Comrades, Equals and Opposites

by Leigh Witchel

Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks have a seamless partnership, but their differences are the most interesting part of it. First working together in 2012 creating “First Fall,” they’ve come together again to augment it and add “Some of a Thousand Words” before. The hour-long show, punctuated by music played by the quartet Brooklyn Rider, didn’t vary much, yet held your attention. Then again, Whelan could read from a phone book (if they still existed) and keep you in a vise grip, so this was a cinch.

The evening was barebones. The costumes were minimal – simple pants and shirts. The stage was stripped to bare brick, a drop that mimicked stenciled wallpaper hung halfway above the stage. The production values fit Whelan – she’s the least pretentious diva around, but it also fit the show. The simplicity seemed less about budget and more about focus.

Cellist Michael Nicholas began the first section, to music by Jacob Cooper. He was joined later by the full quartet for other compositions, but all the music for “Some of a Thousand Words” fell somewhere into a sonic landscape that was without tunes, yet strongly rhythmic – nervous pizzicatos and sawing ostinatos.

Whelan and Brooks walked onstage without fanfare from opposite sides. They came forward to begin a double solo that walked and windmilled around the stage. The pair gently rocked their torsos in synchrony like agitators in a washing machine on the delicate cycle. From the get-go, the difference between ballet and contemporary background and training was right there. Whelan kept her chest lightly suspended, her arms supported as if from underneath by invisible hands. She sculpted movements into shapes. Brooks moved. His movement flowed so that you looked at the entire phrase; hers gave you more snapshots. Take your pick.

Small differences crept in; she dipped into an arabesque penchée while he continued a phrase. But Brooks’ choreography was about flow, not build. It looked as if it were made via improvisation, built up from quotidian movement: walking, lifting or crawling embellished with arm dances. But the sparse vocabulary made the work feel focused.

Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks in “Some of a Thousand Words.” Photo © Nir Arieli.

The second section was a chair dance. Time and again Whelan stood on a chair and started to fall, only to have Brooks swoop in and catch her: the same way, over and over. Again, the repetition felt like a statement of continued trust rather a lack of imagination. The pair’s partnering was never erotic – it was familiar and reassuring – often playful, only occasionally uncertain when one would break away from the other. Brooks didn’t do much with architecture, and he only had one gear: when the music floored the pedal, he didn’t. He got faster, but not denser.

The next section was in largo tempo and kept them separate in lightly curling motion, not touching yet still linked. Whelan exited and Brooks closed “Some of a Thousand Words” with a solo that felt like more improvisation, but the moment you wanted him to stop just moving and dance choreography, it was finished: dwindling to nothing as he walked off.

The lights dimmed, the quartet segued to Philip Glass and Whelan returned for “First Fall,” a slow, languorous and haunting duet. Brooks crouched under Whelan as she pushed forward, walking on half-toe at a precipitous angle. The only thing to prevent her pitching to the floor was his body. Facing us, she rose up and fell straight back; Brooks was the mattress she landed on. Finally, he crawled on the ground as she lay on her side on top of him. He laboriously and repeatedly brought her to her feet with his body until they reversed the process to end the evening.

There are five years between “First Fall” and “Some of a Thousand Words.” Between the two, “First Fall” has the more striking idea, but one that couldn’t be sustained for an hour – Brooks would be black and blue. It wasn’t the choreography that had matured over half a decade, but the relationship. In the first sections, Brooks and Whelan were comrades and equals. The relationship between Whelan and Brooks in “First Fall,” was beautiful, but also weirdly Balanchinean: Woman as remote being, man as supplicant. For a work without a single step in it, “First Fall” was a near-exact transposition of the classical ballet pas de deux into contemporary dance terms with Brooks as Whelan’s cavalier.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“Some of a Thousand Words,” “First Fall” – Wendy Whelan/Brian Brooks/Brooklyn Rider
The Joyce Theater, New York, NY
February 28, 2017

Cover: Brian Brooks and Wendy Whelan in “Some of a Thousand Words.” Photo © Nir Arieli.

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