There's plenty of hip attitude and trendy technology on view during "Held," the hour-long work the Australian Dance Theatre brought for its latest visit to New York. But while there is plenty to look at, there's precious little content and not much of a raison d'être that one can discern. First performed in March 2004, this is a collaboration between choreographer (and artistic director) Garry Stewart and the acclaimed, innovative New York-based dance photographer Lois Greenfield. It juxtaposes the ten ADT dancers in aggressive, punchy bursts of movement (that looks like it must leave them quite bruised) with Greenfield taking pictures onstage that are projected a split-second later on two large screens.
With little room for development and only the slightest contrast provided by sections when the pounding electronic score (by Darrin Verhagen) grows somewhat more gentle and subdued, the work essentially becomes an opportunity for the audience to be in on what transpires when Greenfield photographs dancers in motion. We see the dancers perform a lot of feisty kicking and jumping while Greenfield's glossy, black-and-white images capture and freezes transitional moments that pass by in a blur during the ongoing activity. For much of the time, the screens, which are at one end of large movable set pieces that the dancers periodically maneuver into new positions, are in the upstage corner, angled slightly toward each other.
For the first part of "Held," Greenfield crouches downstage center, snapping away, as the dancers initially walk on in pairs, meet at the center, and launch into their robust action, which contains echoes of Elizabeth Streb's body-thumping approach as well as the combative dynamic of Capoeira, although with none of the latter's sensuality and fluidity. The dancers are a thuggish, self-consciously hip group, dressed in ragged, often unflattering black outfits that make them into exaggerated Goth cartoons. Most of them wear kneepads—and given the way they crash into the floor at all angles, you're glad they do. The only color onstage is the flaming red, distractingly artificial-looking hair of one of the women.
Essentially, "Held" offers simultaneous distractions. If you really focus on the parade of photographic images, you cannot follow the dancing in the center of the stage—and vice versa. Most audience members, presumably, compromise— watching enough of the dancing to see the connection between the still images and the dance onstage, and thus never follow either option completely. Greenfield certainly captures dynamic moments—the dancers in the midst of an explosive jump, or with their bodies contorted at an odd angle. She certainly doesn't try to glamorize the, but aims to convey the energy and risk of what they do.
For variety, one section features color video images of the dancers in slow-motion free fall, with the screens moved downstage center and facing directly at the audience. The set pieces are placed in a variety of positions, and in some sections the dancers perform without Greenfield shooting them. Two women start off one such section in shadowy light, illuminated by momentary strobe-like flashes, as more and more dancers gradually join in.
Greenfield's returns to the stage—once on the side, once at the rear of the stage facing the audience—are subtle, so that you are caught by surprise when new images start to appear on the screen. Sometimes she isolates and focuses on a single dancer; at other times she tries to capture the essence of their confrontations. Her images are always striking, but the gimmick of seeing them being produced in front of your eyes is not fascinating enough to sustain the piece, which is ultimately weak and lacking in (no pun intended) focus, for al the intense energy and bravado that is on display.
The dancers are a muscular bunch, and clearly willing to give their all and take plenty of risks. Elements of yoga, gymnastics and martial arts are thrown into the mix. When they were last at the Joyce, performing Stewart's "Birdbrain," they displayed a similar high-octane blend of movement elements, but leavened it with a degree of wit and imagination that are lacking here.