Reduction and Repetition

by Leigh Witchel

For Heather Kravas, beauty has a least common denominator. So does performance, and in “visions of beauty” she repeated, pared back and repeated some more until she found it.

As we arrived in the newly remodeled theater at Performance Space New York (the new identity for PS 122), the cast was lying on the floor in a starburst. They remained still as the ushers shifted us into seats, then got up and reformed on the ground at the other side of the space to the ambient ticking of a timer set on the floor next to a microphone.

Often, “visions of beauty” comprised the most limited movement; here only the measuring of time slipping away. The timer went off and the dancers got up, moved to the other side, took off their warmups and cleared away the props.

“visions of beauty.” Photo © Julieta Cervantes.

The cast moved over to the other side in a new formation that slid down the wall and spilled away from it. The dancers lay atop one another body surfing, slowly exchanging places and displacing one another. Sometimes they stood, or slid out of positions when their bodies could no longer sustain the pose.

The cast was eight men of all sizes, shapes and looks, as well as a single woman, Cecilia Lisa Eliceche. Interestingly, even refreshingly given the times, Kravas didn’t tease out conflict or danger from those numbers. And by this point, half of the cast was in briefs or shirtless.

One dancer at a time left the group formation to stand at the side as the others continued like saltimbanques doing tricks. Finally, only one remained. Kravas’ addition and diminution was methodical, as she’s done before.

They performers walked once again to the other wall and stood with one hand lightly holding the wall as if taking their places for barre – only one without movement. To an ambient buzz they lifted their other arms from a low position to en haut.

And after Kravas’ version of barre, the dancers nonchalantly stripped naked, leaving their clothes in a pile. Once again, Kravas defused the danger in a potentially explosive act. The dance space had a bank of windows lining one wall. In a touch of propriety, before they stripped, the dancers closed the blinds, as if to avoid shocking the neighbors. Kravas was a rebel in one breath and sweetly old-fashioned in the next.

The cast waited quietly in a line, their eyes closed, with the innocence of newborn animals. The line moved round as one dancer with his eyes open, guided the others, gently stopping them and leading them to a safe spot with a touch before they hit someone.

The lights dimmed and the cast re-formed, retrieving their clothing and reopening the blinds. You really needed clean underwear to do this piece.

The score segued to the pounding beat of Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom.” The nine joined arms and spun round with centrifugal force pulling their windmill formations apart.

The dancers joined one by one in a simplified ballet chassé that slid and turned on the floor. That became the movement idea for the next section of the piece. As the music increased in volume, the dancers formed into groups that broke off or coalesced. Each group did a slight variation of the step; some with torso pitched forward, others with the arms raising overhead, others flapping delicately. The groups slowly rotated in the space weaving and trading places.

“visions of beauty.” Photo © Julieta Cervantes.

“visions of beauty” was thin at the start, but it gave Kravas somewhere to build to, and over the course of the piece she morphed from phraseless formations to movement that was both phrased and counted. And like the textures of a painted canvas, sometimes the point wasn’t in the change, but in the buildup of layers. The step slowly amplified; the dancers presented their arms or threw them skywards. The freely rebounding phrase began to feel Duncan-ish. As the groups coalesced, the music became harp glissandos and finally the original shape of the group was reformed.

The cast moved to the opposite corner for the final section of the piece, though to call it final is to mistake Kravas’ intentions. “visions of beauty” was set in a time frame that the performance itself could not contain: it began before the audience arrived and went on after both Kravas and some of the audience left (the diehards stayed).

One of the dancers queried the rest, “ready?” The others responded yes. They moved down the diagonal in slapping step and triplets on the diagonal, and he called a number, the rest responded with the next number; 16, then 17; 25 to 26.

They made it to 43, and they held, this time in relévé. Kravas came out to take a bow and open the doors, and left through them. The rest of the cast stayed on half-toe as long as they could. When they could no longer stay up, they released the position and came forward to bow and be applauded for their tenacity: a weird non-competition in salute to dance marathons and ballet competitions.

Kravas’ ballet influences showed up in odd places. Not just in her movement and port de bras, which though simplified, was simplified ballet. Also in her choice of music, first a languid waltz and after that, a piano take on the opening of Tchaikovsky’s Theme and Variations from his Suite No. 3 that had to have been fashioned for barre exercises.

The $37 million renovation of PS 122, now rechristened Performance Space New York, is impressive. The theater space is high, airy and unobstructed (the poles at PS 122 were a legendary part of the experience). The space no longer forces itself on the dance; it provides a neutral, industrial setting for it of exposed plaster and brickwork. Whether this is good or not depends on the work.

But like the Baryshnikov Arts Center, the remodeling opens design questions – ironically often the exact same ones. The elevators have too little capacity and speed for a performance venue, and there may not have been a cost-effective solution in either space. But poor seating, here risers that are not steep enough to provide any row except the front an unobstructed view, certainly could have been avoided.

If you were looking for a more traditional definition of dance and movement, it took a while for Kravas to give you something to look at. But oddly enough, the more Kravas added, the more she inched towards ballet. What Kravas got from minimalism, and ballet is the same thing: that the route to a goal is to attack it, again, and again, and again, until you achieve it.

copyright © 2018 by Leigh Witchel
“visions of beauty” – Heather Kravas
Performance Space New York, New York, NY
January 12, 2018

Cover: “visions of beauty.” Photo © Julieta Cervantes.

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