A Platform for Musicality

The new year in New York dance begins with a market. The Association of Performing Arts Professional’s annual conference has evolved past a market into a festival – not only do groups come in from out of town to market themselves, but local companies encore their best work so it can be considered for touring gigs.

The Joyce gets in on the festival act with American Dance Platform, a week of split bills. BODYTRAFFIC, from Los Angeles, returned for a visit paired with rising tap dancer Caleb Teicher.

All the dancers in BODYTRAFFIC were strong as usual, but the group has brought better stuff. Richard Siegal’s “The New 45” was a short, unpretentious pas de deux, based on an old gag, awkwardness when dancing. It opened with Tina Finkelman Berkett doing frenzied happy feet to a jazz standard. The vocals growled and scatted. She interpreted it step for note, gave us a quick salute and ran off. After, Guzmán Rosado’s legs moved involuntarily, finally impelling him into brisés. Just as both cut loose the music ended. We’re in an era of questioning every stereotype. Maybe it’s time to check the Sell By date of “white people have no rhythm and can only dance in jest.”

Guzmán Rosado and Tina Finkelman Berkett in “The New 45.” Photo © Bill Hebert.

Hofesh Shechter’s “Dust” was turgid and pretentious in ways that were too familiar: industrial, pounding music (also by Shechter) and the inevitable haze blanketing the stage. At the back, projected: “In the Beginning. There was darkness.”

A trio of women in red dresses and a trio of men in nondescript jackets and pants raced and flailed in the dark. They broke into individual motion as the music buzzed into spasms; one man danced a solo; the others shivered as he rejoined them. A voiceover intoned “Something to fight for, something to live for, something to die for.” And at the end, a projection again – “In the End. There was.” This was meant to be profound, but felt more like Deep Thoughts lifted from the scrapped pilot, “Superfriends: The Interpretive Dance.”

Matthew Neenan’s “A Million Voices” also seemed unfocused, but it was billed as a preview, and could be fixed by the final version. Like “The New 45,” “A Million Voices” was a jukebox dance; the hardest kind to pull together. The costumes by Leon Wiebers didn’t help; they ranged from sex club pleather to summery beachwear.

The music was Peggy Lee standards, “Blues in the Night,” “The Freedom Train,” and “Is That All There Is?” Neenan’s intentions were unclear; “Is That All There Is?” was Bauschian in its irony, but he set “The Freedom Train” with no irony at all – and Lord knows one could.

Lorrin Brubaker danced a shirtless solo of big ballet jumps, but Berkett and Rosado were holding up the repertory in this show, returning for a jaundiced love duet to “Is That All There Is.” Both got a bare-chested boy to fall in lust with, and Jamal White came out wearing a Pierrot ruff collar to pour water on Berkett and Rosado as well.

The water gag went from a cup to a bucket splashed on Berkett at the end, but the build and timing were off. It felt like a joke repeated rather than a joke escalating, which reinforced the feeling of loose ends in BODYTRAFFIC’s section.

Caleb Teicher is a weedy fellow, sporting black hair exploding up from his scalp and slashed with an art deco blond streak. His musical sense is impressive.

The milestone piece was a dance to Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” that held its own with the many others done to that music, but he also showed a cagey male duet to Ella Fitzgerald standards.

“Meet Ella” was a softshoe number for Teicher and Nathan Bugh that had them scrambling and jitterbugging goofily to start. During an improvised portion, the two competed; Bugh applauded Teicher sarcastically for a laugh. Ella scatted into “How High the Moon?” and the two responded with happy feet. Leaving the stage only to slide back in, they ended by collapsing on their backs.

Nathan Bugh and Caleb Teicher in “Meet Ella.” Photo © Scott Shaw

Bugh and Teicher did a swing dance to “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” Neenan also did a same-sex duet for BODYTRAFFIC; at this point this is A Thing. That means the bar is being raised, just doing one is no longer enough. Teicher and Bugh didn’t make a big deal of dancing together – it was sexual and non-sexual in the way that two guys can be when they dance together.

The only thing that seemed at odds with Fitzgerald was how the men used their weight. Both hovered above the stage like water on a greased skillet. It felt as if Fitzgerald’s contralto would have kept them lower to the floor.

Teicher’s “Variations” was a tap dance to – of all things – the “Goldberg Variations.” It was only presented in excerpt, but it made you want to sit through the whole damn thing. As have many others, he used the beloved 1955 Glenn Gould recording. Teicher began alone to Gould’s gentle, almost experimental opening by placing his foot on the stage as if testing it shuffling, sliding, bringing his arms overhead and circling to a kneel. The taps felt like isolated sound, and almost before you realized it, they became more frequent and migrated to the melody line of the Bach.

Gabe Winns Ortiz joined him; their upper bodies moved in a range from delicate to as impassioned and florid as Gould’s later vocalise. Brittany DeStefano joined them to make a trio: a variation of arpeggios ending with a pose lifted from “Charlie’s Angels.” The three rotated in a pool of light, ending a variation in a finicky reverence that joke with the Bach yet respected it. A waterfall of notes became a sprint for the trio, moving into short solos. Like the music, the solos were related, but slightly different – the first for Teicher was a sprint, then skipping for DeStefano and a full on race for Ortiz.

The trio moved to a section without an accompaniment. You could tell just how musical Teicher’s version was by how the Bach persisted in the silence, because of the connections to the rhythms used earlier. Then Bach joined back in for a race in slow motion that brought the trio to a diagonal revolving round the stage. The tapping built to a crescendo, but Teicher’s sliding and shuffling was as delicate as Gould’s returning notes of the reprise of the theme. Suddenly the trio moved in and out of heavier dynamics, hammering the floor with their shoes and then walked off to end.

Tap is a form that loves music visualization. The phrases not only echo the music, but go beyond being a servant of the score to setting up their own parallel structure. Everything in “Variations” was fresh and fitting; Teicher took the hardest, most over-traveled path – pure music visualization – and managed to make it feel like we hadn’t seen it before.

copyright © 2018 by Leigh Witchel

American Dance Platform
“Variations,” “Meet Ella” – Caleb Teicher & Company
“The New 45,” “Dust,” “A Million Voices” – BODYTRAFFIC
The Joyce Theater, New York, NY
January 9, 2018

Cover: Caleb Teicher in “Variations.” Photo © Sally Cohn.

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