A Glimpse of Realness

by Martha Sherman

The American Realness Festival continues to thrive. Once a scrappy player in the halo of events surrounding the annual January APAP Conference, Realness has established its place in the New York dance scene, and this year again presented a wide offering of experimental work, premieres, and in-process offerings. The sampling below isn’t representative, but in its consistent quality, suggests that Ben Pryor, the long-time curator who has also recently taken on the mantle as Director of Performance and Residency Programs at Gibney Dance, hasn’t lost his touch.

Joanne Kotze and Lance Gries in “Étroits sont les vaisseaux.” Photo ©Scott Shaw.

Étroits sont les vaisseaux”
Kimberly Bartosik/daela
Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center
January 6, 2017

Kimberly Bartosik traffics in delicacy. In her short 20-minute work, “Étroits sont les vaisseaux,” (Narrow are the Vessels) named after Anselm Keifers’ 82 foot wave-like sculpture,  Bartosik used the ocean tidal cycle as her inspiration. Her choice of veteran dancers was inspired, pairing the graceful Joanna Kotze with intense Lance Gries. In the small downstairs studio of Gibney’s Agnes Varis Center, the audience hugged the walls, and these two performers filled the space in waves.

A window shade to the outside lowered, like a metaphoric curtain to begin, and the two dancers faced each other, nose to nose, before moving solo.  Each moved independently, pushed and pulled by unseen forces. Kotze, on outstretched feet and fingers that extended her long arms even further, was more mist than matter. When her body leaned forward, she evoked another classic sculpture of the sea, the Winged Victory of Samothrace. Gries was all substance, his back arched, and his shoulders shoved alternately forward and back with rolling power. When the two dancers crashed toward one another, they didn’t touch at first.  Then his hand reached forward to meet her chest, but failed to hold back the tide.

In a later duet, Gries held their bodies up with arms behind him on the floor, as her hands found his front and back. He and she gently crashed together once again; the score softened, and their panting breaths were labored. When they rose, they leaned together, forehead to forehead, in a different connection than their initial confrontation. His hands leaned toward her, and the window shade rolled up. The tide didn’t stop, but it was our signal to let it go. There was no bow; it was as if we’d borrowed a sliver of time and space. For a one-idea performance, it was perfect in scale and execution, and entirely satisfying.


Paul Lazar in “Cage Shuffle.” Photo © Ian Douglas.

“Cage Shuffle”
Paul Lazar/Big Dance Theater
Abrons Arts Center
January 8, 2017

In another intimate piece, Paul Lazar danced the “Cage Shuffle” solo, speaking random one-minute story texts from Cage’s “Indeterminacy,” fed to him through an ear microphone, and called out by a stage assistant – “24, 75…”  Although the stories were random, the movement sequence was not:  a string of small body shifts, hand gestures, shoulder curls, and mincing steps choreographed by Annie-B Parson and repeated in its first iteration for the stories, and again to a musical score.

Lazar and Parson are co-directors of Big Dance Theater, and a husband-and-wife team. Parson, the choreographer, turns quotidian movement into endless permutations, creating characters that crackle with idiosyncrasy. In her partner she has her truest muse, and Cage’s instructions and vehicle gave them funny, touching, small stories to inhabit. Lazar’s fingers spun touchingly; when he turned his head and paused, we leaned in and wondered why.

Lazar’s humor and charisma were undeniable, though hard to pin down. Some of it, though, was in the small smile that never quite left his mouth, and the knowing connection he made as he conspired with an audience. “Cage Shuffle” was a small conspiracy, as he reached out to engage us with more than a touch of satire underlying his gaze.

Trajal Harrell in “Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church(S).” Photo © Ian Douglas

Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church(S)
Trajal Harrell
Abrons Arts Center
January 10, 2017

Trajal Harrell’s 2009 work “Twenty Looks” has been around the world and back. It’s a simple idea: the dancer changes clothes and half-models, half-dances twenty different looks, each a costume with theme and worn with attitude. The piece requires more posture than dance, and is more dependent on presence than movement.  One of the looks was “Eau de Jean-Michel,” an homage to Jean-Michel Basquiat.  The whole piece is like an eau de danse, little whiffs of ideas that emerged and receded over the course of an hour.

In “Serving Old School Runway” (Look 8), Harrell wore a 1950s silkscreened apron and made dismissive gestures; he then shifted simply into “Serving” (Look 9), which slowed to a swagger and added a wrist purse. In the transition to Look 10, “Serving Superhero,” Harrell pulled the apron over his head as a cape, added yellow gloves, reached out his arms to whirl, and fly forward. The clothes made the man. The music, a pastiche of familiar and unfamiliar songs, was punctuated by the sharp clip of a model’s heels on a runway floor.

To transform the traditional proscenium of the Abrons Playhouse, the audience trooped up to the stage, sitting in two rows around the four sides. With no curtain and no distance, the audience was dipped into a post-modern set, and Harrell had no cover. Most of the dance was performed around the edges of the space, and he sidled around to the observers, but there was also a long black runway in the center of the space. The torque of Harrell’s modeling sashay was flawless.

The underlying idea was to overlay voguing and post-modern (Judson) dance. Harrell moved his body with grace, and some of his movement had the qualities of those forms – but he didn’t move far, and he didn’t move much. Mainly, he inhabited and changed costumes, clever compilations highlighting many of our clichés and sometimes, our prejudices.

“Twenty Looks” has a distinguished history, but it has gotten tired, like a beloved rerun that doesn’t have much of an edge anymore. He is still a magnetic performer, though, and it’s good to be reminded that his particular shorthand was inspiration to other works of synecdoche, where quick snapshots evoke a world.

copyright © 2017 by Martha Sherman

American Realness Festival
Abrons Arts Center and Gibney Dance, New York, NY
January 5 – 12, 2017

Got something to say about this?  Sound off here