During the first third of the 20th-century, European art was awash in revolutionary movements. By 1923, dada, with its witty outrages, was winding down; Italian Futurism was being co-opted by Fascism; Russian Futurism and Constructivism were still flourishing; and at Germany’s Bauhaus, Oskar Schlemmer—sculptor, designer, and choreographer—had created his Triadic Ballet (1922).
It was in 1923 that Bronislava Nijinska, sister of the great dancer, made her masterwork, Les Noces, for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, a revival of which opened the Juilliard Dance Division’s spring concerts. While the fantastic costumes and masks involved in Schlemmer’s work turned dancers’ bodies into sculptural objects, Nijinska, who was friends with the Constructivist artist Aleksanda Exter, built architectural structures with slender, dancerly physiques. The choreographer followed the scenario of the cantata written several years earlier by Igor Stravinsky for four solo voices, a chorus, four pianos, and percussion. The text tells of an arranged marriage among Russian peasants.
Lawrence Rhodes, artistic director of the Dance Division, believes that being intimately involved with classics of the repertory is as much a part of his students’ education as having choreographers create new works for them. Performing Les Noces requires a kind of compressed power and an almost fanatical attention to clarity. In the lustier celebrations, the men and women look like peasants carved in a wooden frieze, their legs and arms angled just so.
In the First Tableau: Benediction of the Bride, the bride’s attendants—identically clad in white blouses, brown apron-dresses, white head scarves, white leggings bound in brown ribbons, and brown pointe shoes that they use like stilettos—line up shoulder-to-shoulder on either side of her. The tallest stands nearest to her and the smallest at the ends, so that the tall bride (Casia Vengoechea) forms the peak of this mountain. At another point, the women crouch down to varying degrees and build a hill with their heads; their faces, turned to the audience, make you think ancient icons. The bride leans her elbows on this structure, as if gazing on the future outside her bedroom window. In the Second Tableau: Benediction of the Bridegroom, the friends of the groom (Gentry George) walk across the stage in a line facing front, holding shoulders, each man laying his right cheek on his arm.
There are many such sculptural effects in the ballet. They emphasize the ritualistic customs of a society in which the about to-be-married pair are pawns, chosen for the family ties they will bind. Except for an extremely brief lament by the bride’s mother, the people onstage betray no emotions. It is for us to feel what they aren’t allowed to show. The Juilliard dancers have been scrupulously rehearsed in the vigor of a style that emphasizes the primacy of design. They rarely fumble the tiny adjustments it takes to get into formations without apparent preparation. The only regrettable thing is that, with all the gifted musicians enrolled in Juilliard, the score couldn’t be performed live, despite Rhodes’s efforts (no resident chorus and no room in the pit for singers, four pianos, and 10 percussionists). With that tremendous sound behind them, the dancers would have looked even better than they did, and the combination would have been overwhelming.
Whether or not Rhodes intended to build a program that emphasized the architecture of dance in different ways, that is what he gave us. It was extremely interesting to see Eliot Feld’s 1986 Skara Brae and Mark Morris’s 1993 Grand Duo following Les Noces. Skara Brae came early in Feld’s fascination with repetition (which had perhaps been spurred by Steve Reich’s music). In this dance, however, repetition enhances the feeling of ritual, as does Allen Lee Hughes’s often chill lighting (recreated by Patrice Thomas and Nicole Pearce). Costumed by Willa Kim, the 19 dancers—both men and women—wear red headbands; gray tights and leotards, with totemic designs on them here and there; soft slippers; and leg warmers with bindings like those of the Noces celebrants.
The recorded music of traditional Irish, Scottish, and Breton tunes is sorrowful at times, even when foot-tappingly rhythmic. Although there’s no story to this ballet, a program note provides a key to its mood. Skara Brae is the name of a very small Neolithic settlement in the Orkney Isles that its occupants mysteriously abandoned around 5,000 years ago, leaving everything behind.
The feeling of the steps is earthy, although the dancers often burst into big leaps. The women begin laying out a repertory of steps and gestures that involves bent positions with profiled heads. Over and over they cross their arms or lay one elbow on top of the other and hold their arms up like a torch as they dance. They build zig-zag designs on the stage. When the men enter, the women sit with their legs spread wide and form an avenue along which the men leap, knees bent, bodies bent forward.
In an extremely curious and compelling duet, a man (Alexander Hille) enters slightly hunched, with a woman sitting on his upper back; her own spine rests against his neck, and she’s curled into a bundle. The woman (McKenna Birmingham in the cast I saw) might be a load of firewood he’s slogging along with, judging by the way he swings her down and up again to re-settle her on his back. Everything the two do together in the way of complicated lifts suggests that she is his burden but also a necessary part of him.
The ballet is full of patterns: the criss-crossing of lines, the swirling into and out of them, the clusters and chains made by Hannah Wright and four other women. The solo performed by Vengoechea in the cast I saw is gently mournful; lying on the floor, propped up on her elbows, she rocks her head from hand to hand. Another solo recalls happy times. The music is fast, and the dancing is a little marvel of springy, intricate footwork (Birmingham is terrific in it).
In the context of this program, Morris’s wonderful Grand Duo to music by Lou Harrison (played lustily by Sean Chen on piano and Francisco Garcia-Fullana on violin) acquires a more ritualistic cast. The opening sequence for men and women, wearing Susan Ruddie’s bright- colored skirts (the men) or tunics and dresses, has the air of a preparation. Here someone shoots an arm up, there another person arches back, and someone else reaches forward. The group seems to be sprouting in different directions, the texture accumulating speed and density along with the music.
The people in this society have a sturdy, almost blocky look as they form their patterns, break into counterpoint, or split off into little solos. They tend to stand with their feet apart, their knees bent. They jump as if the important part of jumping was coming down and giving the earth a jolt (the second section of the music is called “Stampede”). There are quiet moments, but the celebrants are brought into a circle by the final rousing “Polka.” The floor practically shakes.
It’s exciting to see these talented young dancers take the everyday ritual of classes into a higher domain.
A woman sitting on a white chair in La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre is telling a story, without hesitation or pauses, in an African language I don’t understand. From time to time, she chants in a high voice. Beside her sits a woman from a European country. Neither looks at the other, but from time to time, the second woman nods her head, as if she understands. After a while, she begins to echo the seemingly unconscious gestures the first woman uses as she speaks. In the program for John Scott’s Fall and Recover, neither of these women, Kiribu and Nina, reveals her last name or the name of the country where she has family. What they have in common, aside from performing in this work, are histories of pain.
In 2003, Scott, the director and principal choreographer of Dublin’s Irish Modern Dance Theatre, was invited to teach a workshop at the Centre for the Care of Survivors of Torture (CCST) for people who have experienced “the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering for a specific purpose” (the UN definition of torture). Ten of the 12 performers who came to New York to perform Fall and Recover are among the many clients of CCST with whom Scott has since worked (the other two dancers, assistant choreographers Aisling Doyle and Philip Connaughton, are members of IMDT). They sought asylum in Ireland and are now Irish citizens.
No one could call Fall and Recover “victim art”; no terrible stories are told or re-enacted. It’s a plotless dance whose images convey surviving and starting over with the support of others. And finding joy and release in movements, many of which derive from what emerged in workshop and rehearsal improvisations.
The simple acts of standing with one’s back to the wall or falling onto a heap of bodies explode with a variety of meanings. So does a moment in which Sebastiao Mpembele Kamalandua, a large, impressive man, stands and breathes powerfully, as if he had concentrate everything he had on the action. So too does a passage early on in which performers—all wearing white clothing—draw houses and huts on the white paper covering the floor and connect the dwellings with snaking trails; then they rip up the paper and toss it wildly around. For a few moments, Kiribu in her chair is stranded on a tiny white island on the now dark floor, while others gather up the scraps and carry them offstage. All that time, slender, graying Haile Tkabo stands making grave, slow gestures to the sky that are full of feeling.
One of the most moving things about Fall and Recover is the way Scott’s choreography emphasizes the potency of community as a healing act through devices like having people gradually join to build unison actions, form patterns together, carry one another, hold hands. In these activities, they are supported by shifting lighting and the sensitive music supplied by performer-composer Rossa O’Snodaigh, who sits to one side with his guitar, a tiny bugle, various percussion instruments, and a little music box.
For one beautiful passage, Elizabeth Suh stands against a wall at the back, sliding down it into a sitting position, pushing herself back up, sliding down again, while O’Snodaigh surrounds her with ringing tones and deep, bass notes. When she’s finally stable, the five other women approach, one by one, and paste themselves to her in a clump that they then draw out into a line; together they raise their arms high.
In solo moments, people sometimes spread their arms like wings, aspiring to freedom. Jumping, too, pulls them away from the earth. Nimble young Mufutau Kehinde Yusuf (Junior) repeatedly vaults straight up, high off the ground, and others face off with him and jump too. We can only guess at their histories. Tkabo could be writing words on the air, Patience Namehe scratching them on her body. And amid the falls and the silences and a passage of wild staggering, they also sing and dance. Usually one person starts, and others join until they become a joyful, swinging, stamping procession, their voices in gorgeous, lusty harmony.
Scott has composed Fall and Recover with sensitivity, skill, and astute theatricality, weaving culturally diverse people into an ensemble, while honoring their individuality. All those onstage (that includes Francis Acilu, Faranak Mehdi Golhini, and Solomon ljigade) set their imprint on the work. And they perform not only together and for us, but with and for remembered others. An unattributed quote by one of them is printed in the program: “When we dance, I could say I’m in heaven because I’m mingling with so many people others can’t see.”
In the end, they all lie down and trace their outlines with salt, going over and over the pattern. Under cool lights, the drawings are almost phosphorescent, and when the cast exits, they remain there, shining.
After the bows on opening night, Scott attempted to thank us for coming and to say a few words about the event, but he was drowned out. From backstage, there erupted such jubilant singing that you could swear those vanished others, wherever they are, could hear it too.