Near the beginning of The Good Dance—Dakar/Brooklyn, Reggie Wilson of the Fist & Heel Performance Group gives us a little background on this collaboration between him and Andréya Ouamba, the founder-director of the Dakar-based Compagnie 1er Temps. The two men met back in 2002 when Wilson was in Senegal on a Guggenheim Fellowship, and gradually The Good Dance emerged. Walking carefully, balancing a plastic water bottle on his head, Wilson makes many trails toward us, as he edges toward the opposite side of the stage. The water, he tells us, alludes in part to two rivers—the Mississippi and the Congo—that were part of the choreographers’ heritages (a battalion of bottles sits stage left—unrecyclable human debris holding humanity’s most precious resource).
Wilson also notes that he’s a formalist, dedicated to structure and enthralled with repetition, while Ouamba and his dancers feel most comfortable improvising. No kidding! If I hadn’t known that from the outset, I’d have figured it out soon enough. As The Good Dance begins to the sound of drums in Franklin Boukaka’s “Boukaka Louzolo,” Anna D. Schön, a tiny ball of fire who dances big, lays out a theme—hunkering down, thrusting out a hip, wheeling one arm as if she were cranking up a giant engine, kicking out with a flexed foot, jumping with her legs splaying apart. Off to one side, Rhetta Aleong (also of Fist & Heel), does more or less the same steps, but softly, and watching Schön closely, like a teacher with a gifted prodigy (Aleong, amply built, good-humoredly indicates the jump with a flip of her hand).
Lined up shoulder to shoulder at the back, Ouamba, Fatou Cisse, Marcel Gbeffa, Michel Kouakou, and Paul Hamilton watch too, or stare impassively ahead. Now the music is a traditional Atege-Gabon song by villagers in Odjoumba. After Schön has wound down, tall Gbeffa and Hamilton take over the phrase, walking in a semi-circle, eyeing us, before each repetition. Then the remaining three take it on. Several times during the evening, dancers will show us variegated repeats and canonic sequences—all the patterned tasks that Wilson likes a lot. The rest of the time, structured improvisation rules.
Take the bottles. When Wilson talks, Cisse of Compagnie 1er Temps scuttles across the stage, her arms so loaded with bottles that she has to bend double. Once on the opposite side, she arranges them in rows and runs back for more. The bottles occasion power plays; when Cisse thinks she’ll put Wilson’s bottle on her head, he knocks it off. Many times. So she kicks and topples all the bottles she’s collected, scattering them all over the stage. Now it’s playtime, and gangly Cisse is wonderful to watch as she canters and scampers about, before rebuilding the bottle lineup.
Later vignettes fit neatly—almost seamlessly—into the collaborative whole, yet have an unscripted look. While Aretha Franklin’s recorded voice unspools a long, throbbing skein of gospel, Wilson manipulates small, tough Kouakou into desired moves and positions, while Aleong does something similar with Cisse. Hamilton and Schön play a not-so-funny game that involves shoving each other around.
Near the end, Jonathan Belcher’s fine lighting changes from a bright, clear white to show us a black stage with two lamps at the rear shining toward the audience. Caught in the glow that they cast on the floor, sometimes just outside its boundaries, Ouamba dances. He seems in a private limbo; even the 18 enigmatic objects (maybe video monitors?) that Belcher has hung at the back cease showing a grainy texture or a pink glow. Ouamba is bare-chested now, wearing a long drape of fabric, rather than one of Naoko Nagata’s subtle re-imaginings of humble contemporary garb in a West African town. His dancing is a thing of beauty. To a heavy beat, he propels himself close to the floor like a hunting cat, plops suddenly down, crouches to press his head against the floor. The sweet voice of Sister Rosetta Tharpe sings out “Precious Memories,” the stage brightens, and Ouamba, seated facing us, several times stretches one long arm to one side, his hand elegantly casual, and follows the gesture with his eyes. That arm seems to go on forever, making a statement that cleaves the air and travels to distant spaces. Wilson enters and joins Ouamba’s pattern, but he doesn’t own it.
The two choreographers and their dancers have done something unusual. In fitting together their common interests, their similarities, and their differences, they’ve created a coherent piece that wears its structural integrity lightly. The pace is relaxed, the atmosphere low-keyed; the games and disputes dissipate without rancor. The Good Dance’s title is a play on the Bible’s occasional sobriquet, “the good Book.” Wilson and Ouamba have made a more than good dance and offer a far kindlier cross-cultural message to bring this decade to a close.
Tamar Rogoff doesn’t direct a dance company. She calls her enterprise Tamar Rogoff Performance Projects, and every “project” of hers that I’ve seen has been a revelation of some kind. She thinks deeply about movement and what it tells us about the human condition. She’s been working on Diagnosis of a Faun for almost a year, and it’s an astonishing achievement on a number of levels. The piece developed gradually, after she saw Gregg Mozgala play Romeo in a production of Shakespeare’s play by Theater Breaking Through Barriers. She and Mozgala, who has spastic cerebral palsy, began to work together on what might have been a short solo; instead, he inspired her to cast him as a faun—an alert woodland voluptuary like the hero of Vaslav Nijinsky’s 1912 L’Après-midi d’un Faune—and make him the central figure in a moving, often witty surreal drama.
In it, the Faun represents the rules-free, hedonistic child of nature that crouches within most of us, and in three duets, he brings that out in a ballet dancer (Lucie Baker); Dr. A., a noted orthopedic surgeon (Donald Kollisch, an actual doctor); and Dr. B., his younger colleague (Emily Pope-Blackman). But the Faun is also, briefly, a patient (Dr B. plans an operation to stretch his Achilles tendon). So is the ballerina, who tears her Achilles tendon right in front of us, while performing a sylphide’s jetés battus and pas de chats in full costume—tutu, pointe shoes, wings. And one of the most dreamlike thing about the piece is the way the text and action and characters move fluidly between designer Robert Eggers’s lightly misted birch grove—with rocks and a high grassy ledge that allude to the 1912 ballet—and the “hospital” that comes into prominence when the performers draw a white curtain to hide the woodland scene.
We get a lot of medical information. Drs. A. and B. spell each other at a lectern during what purport to be three sessions of a professional conference on the Achilles tendon. A major collaborator during the piece’s development was Dr. Philip Bauman, orthopedic surgeon for both the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater, and Kollisch and Pope-Blackman discourse knowledgably, their speech dense with anatomical, surgical, and pathological terms I don’t know how to spell. However, when they return to the lectern after their respective encounters with Mozgala, their official behavior has, shall we say, “modified.”
The opening solo for the Faun is superb. Sitting, kneeling, or reclining, Mozgala stretches his arms and lithe, muscular torso up from his grass-covered perch. As he twists and arches, he caresses himself and the surrounding air and throws back his head in primal delight. He peers over the edge to watch the sylph perform to music by Sibelius. It’s while flirting with him and getting a bit wild that she falls and calls for the music to stop. The Faun utters the first a several animal cries: “Maaaaaa!”
In the first hospital scene, while Dr. A. addresses us (his supposed colleagues, and students) about her injury, Baker sits on the floor and removes her pointe shoes, little wings, and tutu, dons hospital garb, and gets into a wheelchair. However, in an interesting twist of reality, she stands and beautifully executes some ballet exercises holding onto the wheelchair, while he struggles to grasp her leg when he can in order to show just how debilitating her injury is.
In discussing the Faun’s case, Dr. B. mentions the difficulty of operating on a patient who’s approximately 5,000 years old, doesn’t speak, and will have to be shaved from waist to, um, hoof. She also attempts to demonstrate his problem while he mischievously and determinedly evades her grasping hands and finally runs back to the woods.
Putting together Diagnosis of a Faun, a profound learning experience for Mozgala and Rogoff, involved a slow process of re-patterning the lack of certain connections between his brain and his lower body and legs, and diffusing their instinct to tense up. Mozgala’s modified disability results in a fascinating characterization. His knees and feet turn in; sometimes he scampers on tiptoe; at other times he runs with big lurching steps or pants his feet in big lunging stamps. My kind of faun.
Almost the second Dr. B. enters the glade, in search of her vanished patient, she starts to turn into a faunette—planting her feet wide apart, bending her knees, and slowly rippling her back the way he does, with a kind of muscular urgency she doesn’t fully understand. One high-heeled shoe comes off, then the other. Before long, Faun and surgeon are engaged in an extremely erotic duet, in which desire and restraint (hers) battle desire and anger.
The surgery on the sylph is even more dreamlike in its curiosities. While Dr. A. describes the operating room procedure, a gurney is wheeled back and forth across the stage, each time revealing the other three superb performers in different positions on the gurney, or pushing it, while the nurse (Pope-Blackman) asks increasingly odd admitting-room questions of both doctor and patient. The actual operation is embodied by the slow, graceful stroking and twisting of Kollisch’s hands in the air near the patient’s foot, seen through a very large standing magnifying glass; a similar glass shows us Baker’s slumbering face. After the operation is completed, a white cloth is stretched in front of the table; Dr. A. slits it with the first surgical knife we’ve seen, and out leaps the ballerina in full costume! A miracle of science to be sure.
There are four more duets. Kollisch is a small compact man with curly gray hair and a substantial mustache, but as Dr. A., he stands in for the Prince in the Adagio of the pas de deux from Sleeping Beauty (to the Tchaikovsky music, of course). He’s not a dancer, but his timing and support of the lovely Baker are admirable (she rewards him with an occasional “good”). Then he has an encounter with the Faun, which he enjoys very much—laughing and prancing and holding up his fingers to mimic the horns that sprout from Mozgala’s forehead. The duet between Baker and Pope-Blackman is an imaginative take on physical therapy. The latter uses crutches to support and enhance her partner’s movement sand wields them briefly herself to imitate the Faun’s horns and the sylph’s wings. The trail she lays on the floor with them leads the recovering dancer to the Faun’s lair.
Before the fourth duet is over, the evening is beginning to seem long, but this encounter is full of lovely images. Baker is less a nymph for the Faun to seduce (although they do embrace and nuzzle each other on the ledge) than an interested fellow-dancer. She watches him, intrigued, and copies his moves. Side by side, they walk pigeon-toed, but she intrigues him too, and he stretches her leg into a lavish arabesque.
As Diagnosis of a Faun is winding down, Rogoff alludes again to Nijinsky’s ballet. While Baker relaxes on the ground, Mozgala brings a bark basket of rose petals and scatters them over her. When she rises, he lowers himself onto her flowery simulacrum in orgasmic delight. She leaves quietly. I can’t remember exactly when Dr. A. entered and reclined on the floor, his back against a rock, but he’s there when the Faun climbs back up to his resting place and lies down in the same pose. Dr. B., now in pointe shoes, bourrées smoothly across the stage and disappears. A recorded voice we’ve heard before says, “Paging Dr. B.!” And in an instant, Kollisch and Mozgala sit up and stare toward us, their identical poses stirring a memory of a Nijinsky photo. They look as if they’ve been awakened from a dream. As have we.