Ordinary or Extraordinary?

by Leigh Witchel

Jodi Melnick’s fascination with the virtuosity of the ordinary had strange bedfellows at Works & Process: three extraordinary dancers from New York City Ballet.

A dancer and dancemaker with a long, distinguished resume that includes Twyla Tharp and Mikhail Baryshnikov, Melnick comes to her aesthetic both by inheritance and earning it on her own. She began by performing “One of Sixty-Five Thousand Gestures,” a solo created in 2012 by Melnick and Trisha Brown.

Melnick walked on to the stage without ceremony, wearing a brown shift that billowed and gathered at the waist. Her chestnut hair is only a shade lighter, and piled up in a topknot that threatened to tumble at any moment into a mass of loose curls.

She took a circuitous path to center stage, placed her arm in front of her and started. The piece was internal: she looked down or inward, but not at us. She headed to the floor, looking around for a moment as if surprised by where she was.

The movement felt like the score, loose and discrete, yet still of a whole. Some of that was Melnick’s ability to take improvisation and make it into choreography. It would have been easy to do this and have it make no sense.

The solo continued evenly until Melnick lowered into a deep plié and the lights went out, but it could have continued ad infinitum.

Jodi Melnick in “One of Sixty-Five Thousand Gestures.” Photo © Robert Altman.

Melnick’s 2016 collaboration with NYCB dancers, “New Bodies” was encored with an announcement it would be performed again at the Spoleto Festival.

Because of injury, one of the original three dancers, Gretchen Smith, could not perform. Taylor Stanley learned her role, and it looked as cogent with Stanley’s coolly elegant movement style as it would have on a woman. He began kneeling on the steps leading from the side of the audience onto the stage. He torqued his body, looked outwards and in his plain practice clothes for an instant became Jerome Robbins’ Faun.

The harpsichordist, Robert Boston, played the cellular notes of Ligeti’s “Continuum.” Stanley turned away from us slowly, walked on to the stage and crossed it to a brightly lit wing. Surprisingly, it wasn’t fixed: he pushed it and it revolved in dramatic side lighting. It’s no surprise the lighting was by the master of squeezing blood from even a stone of a lighting plot, Joe Levasseur. The man makes clip lights look good.

Sara Mearns walked onstage via a similar route. She came forward to the lip of the apron, sat with her legs dangling off the stage and lay down. Boston played isolated notes like half a thought.

Mearns held her arms displaced, then held out above the shoulder to drape the back of her hand across her forehead in ennui. She and Melnick have a similar performing gift; each is the glue that sutures steps together into a dance.

“New Bodies” had a retro archaic/pastoral feel. The calmness, the indeterminate soft positions are things Melnick later mentioned as being interesting to her, as opposed to traditional virtuosity. It’s a demarcation between ballet dancers and modern dancers, but doesn’t take into account the reality of where you perform. You can’t do small scale dancing in a 2,000 seat house.

Jared Angle entered in a light colored shirt and dark pants.  The harpsichord churned into agitated quick trills whose harmonies curdled (Boston’s own composition), as the three dancers moved through a ballet allegro that switched directions and went airborne.

The dance oozed and shifted off the stage frequently. Stanley moved near the harpsichordist but collapsed instead in Angle’s arms. They returned to the stage and continued the allegro. The tight jumps in a confined space made Angle jump upwards and he was getting real height.

Sara Mearns, Jared Angle and Taylor Stanley in “New Bodies.” Photo © Robert Altman.

Mearns did the same drop twice with Angle that Stanley did before. As the harpsichordist climbed to a higher and higher register, the trio faced away from us, reaching their arms up slowly, and taking them down.

The other two left Stanley alone onstage, who sat on the floor and removed his ballet slippers. Again Melnick’s fascination with the pedestrian artfully concealed the realities of stagecraft. It takes both great innate talent and training to make ordinary movement anything but.

Angle returned to hold Stanley upside down in his arms, then Stanley walked to join Mearns in a double solo – or that’s what it looked as if it was going to be but it quickly became a trio. Melnick’s transitions were fascinating; you never knew if two people walking on were going to begin a duet, or if one would simply walk off and someone else entirely would do a solo. Rather than the section to section divisions in classical ballet; everything bled into something else, or even gave false clues.

Monica Davis appeared, playing Heinrich Biber’s Passacaglia on the violin. The dancers draped and leaned on one another exchanging steps until the men left Mearns arched up from the floor.

“New Bodies” continued loosely until Smith appeared in street clothing carrying a chair. The other dancers brought in chairs and the piece transitioned awkwardly into a stagey parody of a Works & Process discussion, where everyone broke the fourth wall in the most self-conscious ways.

Mearns, whose face would the first to reveal in a poker game what her hand was, tried hard not to crack up before she dropped to the floor, seemingly senseless.

“Sara are you okay?” Smith asked.

Mearns didn’t respond. The people onstage wondered if she might not be okay though everyone in the audience knew she was just fine. Melnick rambled into a long monologue about heart attacks.

Angle pointed at Mearns and she revived. Finally the evening piece segued into the actual panel discussion, which was self-congratulatory in ways everyone would do better to avoid. Especially when most of the revelations being expressed were on the order of “I can just go onstage like myself!” That might have been endearing, except these well-intentioned, earnest but cloistered dancers are the main selection pool for future ballet company directors.  Even though they are beginning to look outside their cloister, they are still largely ignorant of their field, and act as if collaborating with any non-ballet choreographer is akin to discovering fire and the wheel.

“New Bodies” was a lovely meeting of aesthetics, but Melnick’s fascination with the ordinary is as much of a conceit and just as arbitrary as loving big jumps and turns. Dancing onstage should be in some way extraordinary. What’s the point of anything else?

Very few people are willing to buy a ticket, get a baby sitter and pay for parking to see the ordinary. And Melnick is no ordinary dancer. She was trained to within an inch of her life – just in a looser, freer style. The only reason that Mearns or Melnick can do anything onstage “just being themselves” is because their selves are extraordinary, through talent and constant work.

Anything other than that is the real fiction.

copyright © 2018 by Leigh Witchel

“One of Sixty-Five Thousand Gestures/NEW BODIES” – Jodi Melnick
Works & Process
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY
January 15, 2018

Cover: Taylor Stanley, Jared Angle and Sara Mearns in “New Bodies.” Photo © Robert Altman.

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