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Gertrude Stein was a woman of few words. She wrote few words that became many words— words that twisted back on themselves, picking up words that came before them, and knitting new fabrics of words. If she’d known about DNA early in the 20th century, when she was writing The Making of Americans, she might have thought genetically about words in terms of families, and how a handful of words variously combined could generate new offsprings of meaning.
Juliette Mapp takes Stein’s title for the fine, wise, and sensitive piece she premiered at Dance Theater Workshop. Stein’s evocation of the three generations of her immigrant family is read. Mapp speaks of her own Albanian grandparents who settled in Gary, Indiana, where her unmarried, childless aunts and uncles live in the same apartment building. Because another family, the one that spawned the Jackson Five, burst out of Gary, the first music heard during the performance of The Making of Americans channels the eighth of 10 Jackson offspring: Michael and his “Beat It.”
Mapp has divided her marvelous cast into The Americans (herself, Levi Gonzalez, and Kayvon Pourazar); The Immigrants (Anna Sperber and Vicky Shick); and The Babysitters (Vanessa Anspaugh, Aretha Aoki, and Molly Lieber—dancers who happen to be babysitters for Mapp’s son). Despite the classifications, the performers play no such narrowly defined roles in the piece. Instead, Mapp’s choreography, with the assistance of Dan Kaufman’s score and John Jesurun’s projected videos, creates the kind of rhythms that animate Stein’s spare words. You hear the performers reading portions of the text in unison and watch them perform together the same, slow, considered gestures. You note how individual voice timbres and idiosyncratic performance of movements resonate with the ways in which Stein gives different shades of meaning to the same repeated words.
If you let your gaze travel around the stage as dancers crawl on all fours in various directions, pausing to shiver their entire bodies, you can see that they don’t do anything identically. And when the three “Americans” escalate the shuddering, until they’re yelling and thrashing on the floor, you can watch that quivering movement yield individual fits (Jackson-induced, rock-music frenzy meets childbirth?).
“It is hard living with the tempers we are born with,” says Stein. The temperament of Mapp’s The Making of Americans is as gentle, warm, and precise as Shick’s intermittent reading of Stein’s words (and Stein’s own recorded voice—heard at the end—is light and calm). Immigrants adjust to new customs, enlarge their circle to include others (as Mapp has had to make babysitters a part of her family). There are striking phrases about relating to others: “. . . someone being a whole one to me. . .” and “everyone is sometimes a whole one.”
Mapp has aligned her choreography with Stein’s simplicity. Often, performers stand in groups, slowly and carefully moving their arms or bending their bodies, assuming everyday stances like hands-on-hips. They look as if they’re semaphoring remembered gestures or concentrating on new ones. There’s something strangely lovely about these group litanies, sometimes delivered in counterpoint to those of other groups. Two songs recorded by the Carter family have the same plainness and attachment to repetition as the movements. But the performers can be mildly playful with their bodies too, wriggling and twisting like kids, especially after the women return in flowered dresses akin to the one Mapp says her grandmother started to wear, after she emerged from mourning for her husband.
About halfway through The Making of Americans, Jesurun’s video projects a rehearsal of the piece on one half of the backcloth—focusing primarily on the dancers’ faces, as they swim in and out of the frames. There’s no soundtrack, and passages are separated by whiteouts. Near the end of the piece, the people in the film appear on stage in the same rehearsal attire, creating another image of repetition; now we see clearly gestures that were formerly newborn and tentative.
Later, photos of Gary fill the whole space. Until 1953, Mapp tells us, the Indiana town was one of the world’s biggest steel producers. In its gradual downslide over the next decades, its population declined and the number of people living below the poverty line increased, along with the number of homicides. The performers dance in front of images of empty streets, a once-important derelict building, and architectural patterns divided into Rorschach-blot symmetry, with black shades rising or descending to swallow them. Trains that look like toys pass back and forth on elevated tracks. For one whole passage, the dancers move with bent backs, never straightening up.
The words Mapp chooses from Stein also tell of strength—especially the strength of those women coming from the old country, who bore so many children and lost so many (“Despair can never fill them. . .”—or must not if they are to soldier on). And if death is present as a subject, so is the burgeoning of a family in a new land.
It is difficult to convey how delicately, yet without sentimentality, Mapp has woven these several strands together: Stein’s intensely thoughtful wordplay about families and lives; the story of Mapp’s own family, which now includes a generation beyond herself; the history of a town where her grandparents settled; and dancing that refers to all of them—in ways that only dancing can—mingle to form a beautiful, resonant work.
When Carmen de Lavallade, Gus Solomons jr, and Dudley Williams founded Paradigm in 1996, they were challenging the dance world’s “family tradition”: You started as a student, matured into a professional, and, well before you turned 50, you retired from the stage and perhaps choreographed and/or taught a new generation of children. But these three stellar performers saw no reason to quit doing what made them happy. And, of course, they proved to audiences that youth didn’t have a corner on beauty. The gala following Paradigm’s opening night at St. Mark’s Church celebrated both the group’s 15th anniversary and the outrageously gorgeous de Lavallade’s 80th birthday.
The program titled Paradigm Shift: Past Present, and Future began with a new take on its 1996 trio, A Thin Frost. This version is performed by three men (Solomons, Williams, and Michael Blake), dressed alike in white pants and sleeveless tops. Seated primly in a triangle of three chairs, the men begin darting looks at each other, edging around one another’s territories, conversing in nonsense syllables, gasps, grunts, and roars. Their edgy relationship is timed to laughter-inducing perfection, and they charm us with their idiosyncrasies: slender, elegant Williams with his subtly diva-ish manner; Blake getting his feet stuck in invisible glue that’s materialized around his chair; long-limbed Solomons acting as if he’s attacked by a swarm of unpleasant somethings.
For the “present” aspect of the title, who could be more fully present than de Lavallade, who inhabits her brand new solo, Tango With Ghosts, like a gracious hostess treating memories as guests. She performs to one of Astor Piazzola’s tangos, which is mysteriously invaded at times by gusts of Vivaldi’s The Seasons. She’s wearing a simple outfit by Zinda: blue-green velour pants and a long-sleeved shirt of the same material. De Lavallade stretches the shirt out from her slim body as if contradictory impulses were tugging her in various directions, but no matter how recklessly she hauls on it, it returns to its shape.
It’s amazing how many nuanced feelings beset her and then slip fluidly into other ones. Now she senses a menace. Now she looks toward the church balcony, innocently hopeful as a girl. She can appear to be a model on a vestigial runway, twitching at her shirt and pants, or a happy, flirtatious performer, sure of her audience. At one point, she pulls the back of the shirt up and over her head; crouched down, with her elbows pushing the fabric out in a frame around her, she evokes Martha Graham, encased in stretch jersey in her famous solo Lamentation.
At the end of this stunning performance, de Lavallade removes a gold bracelet from one wrist and leaves it in the spotlight, where Kyle Abraham picks it up and puts it on. Handing on the torch? Abraham (who studied with Solomons in the course of getting his MFA at NYU) presumably represents the future—although his own “present” is busy enough. He is super-up-to-date in an excerpt from his Live! The Realest MC. Before the recording of Bill Evans’s Peace Piece, we hear a voice instructing Abraham, who has his back to us, how to do a hip roll. Abraham practices. Faster and faster. The girls like it, the teacher says. Abraham turns and gives us exactly the kind of look we’ve been waiting for.
It’s fascinating to see him—barely traveling from one spot—perform what could almost be a hip-hop routine, but slowed down and smoothed out until it becomes a kind of muscular lyricism. Although he occasionally flashes into leaps or whirls his arms so fast they blur, he always returns to a deeper, more elastic way of moving. When he drops into a sitting position with a single, silky motion and rises over the tips of his toes, you hear spectators gasp. But there’s no flash. Except for the silver-sequined back of the shirt that Abraham reveals when he takes off his jacket.
Kate Weare too belongs to a generation later than that of Paradigm’s founders, so I guess she counts as future. She’s made a fascinating piece, Idyll, to music by Anouar Brahem, for de Lavallade, Black, Solomons, and Karen Brown. Wearing multi-colored, lightweight outfits by Sarah Cubbage, the performers work in pairs.
To a guitar melody that’s joined by a plucked bass, Weare displays two simultaneous duets, occurring in an X of light or diagonal paths that Mike Inwood lays on the floor. The relationships are tender but unpredictable; these could be parents and children—the women always together, the men inseparable. Brown gently manipulates a compliant de Lavallade; Blake hoists Solomons slightly off the ground to change their path. The performers’ heads become strangely important. Brown turns de Lavallade by pressing gently on her head. Many times, Solomons and Blake grasp or stroke one another’s smooth scalps. The sexes’ closest encounter comes when Solomons strains toward the women, and Blake, waggling his own hips, holds him back; the women pull handkerchiefs from their bosoms and flick them at the men. As the lights fade, Blake is sliding to the floor, braced by Solomons, and the women are walking away. This isn’t the happiest idyll I can imagine, but it’s a persuasive one.
Solomons’s premiere, Royalty Redux, is both puzzling and compelling. Although it’s entrancing as a showcase for mature, virtuosic performers, it feels not quite finished at this point, not really sure of itself. Impulse, a solo by Solomons, seems like a prelude to the group piece; he wears a fabulous costume (by Oana Botez-Ban) similar to those the others wear—variously cut, long black taffeta coats over black trousers. Guitarist Matthew Flory Meade and percussionist Kyle Olsen accompany him with a mix of live instruments and electronics; judging by the musicians’ attentiveness to Solomons, I’d guess that all three are improvising to some degree. The eloquently performed solo, in which Solomons seems increasingly beset by forces we can’t see, feels long for a prelude, and when de Lavallade, Blake, Sarita Allen, Hope Clarke, Robert La Fosse, and Valda Setterfield enter and stare at him, it sets up an uncomfortable tension. We can’t wait to see what these other superbly gifted people are going to do.
In the days leading up to the much-publicized wedding of Britain’s Prince William and Kate Middleton, it’s easy to see members of this royalty of dance as a fictitious version of the real royal family across the pond. They begin posed as if for a photograph, then prowl superbly around the performing area, the women bedecked with diamond necklaces, earrings, and brooches. Personalities, desires, and rivalries begin to emerge. Blake advances and retreats along a corridor of light, reaching one arm forward as if to sight on a goal. Setterfield, looking—with her beautiful carriage, silver hair, major jewelry, and down-turned mouth—not unlike the onetime Dowager Queen Mary, grasps small invisible things and brushes others behind her. She and La Fosse have an enigmatic encounter, after which she surreptitiously smoothes her hair.
Almost all these interesting people seem preoccupied with the darkness that lurks beyond where they are; something unsettling is out there. Allen is the least troubled (she’s also the only one without long pants under her coat, and flashes her thighs as she struts voluptuously or races teasingly around). Think Fergie? La Fosse grabs her, clasps her in his arms. He and Blake square off. Aha, a bit of jealousy! A fight? No. Within seconds, the three of them are dancing happily together (while Olsen and Meade sneak a touch of country music in). Clarke is a terror, a glamorous sorceress; the music gets sweeter, but she scares the hell out everyone. Never mind. Royalty has its obligations, and they all gather at the back again to pose for the camera that must be awaiting them.