a piece that’s mainly about movement and pattern. I mentioned rigor. This is also a very fierce dance—fierce and precise, like a martial arts display. To Pratt’s muscular, dramatic score, in fine lighting by James F. Ingalls, Keigwin lays out contrapuntal designs rife with flying jumps, tipped-over spins in arabesque, and other maneuvers that hint at ballet moves. But the dancers’ arms slash and windmill straight from the shoulder or angle sharply; curves are hard to come by. And—except for moments like one in the calmer second part when Gish, Baker, and Riga put their palms out as if checking for rain, and Shiau and Sasamoto recline like odalisques—the performers attack the steps like warriors or people who got up on the wrong side of the bed and are challenging the day tight-lipped.
I admire the fact that Keigwin is always setting new challenges for himself and bringing them off through skill and imagination. He can be entertaining without sacrificing scrupulousness, and his tastes are far-ranging. The electrifying Triptych may be the most severe work he has made to date, and he follows it at the Joyce with his wonderful Bolero NYC (co-choreographed with Wolcott), in which his company is joined by a horde of 50 people of all ages and sizes, wearing mostly red and clothes. Yet Bolero, too, is ingeniously engineered. It builds in complexity and excitement as Ravel’s famous repetitive piece rages to its finish, and the choreographers find ways to highlight every performer: the wild-child dancers; the plump flirt ringed by interested men; the woman walking her little dog; the two gay guys who find each other and kiss exuberantly; the baby left alone onstage for several seconds; the genial biker; the woman who pops up from a sudden cluster of people, swanning in a feather boa we haven’t noticed before (but see later on the very tall man who has stripped to trunks and a necktie). All the worried, the hurried, the preoccupied, the crazed come and go, meet and part, form groups, and parade across the stage on a quickly unrolled red carpet like the stars they are. In the end, they all whip out cell phones, and in the sudden darkness wave their little blue screens at us. We wave ours back. Hey, New Yorkers, who needs fireflies?
Weare’s black-clad trio, Lean-to, explores some of the same violently passionate human intersections that fueled her 2008 quartet, Bridge of Sighs (which followed the new piece on the Danspace program). Nothing in Lean-to is quite as quizzically ferocious as the sparring between Kraus and Gillespie that begins Bridge of Sighs; at one point, in that close duet of slapping and kicking and twisting (a beyond-decorum allusion to the tangos that Weare loves), Gillespie pats Kraus’s lifted forearm so rapidly that his hand becomes a blur. But, as in the earlier work, the images in Lean-to tell of dependency and collaboration, of desire and sudden rage. Its title conveys not just a shed attached to a house, but the act of leaning. An immense curved white sail by Kurt Perschke tilts—looms—over the space, as if a perpetual wind were pushing it. While Kraus watches from afar, Gillespie and Clark—close to the structure and shoulder to shoulder—side-step, make a half-turn, and stop; side-step, return to place, and stop. They do this several times, until they seem almost to be rocking between two extremes.
Michael Galante’s score, played live by members of his Argento Chamber Ensemble, begins very quietly. One of the two percussionists (Matt Ward and Alexander Lipowski) lightly strikes what sound like small brass bells, while the other rubs the head of his kettledrum. You can imagine a ship’s signals and the dying-away cry of sea birds. The score is full of silence, just as the movement is pitted with pauses. Kraus approaches the two men and quietly, carefully, lifts her knee toward the groin of the nearest one and waits.
The ensuing movements come like plotted eruptions. The dancers lean together, tilt, brace themselves against one another, and slant forward until they must either run or fall. At one point Kraus races toward the men, and in a flash she’s sandwiched between and above them, vertical and scanning the horizon. Their black clothes as they fly into their perilous encounters may make you think of ravens or storm clouds, but they are definitely three humans, and the storms that heat them up until they’re gleaming with sweat come from within, made incendiary by the friction of body on body. This is eroticism in its primal, devouring purity—challenging, at times ambiguous, and infinitely complex. There are no playful moments like the hip-swinging, side-by-side duet performed by Kraus and Jennifer Nugent in the last part of the beautiful Bridge of Sighs (which I first saw and wrote about when it premiered at Jacob’s Pillow last August).
The choreography for Lean-to, like that of Bridge, is full of surprises. I can hardly fathom how Clark grabs Gillespie by the neck and swings him to the floor; I see the sweep of the motion and the subsequent pause, when Clark presses his hands against his supine comrade’s chest and leans his weight on it. Lighting designer Jones sometimes makes the “sail” luminous or lays a net of blurry lines across the floor. Lights on the floor diagonally opposite the sculpture beam out harshly. The percussionists are joined by the composer on piano, Erin Lesser on flute, Andrew Kozar on trumpet, and Carol McGonnell on clarinet. There are crashes and rumblings and blowing through a dry horn, as well as repetitive passages in which one or the other of the wind players tongues her instrument rapidly until it sounds like water over pebbles. The music is more a matter of weather and nature than of melody and harmony.
Never do you think these three people are unaware of what they do or utterly thrown off-balance by it. They may not always expect the results of their impulses, but they calculate the risks and hurl themselves into their many complicated connections the way Olympians run into their pole vaults. Once these marvelous dancers have begun a daring move, though, they forge ahead—melting into its implications and possible transformations. They don’t act out emotional involvement; they simply remain alert to one another, engaged in the heat of their actions. Kraus is amazing—demon and angel—challenging both Clark and Gillespie. But in the end, the men are leaning together on a slant, and she’s on the floor, embracing the legs of. . . which one? The lights go out as if a storm had short-circuited the electricity.
Weare gets under the skin of movement with almost surgical exactness, inflames it, and then makes it glow with a strange, yet familiar light. No one else is making work quite like hers.