At several moments in Andrea Miller’s terrifying new Wonderland, you almost expect the 12 members of her Gallim Dance to raise their fists in a victory salute. And the performers in Camille A. Brown & Dancers, sharing Joyce programs with Gallim, all but do so. In very different ways, these two choreographers grapple with power.
Miller—influenced by Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s installation, Head On, with its prowling, flying wolf packs—explores the phenomenon of the herd and its dangerous cousin, the mob. The four men who begin the piece stamping in the dark establish the language of Wonderland. They keep low to the ground, their legs spraddled and bent, except when they jump and double up in the air. They roll, dive, and crawl, their hips and torsos swinging oddly when they walk. Jose Solis has dressed all 12 in various fierce, trim dark-gray outfits.
Who are they? The horses suggested by the initial sound of galloping hooves? Cave dwellers not averse to cannibalism? Reader, they are us. They strut, high-kick, prance, and pose with fearsomely exaggerated grins. They imitate emerging leaders, choose “stars,” devise rituals, and struggle. Seven different sound-music sources and dramatically changing lighting by Vincent Vigilante chart these creatures’ repeated attempts to fall in step or join the game—whatever it is.
The only flaw in this astonishing piece is that Wonderland‘s escalating cycles of unquestioned ambition seem to go on for a long time; several times, you feel the piece might end. But Miller is brilliant at creating a charged, variegated space and tasks that strike you in the gut: the crawling herd that gradually turns into a pyramid as the followers clamber onto the leaders, then collapses; the lone man who catches—or doesn’t—those who hurl themselves at him; the men who rush, one by one, to replace a previous fallen victim (even as the others dance doggedly among them).
The performers attack the killer movement with devastating power, all refinement eroded by the lemming mentality. Solos emerge from the fray (those for Troy Ogilvie, Arika Yamada, and Francesca Romo are only some of the remarkable ones). Showing weakness is not allowed. In what may be the most gripping moment in Wonderland, Paula Alonso pushes up into a backbend and tries to walk in that stance, collapsing into crippling contortions but soldiering on. No one copies her.
Camille A. Brown has had—is having—a busy career as a performer (notably with Ronald K. Brown for six years), a choreographer (for the Ailey company, Urban Bush Women, et al.), and a company director. Her movement, with its subtle allusions to African dance styles, punches the air while easing on down the road; there’s a swing and a bounce to her choreography, but the dancers’ gestures seem to say (maybe teasingly), “Keep away” or “Watch who you’re dealing with.”
Her Joyce premiere, City of Rain, to an original score by Jonathan Melville Pratt, strikes me as a step forward in her development. Whereas an excerpt from the 2006 New Second Line displays a flow of people doing impressive, gut-busting stuff almost entirely in unison, City of Rain perks up the stage. The 10 terrific performers, wearing Carolyn Meckha Cherry’s trim-fitting brown outfits with pale blue yokes and sleeves, move from unison into counterpoint—even three-part counterpoint. They briefly leave the nimble business of the day and jump back in. Occasionally, stillness vies with motion: David Norsworthy, Keon Thoulouis, and DuJuan Smart Jr. dance while everyone else lies down for a while. Two guys grapple. Two women sashay away. In other words, your eyes are kept busy, and that’s exciting.
As her solo, Good and Grown, reveals to the Joyce audience, Brown herself is a vibrant performer—believable whether she’s walking in a squat or standing balanced on one leg and unfurling the other with a beautifully pointed foot. She’s a mistress of the melting gesture that’s betrayed by a storm of little staccato ones. This childhood-to-womanhood solo begins and ends with her bent over in a lunge, but one foot, poised on half-toe, subtly suggests imperfect stability.
Although Brown is always aware (sometimes too aware) of the audience, when she squares off with Juel D. Lane in a smart turn based on a familiar cliché of black urban life, she makes us feel like neighbors looking out their windows at this respectable couple (she in white with pearls, he with a jacket and slouch hat). The two have impeccable comedic timing, as they squabble, get rough, dance amiably but with sidelong glances, and let the crazy drumming of Nancy Wilson and the New York Allstars exacerbate their domestic non-bliss and deep-down affection.