A guy lurches back from the cash bar, carrying overflowing plastic glasses of beer for himself and his buddies. A woman is asked to please go sit somewhere else because her bench is needed. Some people sit on the floor. A few congregate around small tables. There’s plenty of music, some provided by a DJ. A mirror ball hangs overhead, along with some red Chinese lanterns. A host/entertainer enters in outlandish garb—carrot wig, pock-marked half-mask, lit-up rings on his fingers, and high-heeled boots. He gives one woman a neck massage, greets friends, and does some precarious and daring dancing. What kind of party is this?
You’re unlikely to guess the answer. This is no party—not exactly anyway. For some time now, choreographers Bill Young and Colleen Thomas, partners in life and dance, have been putting on performances in their loft at 100 Grand Street. To open this year’s 92 Street Y Harkness Dance Festival (which continues through March 20), they brought the atmosphere of their home to the venerable 92nd Street YM-YWHA’s Buttenweiser Hall. The effect is a kind of palimpsest. The mirror ball and lanterns are suspended from an elaborately painted ceiling with chandeliers. A live-feed video is projected on the shade of one of the room’s large windows; a memorial plaque above a doorway shows through the film that’s aimed at the door. Only one performer occupies the small stage intended for lectures. The seating in this spacious room (used daily as a dance studio) is irregular, and spectators are invited to move around.
Young and Thomas have done a lot of touring abroad, and, in the process, have forged alliances and collaborations with choreographers in Europe and South America. In addition to their own pieces, the performance titled LITup features pieces by New Yorkers Nancy Bannon, Levi Gonzalez, and Pedro Osorio, and one by Alexey Taran, who lives and works mostly in Venezuela.
Not everything on the program easily—if at all—qualifies as dance. Bannon, who has appeared with Young/Thomas, Tere O’Connor, and Doug Varone, is now primarily interested in writing and directing theater pieces. The beer mentioned above is heavily featured in A Man of Wealth and Taste; it’s one of many rounds for three guys, who—with the aid of performers from an earlier piece on the program and master lighting designers Jonathan Belcher and David Ferri—turn an angled tier of chairs into courtside seats. There the buddies channel their frat-house days with a vengeance. In over-the-top performances, Chad Hoeppner, Robert Eli Thompson, and Joe Varca spray more testosterone than beer foam, yelling for their team and blustering and guffawing and insulting anyone who looks askance. All that we learn about them is that one (Varca) has a wife and baby and that the loudest one (Thompson) has just lost his job, but this last fact isn’t dwelt on; in this brief sketch, the men are presented as caricatures—as repellant as they are amusing.
Taran’s Asesinos Por Una Noche is enigmatic, to say the least—especially if you haven’t read the Cuban play it’s based on: José Triana’s politically loaded La noche de los asesinos, with its tale of three siblings who murdered their parents. A man (Taran), jittering and wrenching his body around, screams out “I killed them!” to the sole character in a projected film. Looking exhausted and uncomfortable, this second man (Carlos Ortiz) in a junk-filled storage room urges him to be quiet. But Ortiz is wearing a dress; he, Taran, and Carla Forte (the director of the film), who wriggles and jerks beside Taran, must represent the play’s two parricidal two sisters and a brother. Forte and Taran keep their backs to the audience the whole time. The movie and the connection between the live and the filmed are fascinating, but the piece remains inscrutable: a shock of fury and dread seemingly coming out of nowhere.
Thomas’s Damsel, a solo for Keith Johnson, is also mysterious, but it begins with a wonderful image and ends with a provocative one: Johnson—wearing a loose white shirt and black pants—walks carefully along the edge of the stage on tiptoe, as if treading a high wire. In the end, he has picked up the object we’ve been wondering about all along. It turns out to be a large tangled pile of white rope; he holds it up, then collapses beneath it. The dancing Johnson does in between these two visions to music by Mio Morales (with Pink Martini) suggests a performance (a follow spot picks him out), as well as juddering anxiety. The uncertain taped voice singing “Que Sera, Sera” hints at gender ambiguities, as does the title of the work, but I’m still trying to figure out what Thomas is driving at.
If that solo is allusive and illustrative of something beyond itself, Gonzalez takes the opposite tack. The room has been filled with furniture: a leather sofa, two stools, a chair on wheels, coffee tables. I think Gonzalez emptied his living room for this one-time-only solo, Performance Experiment With Furniture. At first, the piece seems ho-hum pedestrian: He introduces us to every item by sitting or standing on it. But then things start getting very interesting. In what he announces as “Furniture Pass 1,” he tries to move from one object to another without ever touching his feet to the floor (we gasp and groan along). In “Furniture Pass 2,” he can step down, but that only prompts more daring maneuvers. He talks to us several times very fast, his words either barely audible or very loud; I think the first were “I want you to remember this.” Ironically, I can’t catch most of what he said, but his journey stays with me.
Young has been quoted as saying, “I’m trying to make a dance where people don’t notice I’m making a dance.” Does that mean he’s tired of the usual practice of choreographing and presenting his work in a more traditional format? If so, that’s too bad, because I’ve loved his dances. And if he wants us to get to know his performers as individuals through the way they do what they do, his new Tensing, which opened LITup, isn’t the piece that’s going to do it. Its score, by Georgios Kontos, can make you believe that disaster, in the form of a gigantic train, is roaring and rumbling closer and closer. Nine performers move spasmodically—their condition intensified by Belcher’s imaginatively placed lights, which flicker on and off and cast long shadows. One of the lighting instruments swings around on its support to dizzying effect. In this doomy landscape, people never touch one another, yet all react to the same stimulus, either in unison or in two contrapuntal squads. They wriggle their fingers up their bodies until they can grasp their throats; they shudder as if the floor were delivering shocks, shake their heads violently, fall to the ground and scrabble along. You certainly don’t notice individuals, even though they’re very close; in this brief look at what might be the collapse of a civilization, that’s not an option.
However, if Tensing looks like a flameless apocalypse, or a prequel to it, Young’s beautiful Off (for Pedro and Ildikó) has the perfume of a beginning—whether for the two in the relationship it depicts or for Young as a choreographer. The premise and, for a long time, the guiding movement principle is that Ildikó Tóth and Osorio (he was also, in his Presenter, the be-wigged and booted star mentioned earlier) must dance close together, keeping their mouths just two or three inches apart and rarely using their hands to grasp each other. The duet—very slow and smooth at first—is terrifically erotic, and the complexity with which the performers turn, twist, lean, and slip to the floor to maintain that delicately magnetic kiss is a wonder. The music (by Morales, Simon Diaz, and Ray & Betty) reinforces the atmosphere, but the visual image predominates. That’s partly because handheld cameras project in close-up on the window shades behind the lovers the voluptuous mingling of their heads and necks, the flow of their bodies. Toward the end, the pace quickens, and the two become more teasing, more athletic. A near-kiss can be an almost-bite. Tóth and Osorio abandon the dance of the lips. He stands on her hips; she pushes him off. He walks on his knees; she comes up behind him and carefully stands on his calves; he keeps going.