It’s become a ritual for many dance lovers. Labor Day has come and gone; you’ve arrived back in the city from summer jobs and summer vacations, or your apartment is still sweltering and why should that be? If you love downtown dance, you have one appealing option. You can get yourself to Dance Theater Workshop and see some of the 40 choreographers and companies presented by DanceNow strewn over four performances of its Festival Twenty Ten. Highly visible up-and-comers mingle with fresh faces and established dancemakers who wouldn’t mind a little extra exposure.
Co-founder, co-producer, and executive artistic director Robin Staff and her colleagues, Tamara Greenfield and Sydney Skybetter, practice tough love in putting together this 16-year-old season. Short numbers or excerpts are the rule: seven minutes or less. No bows until the end of the evening. How else could we sit and watch 10 dances without seriously challenging our concentration and our backsides? The result is a sampler of the scene. The downside is that we don’t get to know every choreographer well; the upside is that we get an idea which ones we’d like to see more of.
As you watch, you can also idly wonder if you’re spotting trends in the postmodern scene or just coincidences. Back in the 1990s and beyond, many choreographers were in love with free flow; dancers flung and lashed their arms, legs, and bodies around. They could look impetuous and voluptuous, or like rag dolls pummeled by high winds. That vision of movement persists with some very fine artists. But at DanceNow’s opening night, I became aware of how a number of the choreographers wanted you to see pictures and retain shapely images. They seemed more interested in precise, controlled movement than in fluidity. Welcome to Staccatoland.
The notion of isolated moments is integral to Deborah Lohse’s Work, since she made it by stitching together moments by 15 different choreographers she knows or has worked with. Lohse is an expert dancer and an adept comedian; gawkiness and grace mingle beguilingly in her lean, tall body (now topped by a shaved head). She makes smooth transitions, though, and is a pleasure to watch, even though the piece is structured like a string of beads.
Emerging choreographer Gregory Dolbashian’s premieres, In Flux, makes you wonder how he defines flux; certainly not as flow, more in terms of abrupt changes. To dense, repetitive music (Son Lux’s Weapons), two women (Marie Doherty and Frances Chiaverini) in trim black outfits mostly stay close together, yanking and pushing each other, making you aware of the angularity of their elbows and wrists. The smoothest—but also the most opaque—thing they do is skid (that must be why they’re wearing socks). The somewhat opaque Cloudburst by another emerging choreographer, Mana Kawamura, is full of falls and sudden moves, abetted by rhythmic crashes by Loituma, but mysterious in relation to Kawamura’s other collaborator, J.S. Bach. Cloudburst is somewhat intriguing, especially when its four women sing in determined discord or cop-opt a single chair. For no apparent reason, Kawamura, who studied in Germany with former Pina Bausch dancers, is alone at the end, thrashing and turning into obliging darkness. Camille A. Brown, reprising Good and Grown from her Joyce performance in August, is a dynamo of punchy, little moves and busy hand gestures close to the body—a contrast to the projected paintings by Justin Morris of dark, clustering faces.
Khaleah London’s precision is for the sinuous—a fusion of modern dance and Africanisms—and she presents herself to us with focused dignity. She’s one gorgeous creature. Slender and long-legged, she dances her Being in a golden overall with a halter-top that bares her sinuous arms. What with her shaved head and the glow of Lauren Parrish’s lighting, she looks like royalty from ancient Africa. The recorded voice of the late choreographer Ulysses Dove speaks about the expressive power of dance. I didn’t sense motifs or developments in London’s choreography, but, then, I was mainly just admiring her presence.
You wouldn’t call David Parker’s heavenly trio, T4Three, staccato, or even percussive, although its movement base is soft shoe and vintage show dancing. But it’s expertly controlled. Like much good comedy in dance, it looks easygoing but makes its points with needle-sharp timing. The performers—Jeffrey Kazin, Nic Petry and David Parker—are stalwarts of Parker’s Bang Group. All are adroit charmers. Parker, large and eager, plays a klutz with hidden foot skills. He and Petry like to sell the routine; Kazin nixes that. Mostly. As they dance for us to “All I Do Is Dream of You,” their little dust-ups, pauses, looks, and sudden, perfect-unison Charleston keep us on the qui vive for small surprises. When they launch into “Tea for Two,” whistling enters the mix (Kazin’s the expert), and the rhythmic ante is upped.
Control—or lack of it—in terms of structuring also figures on the program. For his Mile 21, Jamal Jackson strings the 11 members of the Berean Drum Line across the back of the stage and sends dancers rushing on and off. You get the dizzying feeling that there are more than nine of them, even though Jackson presents them mostly in threes. The performers (often focusing on one downstage corner) work the African-influenced movement with fervor, but the heavily trafficked piece—neither quite a ritual nor exactly a party—comes across as under-rehearsed.
Sydney Skybetter and Dusan Tynek are both fine craftsmen—expert at melding choreographic structure, movement, and spatial design to imply feeling and relationships. Both choose excellent music and use it well. Skybetter’s 2008 Cold House You Kept, set to Henryk Gorecki’s String Quartet No.2, was choreographed in collaboration with the other strong performers (originally seven, now four). You feel both the tenderness they have for one another and the antagonisms; it’s the latter that gradually empties the stage, one person and a time.
A quartet from Tynek’s Middlegame makes we wish I’d seen the full work back in June. Two couples—one dressed in white, one in black underwear—wrangle and switch mates mostly within the confines of four chairs set up in a square. Their ingenious behavior varies from polite and well-bred to guardedly violent, while the guitar playing of the great Carlos Paredes and Parrish’s red-lit sky heats the atmosphere to a sensuous simmer.
The evening concludes thrillingly with an excerpt from Kyle Abraham’s 2010 Live! In it, Abraham blends charisma and choreographic smarts with savvy allusions to street culture. He saunters on, commandeers a mic, and asks us, “How you feelin’?” Please note that his apparently casual outfit (by Kendell) features a shirt with a silver back and sleeves subtly sprinkled with sequins. He can speak in two different voices, draw currents from what he hears on tape (Kotchy, Pan Sonic, Mariah Carey, plus rap artists Slick Rick and Dougie Fresh), and turn his body into a personal and cultural reverie. He performs his big, juicy, get-down dancing, sudden little jerks, rippling arms, mobile neck movements, and strutting steps like a thinking man. And when have you ever seen someone lope into an easy-does-it version of a ballet assemble, then drop down for a circle of floor-bound barrel turns?
A bit of cooler, autumn-appropriate weather hit New York the weekend of 9/11. That means that I didn’t see the final performance of Noémie Lafrance’s Melt in its full-summer mode. The program for this site-specific installation shows a close-up photo of a dancer’s shining lower face and neck, with a thick liquid dripping in strings from her chin. To achieve its full effect, Melt requires dog days.
That effect is still pretty stunning. Melt is minimalist compared to Lafrance’s 2001 Descent, which had audience and performers moving around a tall spiral staircase in the clock tower of a city building; Noir (2004), whose spectators watched a gangster drama from seats in cars parked in a municipal garage; and Agora (2005), which filled the dry McCarren Park Pool with neighborhood-appropriate activity. Instead, it confronts the audience with a single, startling, subtly changing tableau.
To get there, you walk way east on Pike Street until it becomes Pike Slip (water once flowed in here) and walk through a fence gate that leads you under the Manhattan Bridge to where massive piles of salt used for winter road work are stored. If you’re lucky, you get a low beach chair that enables you to lean back. Otherwise, you stand or crouch (Melt is only a bit more than 30 minutes long) to confront, at quite close range, a high, blotched concrete wall.
At different levels along the wall, seven women sit suspended on metal ladderback chairs. They wear seatbelts, but these are concealed under cheesecloth costumes that bare the women’s legs, but release long swags of fabric to hang down on either side. The garments have been soaked in a mixture of lanolin and beeswax, and the dancers’ faces and limbs gleam with it. So, although it’s a seasonable 8:30 p.m. and—even with Thomas Dunn’s lighting design bathing the performers in various dramatic ways—they do not drip, the image of women melting is still beautiful and troubling. Add to that the intermitting clatter of subway trains passing overhead, the soft roar of Erin McGonigle’s sound score, and the twin beams of light from the World Trade Center memorial event fighting a misty sky, and you have a potent spectacle.
The women have a small repertory of actions, which they may perform in concert, or at different times, or alone. They lean slightly forward, staring past the audience. They bend to the side and feel the wall with their hands. They loll, seem to fall asleep, and suddenly jerk upright. They thrash their legs. They reach out and gather in air. Things like that—all carefully orchestrated, but, I sense, with options that the performers can choose among. In Melt, a little seems like a lot.
From the dancers’ slow, rapt maneuvering, all sorts of images seep into your mind. Sometimes you see them as prisoners, legendary Andromedas resigned to the coming of the sea monster. Or maybe the wall is their native habitat, and they’re sirens luring Odysseus onto the rocks. I imagine that, on a hot August night, you might see them, not as idealizations of sweating city dwellers, but as lives subjected to slow decomposition. Whatever you think, or don’t think, Lafrance’s spectacle is mesmerizing.