by Leigh Witchel

[Disclaimer – I know Julia better than some of the other artists I write on. She and I have been friends for several years.]

A fantasia on the American West is a risky way to celebrate your silver anniversary. Impressionistic ballets can be incoherent nightmares. But Julia Gleich pressed on and made “Martha (The Searchers)” to celebrate 25 years of her company Gleich Dances.  Like the West, it wasn’t tidy, but you could unquestionably follow the trail.

Gleich trained hard for the journey. She did consistent research and if she picked a loaded subject, she wasn’t firing wildly. The performance began with her reading a brief passage from “The Searchers,” a 1954 novel by Alan Le May about settlers who spent years attempting to find their families during the Comanche wars. The paragraph she chose included a mention of freed slaves trying to find their families held hostage. The layers of irony didn’t need to be elaborated.

In the book and movie of “The Searchers,” Martha dies early on, and there’s no Martha in the dance. Or maybe everyone was. More of the ballet’s ambiguity was reflected in a short video by Rachel Farmer, “Onward,” in which little, very white, porcelain figurines of pioneer women pulling little, very white, wagons were placed in various locations in the West, from wilderness to suburbia.

Elana Herzog’s designs were integral, and she was acknowledged as a collaborator in the program. Thin, irregular strips of carpet were laid down as if they were a jigsaw puzzle of domesticity without a solution. Racks of cloth and clothing, like laundry drying, made the stage seem like the indoors and the outdoors at once. Wherever we were, it was hot; you could tell from the heavy breaths and the dancers’ hands lifting near their brows.

The costumes were simple, the women in shorts and button-down shirts tied at the waist, the one man (Duane Gosa) in a chef’s uniform with its sleeves cut off to repurpose it into a vaguely Western top. The score was a crazy quilt, compositions by Joseph Kokkyar mixed with rock and country ranging from Patsy Cline to Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin.

The cast entered to a tune on steel guitar, each dancing on their own in sharp angles and turns. Gleich used elements she had been thinking about a while. Amy Saunder did a solo with a step ladder attached to her back. Gleich showed that solo in excerpt a few years back, and it didn’t work – but now in this context and with more editing it did. In the early version the ladder hung from the dancer like an anchor, but here, as Saunder did attitude turns, the ladder would part and come together like downward-folding wings. Gleich had figured out how to make the ladder dance.

Cortney Key (at right) in “Martha (The Searchers).” Photo courtesy of Norte Maar.

Saunder detached herself by taking off the vest that doubled as a harness for the ladder. She stepped over it and went into a solo with big movements, then went to the corner and scanned the horizon – shades of Loring, de Mille, and the West of the American imagination. Gosa cradled her to a lullaby that might have been orchestrated by Hershey Kay.

Gleich didn’t act out the songs; Courtney Cochran danced a solo to Cline singing “You’ve been foolin’ around on me.” We were left to make the associations – and there were plenty. The song morphed into a happy female duo, then a trio.  In Cline’s “Tra la la triangle,” the ménage a trois wasn’t dutifully shown; the dance was instead a quartet. Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” wasn’t a pas de deux or pas de trois, but a male solo. At the side, all the women were putting apron after apron on Cassidy Hall.

Gleich’s research and analysis gave her the focus and stamina to make the piece, but what made “Martha” stageworthy was a clean balance of mood, choreography and association. The references and structure combined were strong enough to glue the ballet together.

The dancers changed from soft slippers to pointe shoes and back throughout the work – the entire cast. Gosa danced one section on pointe. Gleich also used partnering when the women danced in pairs; simple supports by the wrist. Watching Gleich detach gender from partnering – and all ballet technique – was fascinating. She fashioned a completely equal duet to “The Yellow Rose of Texas” with both Gosa and Michelle Buckley on pointe. Buckley supported Gosa in an arabesque, than he supported her. The partnering didn’t always work – in attitude she was too short to help him, but getting that duet to the stage as choreography beyond a gimmick was a radical moment.

Duane Gosa and Michelle Buckley in “Martha (The Searchers).” Photo courtesy of Norte Maar.

Doffing the pointe shoes, Gosa danced a solo to – of all things – Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” but it made sense. The song is the same story of conquering a new land, only a millennium prior. Gosa moved slowly in attitude penchée and then braced himself back like Krishna in a pose that might have been lifted from bharatanatyam. A woman’s solo quoted Myrtha’s bourrées in “Giselle” and there were additional references to the Wilis in a zombie walk.  Gleich was quoting from all over the map, but it made for a fascinating landscape.

She had a knack for being incendiary without burning down the house. She knew she didn’t have to do much more than put a racially mixed, largely female cast dancing to “Deep in the Heart of Texas” to leave a thousand questions hanging in the air.

The weakest aspect of the ballet was technical. Gleich was interested in pointe work, but not in its perfection, so the leg lines were often incomplete: eloquent when the dancers rose to bourrée, but less refined when stating a position in pointe tendue. You got the sense she enjoyed that. She set a unisex group adagio to delicate piano music. It quoted elegant classical positions and mime (notably the crossed wrists for “die”) but then the group did a grand battement with the leg dropping loudly to the floor.

“Martha” didn’t hand you the kinetic rush of great 20th century ballet choreography, and perhaps Gleich wouldn’t care to. Instead, “Martha” was bracing, forcing you to watch with sharp eyes. The hour-long ballet meandered toward a few closes.  There were points you wished Gleich would wrap it up, and maybe give some answers, but she never tied things together in a pretty yellow bow. It finished back at Patsy Cline with – what else – “Crazy.” As Cline crooned, Gleich walked on to the performance area and vacuumed the bits of carpet on the floor, which shooed the dancers offstage as the lights dimmed. Because life goes on and the place has got to get cleaned.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“Martha (The Searchers)” – Gleich Dances
Mark Morris Dance Center, Brooklyn, NY
October 27, 2017

Cover: Cassidy Hall, Jordan Miller, Duane Gosa and Amy Saunder in “Martha (The Searchers).” Photo courtesy of Norte Maar.

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