Steps or Choreography?

by Leigh Witchel

Program 4 of Fall for Dance had four dances on it. Two were choreography.

Gauthier Dance/Dance Company Theaterhaus Stuttgart brought Andonis Foniadakis’ “Streams,” a piece of unbounded energy and limited composition. A dance made this year for a cast of 13, “Streams” was all frenzied activity: shake, bounce and rattle without letup. The performance felt part discotheque, part Judy Miller.

The work began with a man entering. He was shirtless, wearing metallic reflective jeans. There was a beaded curtain at the back of the stage.  And smoke. There was enough haze during this show to be a tobacco convention. The next man entered, taking up the movement thread but not varying it.

Four men came to the center of the stage, then the full group in unison. The dance pushed on, glitzy and relentless. Even when Julien Tarride’s music was slow, the entrances and exits of the cast were all full-tilt. The dancing took tremendous physical energy and control but it was movement diarrhea.

Things improved when Foniadakis began to shape the spew into choreography. A male trio cut through a female duet, and two couples worked in counterpoint. Soon after, two men came front, bourréeing softly on high half-toe, arms spread as if crucified. They returned to restate the phrase, moving into a clean pirouette, and the reprise added cogency. The vivid closing tableau set the full cast as if a mountain were being scaled, but “Streams” relied too much on movement over structure, and ran out of things to say before it ended.

“Streams.” Photo © Stephanie Berger.

Vancouver’s Ballet BC brought another Ritalin dance: “Bill,” originally done in 2010 by Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar for Batsheva Dance Company. There was more smoke, more loud music, and a dance beat provided by Ori Lichtik’s soundtrack.

“Bill” showed off Ballet BC in a series of solos, each differentiated in movement palette, but without the sense of a goal beyond showing off. The first man looked as if he was hitting pinball bumpers, the next walked with his back wildly distorted. But the moves didn’t accrete into an idea.

After several more solos, the whole group came in grunting and doing silly walks. Dancers periodically screamed like drill sergeants. Like a lot of School of Batsheva works, it thought it said more than it did.

“Bill” had a stronger grip on its physical structure than “Streams.” A long section set three groups in tight formation off of one another, with a soloist in the front. It turned into a robotic merengue but kept on going. There may have been a physical shape to the dance, but what was missing was the larger architecture. You could have put the whole thing on shuffle play without changing the dance’s effect, and the way you knew “Bill” was over was that the curtain fell.

“Bill.” Photo © Stephanie Berger.

Kyle Abraham used many of the same ingredients for “Drive” – solos, duets and a series of entries – but shaped them into choreography.

Of course there was smoke. This time with scorching, incandescent backlighting. A man entered in rolling phrases. Theo Parrish’s music pumped and throbbed. The lyrics growled, “Drive, bitch. Drive,” but Abraham didn’t always succumb to the beat. He used adagio and slow motion against the driving disco pace. The full cast entered, rubbed their arms and slowly moved towards us in a mysterious preparation. The piece broke into counterpoint with one half of the group set off against the other.

A woman came out and the smoke returned. The music segued into rap by Mobb Deep. The woman’s solo movement was almost mournful: slow languid movements, but with clenched fists hinting at frustration. A music clip was played backwards; the lights grew uncomfortably bright and the same woman finished “Drive” by walking slowly towards us as the music faded. A commission for the festival, Abraham’s work felt even more au courant than the others, but there was also a sense of focus and design in “Drive.”

“Drive.” Photo © Stephanie Berger.

When Sara Mearns ventures outside of New York City Ballet, her biggest challenge is not to be Sara Mearns. In “No. 1,” a duet for her and contemporary hip-hop dancer Honji Wang – and also a festival commission – Mearns rose to the challenge.

The piece was created by Wang and her partner Sébastien Ramirez. A Korean dancer based in Germany, Wang is small, and used her size comically, She began alone on a dark, stripped stage, doing frenzied hip hop isolations to a typing noise. A light shone, revealing a barre on the stage. She went forward to it, but didn’t see it as support, rather as a barrier. She leaned on top of the barre, maneuvering herself over and under.

Mearns entered in warmups with a classical tutu practice skirt. She dropped the skirt at the side, went over to the barre and started doing a typical warm-up. That might be old hat to any ballet dancer, but Wang was transfixed by the stereotype. She hung on the barre, tried to imitate Mearns’ movement, and got in the way. Irritated, Mearns dragged the barre away, stripped off her warmups down to a leotard and tights, and put on her tutu skirt. Such is Mearns’ magnetic stage presence that Wang might have been at center stage, moving at top speed in a million little ways, but you’d still have watched Mearns at the side, changing.

The dance turned into a duel, with each dancer copying and transposing the other’s moves with fascinating results: watching Wang bourrée and take a back attitude in sneakers; watching Mearns pop and lock in pointe shoes. Mearns spun into fast chaînés, then bumped into Wang and they scuffled. A lot was played for laughs.

The stage brightened, the music slowed and the two slowly touched one another: wrapping, partnering without weight. She explored Mearns’ range of motion like a jointed doll. Mearns extended, leaned back on Wang or leaned forward into arabesque penchée, supported on Wang’s back as Wang hunched over.

The roles were fixed – Mearns was the ballerina; Wang her awed worshipful partner. The big surprise: in an era of skepticism about gender typing, instead of taking Mearns off her pedestal, Wang had somehow put her even higher up. The duet culminated with Wang on the floor and Mearns stepping over her on toe as Wang rolled along with her: a crazy, eerie, and somehow perfect echo of “La Sonnambula.” They ended by walking calmly together back into darkness.

Every work on the program was a hit, but you could see the difference between the works with moves and the ones that went beyond that to choreography with architecture and ideas. Of the ideas, the most interesting was watching Mearns be something other than her brand. What was fascinating in that process was that the stereotype that got exploded was not the ballerina, but her cavalier.

Copyright ©2017 by Leigh Witchel

Fall for Dance Program 4
New York City Center, New York, NY
October 12, 2017

Cover: Honji Wang and Sara Mearns in “No. 1.” Photo © Stephanie Berger.

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