A shake-up of the programming — and, for that matter, the audience — at the Joyce, arguably the country’s busiest dance theater, has been long overdue. For several years, regular visitors had noticed that dance artists, usually the bellwethers leading crowds to the most interesting work in the landscape, were rarely in the seats. So, last month, the theater’s directors temporarily reconfigured the space, extending the stage and putting spectators on two sides so everyone is closer to the action. And they asked veteran choreographer Lar Lubovitch to commission new dances.
The strategy worked. At the first two programs of “NY Quadrille” (a collection of four companies booked into this new format), dancers and dancemakers swarmed the aisles, anticipating pieces by two mid-career female choreographers: Pam Tanowitz, stretching the boundaries of ballet, and RoseAnne Spradlin, rooted in gestural experiments and the expressionism of the barely clad body.
Arriving at Tanowitz’s show, viewers received tiny packets labeled “Scenery for Sequenzas in Quadrilles.” Scenery is scarce on dance stages — performers need space to move — and here the double-sided seating makes using objects next to impossible. So set designer Suzanne Bocanegra provided five palm-size sepia reproductions of nineteenth-century images, some overlaid with bright pastel squares like the ones by lighting designer Davison Scandrett that occasionally illuminated the stage floor.
The dancers wore tank unitards (by the virtuoso team of Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung), their midriffs painted to resemble pastel Navajo rugs and covered with removable panels of sheer fabric. At first in silence, then accompanied by musicians from the Knights chamber orchestra stationed in the loges and playing works by Luciano Berio and David Lang, the five wonderful movers (Jason Collins, Dylan Crossman, Sarah Haarmann, Victor Lozano, and Lindsey Jones, joined by understudy Christine Flores) executed steps at once precise and casual. Tanowitz communicated via crisp shapes and patterns rather than story, exploiting the floor as much as the air. A lucid, dazzling performance, Sequenzas calls out for a longer run.
Spradlin’s X, by contrast, was dark, rude, and slow, but in its own way as arresting as Sequenzas. It began with noises — belches, farts, the paroxysms of a body about to vomit — heard at first through amplifiers from sound designer Glen Fogel’s computer, and then live and in person from Kayvon Pourazar, the first of three performers to take the square platform. Connor Voss, a much younger, thinner figure, appeared and lay on top of him. The pair spiraled together; it seemed as if Voss were somehow Pourazar’s caretaker, but as the work proceeded he functioned as the son of the odd family formed by the arrival of Asli Bulbul, a powerful female figure.
The trio, perhaps prisoners, or the last three humans left alive after some apocalypse, hauled barres onto the stage, using them for gymnastic hoists, balances, and tumbles. Bell-like sounds, rumbling percussion, and covers of what might have been Seventies TV show theme music, some with sentimental lyrics, poured forth. The dancers, relentlessly on task, carried the barres, and each other, back and forth across the platform.
Audience members — assaulted by the sound of automatic weapons, the strobe lights, and the rigorous, repetitive movements — began leaving the building halfway through. The dancers, at first barefoot, now wore sneakers and fingerless black gloves and mimed firing those weapons. Their tight focus on their tasks took on a formal elegance.
These pieces have already passed into dance history, but two more programs, by the seasoned, philosophically inclined Tere O’Connor and the emerging, Juilliard-trained whippersnapper Loni Landon, await, playing in repertory.
175 Eighth Avenue
Through October 9