|Moving to the Music
by Tom Phillips
In a provocative essay last week (9/6) in The New York Times, Gia Kourlas wrote: “New York is no longer the capital of the contemporary dance world.” Creative energy has shifted abroad, she said, and “Europe is becoming what New York used to be.” As a proud and provincial New Yorker, I was shocked. So when Dance Theater Workshop presented an evening of young choreographers, on the second night of the season-opening DancenOw/NYC festival, I went looking for evidence to refute this crazy charge. Truth to tell, I found as much to support as to contradict it.
There were some bright spots. The hit of the evening was a solo choreographed and danced by recent NYU graduate Naoko Kikuchi. She played a desperate young soul who flung herself about the stage searching for some connection, and she found it in the end, with a series of wordless cries that were answered by first one voice, then many planted in the audience. The piece was called “Selfmania Lv.4-clover-,” with the last part referring to an imaginary four-leaf clover she finds on the floor. It was an upbeat variation on a familiar theme, but what was impressive about the performance was Kikuchi’s range and speed of movement, control and musicality. It’s one thing to fling yourself about, but another to do it inside the music, with every gesture matched or played against shifting melodic lines and a driving techno beat.
Such traditional dance virtues were largely missing from the rest of the 12-piece showcase evening. We saw a lot of “wreathing and writhing and fainting in coils,” but too much of it was carried out by inadequately conditioned muscles that couldn’t quite get in sync with the music or the other performers. As for the creative themes, many were so tried and true that they have become tired and false. We had several sisterhoods of seekers in black leotards, direct descendants of the scraggly modern dancer Jules Feiffer used to cartoon in the Village Voice. We even had an original song, performed earnestly but weakly by a corps of ten women, a song “about you and I” and how we need to “learn to fly.” But the bottom of the barrel was a piece inspired by Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall,” a meditation on the barriers between people, here reduced to a whining complaint. “What are you walling in?” and “What are you walling out?” the dancers shout at each other in bitchy tones reminiscent of the 60’s, as if the answer were just to huff and puff and blow those walls down.
A subtler work on the same theme was an excerpt from Monica Bill Barnes’ “Thank You and Good Night,” which seems to be a comic take on the wall between performers and audience, the “fourth wall.” The dancers are three young ladies in ball gowns, who so earnestly and awkwardly break the wall and beg for our approval that we have to blush in response. At one point they invade the audience and stretch out their hands to be shaken or stroked. The critic on the aisle next to me declined, which I think was the right move. The problem here was not the conception but the execution. The performers were deliberately acting clumsy and foolishbut to pull that off you have to be clearly graceful and cool.
The program ended with its two strongest pieces. Jennifer Nugent and Paul Matteson performed an agile duet titled “Fare Well,” which looked like the mating dance of some long-legged species of bird, with ritual circling, posing, pecking and bumping leading to a low-key agreement at the end. It reminded me of this summer’s hit movie, “The March of the Penguins,” a documentary on the wisdom and solemnityas well as the slapstick comedyof instinctual movement. Nugent and Matteson have their moves so under control that they look as if they were programmed by a higher power. For the general curtain call at the end of the program, they came out with an infant child, which I imagined had been born in the wings as a result of their onstage antics.
The comedy of instinctual movement is the running gag in Laura Peterson’s “Security,” danced by three women and a man on their hands and knees, in striped bug costumes. But there’s more to this than watching a bunch of pests bothering each other. It’s all recorded and displayed on multiple security cameras, in what seems like a satire on America’s fumbling obsession with surveillance. It’s the sort of thing you see when you’re looking real hard for something else. “Security” is a hoot, but once again the reason it’s such a pleasure to watch is because of the skill and musicality of the dancers. They don’t just skitter around the stage, they do it at absurdly fast tempos, with sudden stops and starts, all keyed into the dreamy beat of a French pop song.
Kourlas ended her New York Times piece with a call for a new revolution in American dance, “the more shocking the better.” I’d settle for a few more choreographers as hip as Laura Peterson, and more dancers on the level of Nugent and Matteson, or Naoko Kikuchi. In the end, it’s about moving to the music.
The DancenOw/NYC Festival runs through September 17 at various locations in Manhattan.
Volume 3, No. 33