Proximity and distance, intimacy and formality face off in Donna Uchizono’s new longing two and—furtively, seductively—swim together into enigma. It’s been too long since this choreographer has presented work in New York (the last pieces of hers I saw—one of them a trio for Mikhail Baryshnikov, Hristoula Harakas, and Jody Melnick—opened Bard’s Summerscape Festival in 2006).
longing two teases our perceptions, especially as it relates to its territory. For the first half, BAC’s Howard Gilman Performance Space is divided by two long, four-foot-high walls of white paper with an aisle between them. Spectators sit in rows just outside one wall or the other. From my chair, I can see only the faces—if that—of the other half of the audience and hastily dismiss the image of a shooting gallery. Coincidentally (or not), a person in authority scans us and calls out, “Lois, are you here?” Whatever the answer, it frees up two front-row seats beside me. Encouraged to move forward, two spectators ask if those are better seats. On her way out, the original questioner replies, “Better is a relative term.” Somehow that little scene sets up the performance for me. Do we see something close to us better than we discern something far away? And what if the thing that’s close is partly occluded?
When Anna Carapetyan and Savina Theodorou dance along the narrow corridor between the two “walls,” I could reach out and touch whichever one is closest. Yet, I only see them from the waist up, unless they lie down and kick upward, as they do later in the piece—in which case we’re treated to a knotty, tumbling dance of legs and feet that beats any aquacade you’re likely to see. The two travel mostly in inkblot symmetry, and in the beginning, their gently rippling, sweeping arm movements seem at home in the surf sounds that initially ebb and flow in James Lo’s wonderfully evocative score. Meanwhile, down the middle of the aisle, Harakas and Uchizono, wearing complicatedly draped white clothes, thread a slow journey between the more active two. When they get to the opposite end—where lighting designer Joe Levasseur has installed a bank of vertical fluorescent tubes—they disappear.
Back and forth Carapetyan and Theodorou go, their torsos wheeling and arching and ducking briefly out of sight, as the demanding movement gradually builds in intensity. Cries of gulls, snatches of music, and a deep female voice speaking poetry in a Scandinavian tongue drift in. Other lighting instruments pick up the sparse trails of sequins on the dancer’s white leotards (costumes by Wendy Winters, set design by Ronnie Gensler). This is a very white place.
These two dancers presume upon our closeness while withholding contact. Their gaze often acknowledges us in passing. They whisper, “I have something to tell you,” but don’t reveal it. They sidestep close to the walls, each bearing a white pitcher, and ask us if we’d like some water. No matter what our response, they move sweetly on.
The withheld-water idea is reprised in a more informal way in each of the two buses that carry the audience from West 37th street to the Kitchen on West 19th Street, where the second part of longing two takes place. We’re handed paper cups upon exiting BAC, and while the bus I’m in makes its way to the Kitchen, Levi Gonzalez stands in the aisle and drinks from a gallon jug of water. We clutch our cups; no one asks him for some. Would he give it to us if we did?
At the Kitchen, the neon tubes are now a small thicket of inverted u-shapes in a far corner, and a wide horizontal swath of wrinkled white fabric hangs above the performing area, slanting slightly downward. Although Carpetyan and Theodorou gallop through in fleeting appearances or, later, reprise steps in the light-grove at the back, this part of longing two focuses on Uchizono and Harakas. Now we’re in a conventionally arranged black box theater, and most spectators are at some distance from the performers. Yet the choreography invites us to view them more intimately, to ponder them. For one thing, these women begin as if becalmed. Uchizono reclines on the floor, leaning back on her elbows, and contemplates the space above her; meanwhile, Harakas advances incrementally by stepping into canted balances on one leg, moving extremely slowly and with a plushy ease that belies her almost miraculous control. I can notice the gaps between the toes of her lifted foot widen and close again. On the floor, Uchizono raises both her legs and probes the air with even more agile toes; her feet converse.
The mysteries deepen. The voices of a crowd and traffic noises surface amid increasingly loud rumbling and creaking in James Lo’s score; underneath them, a bass note so low it makes the seats vibrate slides in. Big overhead lamps brighten the space without warming it. When Uchizono slowly and stiffly comes forward to confront us, reeling slightly, she performs an uncanny monologue of subtly twisting body parts and shifting gaze. She pulls her chin in, shakes her fists, stamps suddenly. She might be channeling her own grandmother.
Sometimes the two women move side by side, bodies slightly askew, feet sliding along the floor, eyes contemplating us. Sometimes they’re a bit nutty, bumping into each other. But they also nestle together, and Uchizono (making terrible faces) leans backward over Harakas, who walks her upstage. In the end, Harakas again travels away from us, repeating her slow balances, but this time, she’s holding Uchizono’s head in her hands; Uchizono, bent low, travels along in baby steps. That’s how their voyage ends.
longing two is the kind of enigma that doesn’t really tantalize you to decipher it. Perhaps because it resonates with glimpses of things that—at some deep, disquieting level—you think you understand.
Christopher Williams (choreographer, dancer, puppeteer) reads a lot—plunging into a heady mélange of myth and folklore, wallowing in languages, and then trying to organize into dances the trove that he has surfaced with. Of the three works of his that I’ve seen, two, Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins and The Golden Legend, are a series of entrancing solo vignettes, and The Portuguese Suite is, well, a suite. But his new Hen’s Teeth, I believe, is trying to convey a story. So too, on a more modest scale, is the work-in-progress, Gobbledegook, that opened his Dance New Amsterdam program. But this postmodern polymath has apparently skipped Narrative 101, which mitigates the delights to be found in these works. A fabulist needs surer grounding.
Talk about enigmas! The title Gobbledegook may refer to the gibberish (or severely manipulated language) in David Griffin’s sound score, which, at one point, makes me imagine a conversation among Donald Duck, a child, and a basso profundo. What you hear is strangely at odds with what you see. The initial vision is of a naked young man (Adam H. Weinert), his slim, pale body gleaming whitely in Amanda K. Ringger’s lighting. He’s floored, ungainly—thrashing desperately against a black panel. A despairing wraith that William Blake might have painted.
Another man (Eikazu Nakamura), wearing a long black skirt ingeniously trimmed in red (by Carol Binion), stands with his back to us, gradually sidestepping toward Weinert. The lights change, which must mean something. Weinert yells, Nakamura grabs him. Everything goes dark.
Williams credits his performers as choreographic collaborators, and Nakamura’s solo draws on what appears to be the latter’s background in martial arts and/or Kabuki. Nakamura is remarkable, and by his shifting gaze, his sudden freezes, and his lunging, crouching, vaulting steps, he conveys an atmosphere in which possibly malign forces lurk. Griffin supports this with calamitous sounds. Nakamura re-appears after a blackout and dances in a straw sheath, which he lays out on the floor. The solo seems to go on for a very long time, and you almost forget that pale, flailing ghost. Surely we should keep him in mind somehow, if this is supposed to embody, at least in part, an “imaginary version” of a Buddhist ritual to ease “the suffering of the wandering dead” (although the press material says this, the program offers no explanation). Finally Nakamura calls, jumps, and snaps his fingers six times, and Weinert appears and stands over him in what seems like a very out-of-character semi-balletic attitude that detracts somewhat from the poetic ending in which Nakamura backs up, carrying Weinert cradled in his arms.
Hen’s Teeth has a more complicated story to tell. And Williams is fortunate to have it accompanied by Gregory Spears’s splendid score, played live by an ensemble of 10. This Requiem Mass unconventionally blends portions of the Latin text with that of a non-liturgical one in Middle French about the song of a dying swan (a metaphor for the lover), plus a couple of fragments in Breton. At times the jangling together of singing voices, violin, harp, recorder, chimes, and electric organ is magical, like feathers stroking the back of your neck.
Feathers are a big item. Six women with small, erratically placed wings (costumes by Andy Jordan) slowly balance on one leg in various ways in dappled light. Here’s one of Williams’s quite entrancing images: Bit by bit, the women bear their breasts by pulling at one another’s skimpy, raggy vests with their teeth (downer: They have to make a quick exit to discard the clothes). When Weinert enters in folklore-ballet attire (red tights, full-sleeved white blouse, blue vest, and nice little boots), his face registers an understandably elated “Look what I encountered in the forest!”
This is no Swan Lake, however teasing the references appear. The young man has to stop his ears when the bird-women start wailing and warbling, but in one pleasing sequence (which, again, goes on a little too long), they fly him and the one he likes best (Storme Sundberg), wheeling them through a playful courtship around, over, and beneath each other. But suddenly the singers embark on the “Agnus Dei,” after which the music begins to jolt, and the stage to seethe with comings and goings and falls.
One woman (Jennifer Lafferty) is still prone when three gnome-like crones appear, growling and yelling. Wearing tattered gray clothes, their bald heads fringed with woolly gray locks and bushy beards covering their mouths, they act like scavengers, a bit giddy at times, despite their long, scary, blue-tipped fingernails. They seem frightened when Lafferty stretches up her arms and struggles to her feet. I later learn that they represent the three Graeae of Greek myth (luckily Williams didn’t try to show us that they shared a single eye and a single tooth; erudition has its limits). I’m at sea, though, as to what they’re doing here and how they relate to the “Kyrie” (its words thoughtfully translated in the program); “Eternal rest grant them, O Lord. . .” (Wait a minute. What or who is being laid to rest now? Our fantasies?)
Catholicism rears up in another guise too. The youthful traveler returns, and so do the three witches. They don’t frighten him. But now they sport molded armor. One has just an arm covered, another her chest; the third wears a head-covering dress with eyeholes. But there are little doors in the armor that our hero can open. So do we think of reliquaries containing the remains of saints? Whatever they are or mean or are meant to mean, the man lies down and reaches up as the lights dim.
Myths inbreed and cross oceans and enter religions by stealth. Like Williams, many of us are intoxicated by this process and its ramifications. But there has to be a way to put the lore into a theatrical form that slips into our hearts and minds and doesn’t rely on juxtaposing startling and thrilling images in utterly baffling ways.