For the Living

by Martha Sherman

Julliard Dance, directed by Lawrence Rhodes, pioneered a new breed of dancer, one whose main virtue is versatility. The school chose three blockbuster pieces to demonstrate the power and flexibility of its dancers – and they succeeded on all fronts. Two of the works were danced to live music, Richard Alston’s “Sheer Bravado” accompanied by the Julliard Orchestra, and Mark Morris’s “V,” accompanied by Julliard Chamber Music. In both the dance and the music, the performers dove in, no holds barred.

Richard Alston’s “Sheer Bravado,” offered a small parable within shifting, dense choreography, as a gentle loner wrestled with love, competition, and solitude – and finally was united with his companions. The lead dancer, Zachery Gonder, was long-limbed and lithe; his movement long and smooth. His dance personality offered just the right air of brooding. His competition, Mason Manning, was the opposite. Manning was a wild burst of energy each time he entered the stage, with an air of complete confidence, and more than a touch of deviltry.

Angela Falk, Zachary Gonder in “Sheer Bravado.” Photo © Rosalie O’Connor.

Most of the piece centered on the shifting of the ten dancers in patterns that swept the stage with – yes – sheer bravado. In shifting lights and backgrounds, couples folded and stretched in interlinked pairing, both partners engaged in transferring weight and shifting balance. Although the paired scenes were particularly strong, the choral scenes were not always as symmetrical as Alston’s choreography demanded, as arms and torsos stood out of sync in the large grouped lines and patterns. The cast’s discipline was strong throughout, but precision, especially with the wide range of body types among the dancers, was harder to nail down.

The most exciting piece of the evening was its centerpiece, Nacho Duato’s “Por Vos Muero” (“for you, I die.”) Although it was danced to a taped score, the music by Jordi Savall, based on 15th and 16th century Spanish music, was evocative, and the dancers melted on and off stage from a set that looked like stone doors in a walled garden, with blood red curtains dripping from above. The dance was framed by two scenes of the dancers in skin-tone body suits, looking like haunted souls in motion. As they disappeared and returned from the doorways, they reentered in dark costumes, jewel-toned skirts and sleeves, wrapped in black or masks, mixing hints of death with hints of revelry.

Julliard Dance Company in “Por Vos Muero.” Photo © Rosalie O’Connor.

Duato’s patterns combined medieval images and his own modern movement– idiosyncratic, smooth, and using everyday movement rather than academic. The agile dancers’ lunges and leans seemed castle-like; when they bent their knees in 90 degree angles, ending with perfectly flexed feet, it was as if you were watching their bodies become parts of a stone staircase. Although there were several paired scenes and duets – a funny pair of jesters, and secret lovers of all kinds– the grouped women were given moves that were especially facile in shifting between classical lines and Duato’s steps that slouched or yanked into motion.

Mark Morris also offered a piece that echoed classical lines, but used the familiar classic patterns primarily as a launch for his own ebullient movement. “V” is joyful and, on the face of it, quite simple – dancers moving in lots of V patterns. In the opening, the tip of the V was downstage; throughout the work, Vs wove together, or emerged from other geometric or random patterns. The magic was in the dancers’ musicality (essential to Morris’s work,) and the endless permutations that he found within that simple image. Even the costumes played along – half of the dancers in pants and sleeveless pale shirts with deep V-necks; the other half in deep blue tunics that left their legs bare, the beautiful V that the human body shows in its still form.

Woven through the work, trios in different corners would converge; two dancers would hold and drop the third person fully prone on the floor in a gentle swoop, then just as gracefully pull them upright again, a three-dimensional V. Like a wave of trust and gravity, the first of these trios included two men dipping a woman; in a later trio, the tallest man was partnered with two tiny women – it was their balance and momentum that carried this movement, not scale or physical strength. The respect shown to this particular group of young artists included their physical casting in unexpected ways.

As an ensemble, the Julliard dancers are so varied that the challenge is to give each student work that suits them, but demands more at the same time. The diversity of the program both succeeded and reflected the school’s aesthetic mix.

copyright © 2017 by Martha Sherman

“Sheer Bravado,” “Por Vos Muero,” “V” – Julliard Dance
Peter Jay Sharp Theater, New York, NY
March 22, 2017

Cover:  Thomas Woodman and cast in “V.” Photo © Rosalie O’Connor

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