Theater archives

Dana Reitz, Jennifer Tipton, and Sara Rudner Light Up a World; Douglas Dunn Hosts a Curious Salon


In the early 1990s, Dana Reitz, Sara Rudner, and lighting designer Jennifer Tipton created a piece they called Necessary Weather. Reitz had been fascinated by the effects of light and had collaborated with Tipton before on her solos, but for that project, the Kitchen gave them four weeks of rehearsal in the theater. Reitz and Rudner had worked together briefly in the 1970s—when Rudner was dancing for Twyla Tharp, and Reitz was a member of Tharp’s Farm Group. Necessary Weather premiered in 1994 as one of those events that you stash in the folds of your brain, hoping to remember it always.

To see it revived in this more troubled year lifts the spirits. Tipton’s genius is well known in theater and opera, as well as in dance. Rudner and Reitz, both of whom are currently on college faculties—Rudner at Sarah Lawrence, Reitz at Bennington—perform with undiminished beauty. The piece begins with the two sitting onstage in the Baryshnikov Center’s new Jerome Robbins Theater, looking at the cyclorama with its subtly gold lower part fading upward into gray. When Reitz finally stands, she shifts her gaze upward and softly draws an arc with her right arm. It’s as if she’s pressing a volume of air the way you might draw a curtain aside.

There is no music, no sound but the women’s footfalls and an occasional cough from a spectator. In this wonderfully poetic piece, light is the weather, the climate, the world. The two gather it in, sense it on their skin, bask in it, and stare into the darkness where it is not. They touch only three times, but they’re always aware of each other, whether they’re in unison or improvising separate explorations. In one magical sequence, Reitz enters, almost silhouetted against the backdrop, carrying a disk-shaped object (you only realize it’s a straw hat when she puts it briefly on her head). But when she carries it, inverted, to the center of the stage, a bright pinpoint of light from overhead turns it into a luminous golden bowl, and she and Rudner face each other across it, both holding it, and talking animatedly in tones too low to hear.

Reitz has never, since I began watching her perform, been one for kicking her legs high or taking to the air. Tall, slim, and both delicate and strong, she often treads in place, weaving sinuous patterns with body and her fluid arms and hands, shaking something off, rolling invisible particles between her finger tips. Quiet as she is, she can build a repeating pattern into a lashing storm or suddenly lunge out to carve more territory.

Rudner, like Reitz, listens to the air and responds to the ways in which light changes how her body feels. But she’s sensual in an earthier way. In their unison passages, she opens herself to the light—basks in it, expands into space. But sometimes she takes off, her hips and shoulder mobile, frisking a little; at one point, she explodes into an unexpected frenzy of motion, as if the lights felt like tiny, tickling creatures. For both of these extraordinary performers, dancing has the rhythms of thought and of feelings, gleaned from the space we’re all in together and the climate Tipton has created.

That climate changes in amazing ways. So carefully focused are the lights that at times the performers appear embedded in total blackness, until they step into a ray and become golden or rosy, or tinged with green. Sometimes a large lamp, very high in one upstage corner, casts a diagonal beam on whoever is in its path. A dim circle that appears in the middle of the space becomes a pool to be entered or circumscribed. Four smaller circles also reveal themselves intermittently, and Reitz and Rudner test them out before settling on one or the other. Once, while Reitz is dancing, Tipton colors her red; Rudner is apart, in dimmer light. The tiny circle that illuminated the hat alights on Reitz’s forearm as she lies supine, and she moves her face into it before it goes out. Another time the lights on the cyc flicker on and off in a slow rhythm, unsettling our vision of the two travelers. Like the dancers, Tipton is capable of mischief; suddenly the whole stage glares white, and in the two seconds before this yields to something more reasonable, we can hear the women’s “Ouch!” and the like, and glimpse them grabbing their heads and staggering.

I think of these remarkable artists as night fishers, trolling under extraterrestrial moons—reinvestigating old strategies, trying new ones. They sleep, rest, look around them, rise, and—listening to the currents—cast over and over their gleaming nets of dancing. What beauty!


I’ve only taken a few sips of the wine available when you get off the elevator, and I’m seeing a guy whose head is embedded in a huge die (cardboard studded with cotton-ball numbers). Several people try on a mask made of enmeshed colored wires. Is that the beak of a large stuffed bird head sticking out of a woman’s hat?

It’s not the booze. These creatures—over a dozen of them—are the imaginative performers participating in one of the “salons” that choreographer Douglas Dunn presents in his Soho loft (not all of them devoted to dance). While we drink and chat, they wander around, trying on items from a table, taking time to preen, maybe, or converse, or snuggle up to someone else. We might also ponder the printed program, which lists certain events but not, it turns out, what happens before, between, and after them.

The short evening’s entertainment boasts a title, Buridan’s Ass, in reference to an ancient paradox mocking moral determinism—one of those issues that philosophers like Buridan used to debate over a pint. A donkey is placed midway between a pile of hay and a tub of water; unable to decide between the two, he’ll just stand there until he dies of both hunger and thirst (empirical evidence involving a knowledge of equine behavior isn’t, apparently, a consideration). Dunn mentioned in his flyer that he is placing his lightest dancing opposite his roughest, but whatever his thinking, he’s not starving or dehydrating us with his art.

Our host welcomes us (so to speak) by strolling around encased in a cardboard carton studded with egg cartons and such and singing a mournful ditty that begins “I want to die, I don’t know why.” Each verse ends with “Oh dear” and a second, softer “Oh dear.” Buridan’s clueless ass might well bray such a lament. Then the rumpus of dancing begins.

In 1993, one-time Paul Taylor dancer Renee Wadleigh commissioned a solo from Dunn. On this program Kira Blazek and Paul Singh perform Empty Reel as an ink-blot duet. Set to a Scottish reel, it shows all that Dunn can create in the way of bright footwork and little prances, offset by expansive, wheeling turns and jumps. But, as is usual with him, nothing looks generic; steps are canted in unexpected ways, bent when you expect straightness, varied in rhythms and space patterns, and executed with matter-of-fact diligence.

The next item on the printed program is Widget, a solo Dunn made for Christine Elmo to perform on her graduation concert program at SUNY-Purchase in 2005. She revisits it now for us. The piece is set to music by Brian Eno, but, although it’s quieter than Empty Reel, it has a similar generous physicality and precise oddities (Dunn at his wildest is not one of those choreographers addicted to a soft, free-flowing, bound-and-rebound dynamic). Elmo brings a fine specific focus to the space around her and how her limbs fit into it, whether she’s skittering or propelling herself on all fours.

Before we get to Widget, however, a crew of talented performers saunters into the territory. Their wide-legged, bent-kneed stride vaguely recalls those cowpokes in out-West ballets like Agnes De Mille’s Rodeo. Do I hear growls? After some push-and-pull, half of them lie in a twitching heap, and their opponents hoist them with a hand beneath the neck and walk them, feet-first, wheelbarrow-style, into position for some brief slo-mo duets on the floor.

Fierce forays like this surround and blur into programmed items, such as a duet—originally a solo—excerpted from Don’t Cry Now (to Brenton Wood’s “The Oogum Boogum Song”). Dunn made it in 1990 for students at the University of Montana, and Jules Bakshi (female) and Tony Bordonaro perform it at this salon. And when four women have finished—or maybe not finished—dancing Three Songs, to music by Asteria, four colleagues pick them up and lug them away, frozen in poses.

The program’s featured spots point up Dunn’s ongoing work as a teacher. The strong women of Three Songs—Raquel Cavalcanti, Jee Yun Hong, Maira Duarte Quiroga, and Adelheid B. Strelick—are (or have been) pursuing MA degrees in New York University’s Dance Education program (Dunn is on the faculty). They’re not kids, but already professional dancer-choreographers, and Dunn’s choreography acknowledges their mature sensibilities and accomplishments. In their passages together and their brief solos, he shows us their individual abilities to shade movement and make quirky steps look natural.

Like Merce Cunningham, in whose company he danced for a number of years, Dunn keeps our eyes busy. Unison is a sometime thing; there are often several activities going on at once or impinging on one another. Dancers not featured in the program items—Robbie Cook, Emily Pope-Blackman, Jin Ju Song-Begin, Jake Szczypek, and Dani Vialpando the night I attended—barge in, sail around, and unite with the others and among themselves in various ingenious ways. More than once, they and their confrères stomp around like amiable cavemen.

So the evening is quite like a salon of yore, what with the wine and the informality abetted by the limited seating. The choreographic atmosphere is one of witty conversations erupting now here, now there; of people wandering over to join one group, then being attracted to another; of casual flirtations and spontaneously emerging group games. All this performed with alert, sober, inquisitiveness.

A clever, fleetingly droll trio for Dunn, Grazia Della, and Liz Filbrun, Il Pleut Sur La Route, to tenor Tino Rossi’s mellifluous voice, ends the evening. Or not. We spectators form our own small clusters, chat up performers, maybe go for another sip of wine. Dunn has spoken in the past about downtown dance in the days when more choreographers were able to live and show work in Soho lofts. News of informal performances might arrive by word of mouth, and you paid what you could, or just walked in. In the pricey, glitzy decade we’ve just entered, when the financial gap between the poor and the rich has widened to a preposterous degree, what Dunn is so ingeniously presenting in his home-studio evokes something of those fine old days.