Neil Greenberg has a way of tangoing with meaning; he pulls it close, stares at it, and spins it away—never quite losing control. As a former member of Merce Cunningham’s company, he wants, like the late master, to let movement tell its own story, but—knowing audiences’ tendencies to read human drama into dancing—he teases our perceptions and flirts with narrative accomplices.
His new (like a vase) doesn’t use film or video to forge and query relationships the way others of his pieces have done, and the spate of text we hear is deliciously oblique. However, the setting challenges us from the outset: “I dare you to interpret me.” With the aid of Jmy Leary and Michael Stiller, Greenberg has created an austere, oddly enticing arena within Dance Theater Workshop’s black-box theater. Four large Doric columns form a square in the middle of a white floor. While Johnni Durango strides and runs backward around the space on her long, slim legs, Greenberg makes several trips on- and offstage, each time placing a glossy, black ceramic vase in front of each pillar. No one is exactly like the others.
You might be tempted to call what ensues a duet, except that he and Durango never touch, stay far apart, do mostly different steps, and pay no attention to each other. While they move intriguingly and quite beautifully, with a kind of nervous, scouting energy, (like a vase) throws down another challenge to our built-in lust for interpretation. Coming to us via an ancient recording (now out on CD) is the voice of celebrated monologist Ruth Draper (1884-1956) reciting her early “A Class in Greek Poise.” Assuming a cozy, encouraging, Midwestern accent, she instructs four overweight female clients in poise as a form of “rhythmic harmony,” urging them to look at classical Greek in order to learn that “our bodies are the homes of our souls.”
In addition to being very funny, the monologue goads me into thinking “Greek”—vases, pillars, poise. And to apply “poise” and the notion of embodied souls to the dancers. I note, too, that black Greek vases usually have red nymphs and satyrs chasing one another around them, and that maybe Greenberg and Durango are escapees from those endless circles. At which point, I say to myself, “YOU STOP THAT!!” And then, even more silently, “Greenberg, you clever bastard, you hooked me,” knowing that making me query context might be one of his ploys
Just then, Draper’s voice fades out, and composer Zeena Parkins goes to her place at the harp, keyboards, and various electronic devices upstage, and Shayna Dunkelman positions herself at the percussion equipment. (Preshish Moments handles the drum programming, live processing, and other electronic effects from the back of the house.) By now, Paige Martin and Mina Nishimura are also onstage, Stiller is beginning to create lighting effects, and I can go back to thinking about the movement.
A photo of Greenberg that appears on the cover of his press kit says something about his style. He’s wearing a sort of bulky white gym suit and standing on one sturdy leg with his other leg crooked up behind him, both knees close together. This narrow base is topped by his more abandoned upper body. Greenberg has twisted to float one arm behind him, while the other, elbow and wrist bent, ends in a dainty splay of fingers; his head is thrown back and to the side. As I write this, the word “bacchante” slides into my head, and I suppress it to note that gender is a topic that often crops up in Greenberg’s recent work (Really Queer Dance with Harps and Quartet with Three Gay Men are two obvious examples).
Greenberg’s process for making (like a vase) involved videotaping himself and some of the other dancers improvising alone, then learning that movement and incorporating some of it into the piece. That process, I think, has helped foster the image of individuals pursuing their separate paths without much relation to one another. At times, when working in separate areas of space, the dancers—in plain tops and gorgeous, variously patterned tights by James Kidd—assume an object-like quality that allies them with the vases. The movement is both elegant and awkward, subject to odd quirks (a flapping hand in opposition to striding legs, etc.) but always controlled. Sometimes the dancers gallop about the space; sometimes they pose thoughtfully. A bit of folkdance heel-and-toe surfaces and vanishes. Martin and Colin Stilwell face each other (a rare occurrence), hopping and punching the air.
The overall dynamic seems to vary little, despite the variations within sequences of movement. Moments when a move by one person echoes that by another, or a fragment of canon or unison occurs, help hold your attention. Still it’s possible to drift off, even during an absorbing quartet for Stilwell, Martin, Nishimura, and Luke Miller that allows your eyes to roam around and take in their distinct personas—to compare, say, Miller’s soft, long-legged reach and dreamy air with Stilwell’s taut alertness to possible changes.
Parkins’s music provides a vivid aural climate that ranges from sampled, heroic orchestral music to the thud of a bass drum to ferocious electronic howl to a lovely (if increasingly frenetic) passage for harp and percussion. Occasionally a performer blows into a mic for a second, and that whoosh creeps into the music.
I love watching these six dancers—enjoying their precision, their approaches to wildness, and the calm with which they embrace dissonance. Yet, as I go about tangling and untangling them from passing thoughts about vases and Greek ideals of poise, they continue about their business—both bound together and strangely unmoored. I have an urge that I immediately suppress: I want to call out: “Look at one another!”
It’s possible to admire a dance more than you enjoy watching it, and vice versa. When Molissa Fenley first began to show her choreography in the 1970s, I admired her power, her athleticism, and her stoicism in pursuing extreme repetition. I’d see a dance of hers, impressed by the patterns that her non-stop traveling steps were making in space and by her fluid muscularity—imagining a new Olympic category that didn’t involve sway-backed posing and triumphantly upflung arms. But I seldom felt a craving to see that dance again.
Over the years, as she gradually enlarged her vocabulary and attempted new challenges without abandoning her essential minimalism, I found myself struck by the beauty of some of her productions and moved by the image of heroism and integrity she could project. One small, strong woman dancing alone to Stravinsky’s entire Rite of Spring? Mindblowing.
In recent years, Fenley, now in her mid-fifties, has been both inviting others to perform her solos and making pieces for small numbers of women. For her new The Prop Dances, which premiered at the Joyce Soho, she commissioned objects that can be held from visual artists, agreeing to use whatever they came up with, and chose fairly spare and evocative music by contemporary composers to accompany the five sections. Each small dance is set off by David Moodey’s fine lighting and by a variety of simple, elegantly cut costumes by Jill St. Coeur.
Inevitably some props elicit and enlarge dancing, while others focus your attention on the objects themselves and the efforts of the dancers to work with them in meaningful ways. The most satisfying section is the first one, “Pieces of Land.” To music by Jason Hoopes, dancers Katie McGreevy, Cassie Mey, and Fenley wield largish paddles by Jene Highstein that have molded-semi-cutouts with long, dark-red fingernails into which their hands fit. As the women interweave around the Joyce Soho’s intimate white space—springing, turning, flinging a leg up, sometimes pursuing their own patterns, sometimes in unison—the objects look both like extensions of their arms and like kites on a breezy day. I’m also aware of how three-dimensionally Fenley presents the dancers; you see each move from all angles, as if the women were statues being turned on pedestals (except that they never stand still).
The three large, flat objects that Roy Fowler devised for the third section, “Planes in the Air,” aren’t connected to the dancers; the big white creations that remind me of skates’ wings must grasped in one hand These are certainly beautiful and can make the performers appear to be cooling themselves with mammoth fans or sailing on a billowy sea. But your attention falls more on the designs that can be formed than on how the dancers are moving to Jean Jeanrenaud’s music. On the other hand, in the solo, “Mass Balance,” Fenley and the reflective, 10-foot white pole by Todd Richmond seem to have embarked on a serious voyage together to Cenk Ergun’s music, amid a light pattern of poles strewn on the floor. Fenley isn’t just making designs, she’s trying to hold the disturbances caused by climate change in equilibrium, and she endows every move she and her “instrument” make with impressive power.
Merrill Wagner’s three small sculptures embedded with upstanding feathers for “94 Feathers” are intriguing, but fragile. All the performers can do is hold them out or up in various ways, lie beside them, or fit them against their reclining bodies, although the style of the objects does inspire some small hopping steps that evoke Indian dances of the American southwest. And the white Styrofoam panels with a hole or two and curved notches that Keith Sonnier created for “Prop Dance #5”—along with two large plastic tarps bearing a subtle design on one of their sides, plus a kind of wire half-cage—would tax any choreographer’s imagination. It’s rousing when the dancers whip the tarps against the howl of Lainie Fefferman’s Tongue of Thorns for Dither’s four electric guitars. But you feel the choreographic wheels grinding, as dancers stick their limbs through the stock-like panels’ holes or rest their necks in a notch.
At Joyce Soho, Fenley performed the first section of her 1995 solo suite, Regions: Chair, Ocean Walk, Mesa and featured her impressive colleagues in the other parts. Tall, slim, and handsomely garbed in Jeffrey Wirsing’s garnet tube tops and tight velvet pants, Mey is a real Fenley protégée, with seven years experience in the style. She uses her lean, muscled back the way Fenley uses hers—not only arching and bending it, but making you feel it power those swinging, lashing arms. McGreevy is every bit as strong, but softer and plushier in the spacious steps and distant gaze of Mesa.
The program was a long one (with pauses for costume changes between sections). Some of it I’d gladly see again.