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Flash Report, 1-9: It's All Good
More Surprises at Arts Presenters, Day Three

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider

Can we just agree now that Fritha Pengelly is the hottest dancer in America? This was the talk around here at The Dance Insider offices already, but until I caught Pengelly in a solo from Doug Elkins's "Last Train to Philly," in Elkins's Elsie Management showcase yesterday at the annual Arts Presenters conference, I personally didn't fully realize what people were talking about. So this discovery can't quite qualify as a "surprise," but there were still surprises in Day three of the conference in the showcases I saw at City Center and the New 42nd Street Studios.

Watching Pengelly go into a patented Elkins hip-hop, trip-hop, and yet still very classy concert-dancey zone, I understood exactly what my colleague Veronica Dittman implied when she asked, in Flash View, 12-22: It's the Dancer, "How are so many talented dancers today expanding, illuminating, and challenging the choreography they perform?" In bemoaning the lack of written tributes to modern dancers relative to those penned about ballet dancers, Veronica also pointed out that while they may stretch and challenge it, ballet dancers at least have a technical reference point, the ballet vocabulary.

To varying extends, modern dancers also have systems in their spines, which might be called multiple degrees of Martha. No matter how removed from that font, one might argue, the choreographer working within modern dance, and auditioning modern dancers, can usually count on his or her dancers having a technique that's at least passed through the Graham terrain. But still -- and particularly for those outside of category, e.g. release technique -- the dancer, as opposed to the ballet dancer who is able to rely on a set mathematical system, is in some cases, especially with young choreographers, inventing that system with the choreographer. By being the first to dance on point, Maria Taglioni, Fanny Bias, Vaque-Moulin, and Amalia Brugnoli weren't just vessels, but were inventing this technique with the choreographers. It's the same thing with many of our post-post modern dancers.

While it might be too early to identify an Elkins technique, it's not too early to say that with each year and just about each new ballet, Elkins raises the barre, not just for himself, but for others working in his milieu. At yesterday's showcase, he jokingly (I think) called "Philadelphia" his post-it to Rennie Harris, who has also been endeavoring to corral hip-hop into the concert hall. Harris, as manifest in his "Rome & Jewels," has certainly enlarged the hip-hop universe, and made its expression concert-worthy. But Elkins, as shown in this solo anyway, has truly fused the two.

The locking, popping, and releasing are there in Pengelly's dancing, to a trip-hoppy mix by The Roots, and these are not new to Elkins. What was new, at least to my viewing, is that while Pengelly's microscale was classic break dance, infused with a tad of capoiera fluidity, her macroscale -- in other words, the way she covered the stage, as opposed to the way she maneuvered her body -- were all ballet, in the scope of the territory.

Because I haven't seen Marlies Yearby as much as I have Elkins, I can't compare her to her. However, I can say that, having winced when I heard the words "structured improv," I quickly had to retract my wince after seeing her showcase. Yearby's wiggly, squiggly, fluid body gave her a large universe from which to select as she made up her part of the dance. She and musician Cooper Moore and singer Laurie Carlos talked, another wince-maker for me usually (because the choreographer is often not as proficient in creating dialogue as in making dance), but they used words as they should be used in dance -- as sound more than meaning elements, I thought. At one point, Yearby even cut her own sound off; her lips kept moving, but nothing issued from them.

Sound, and youthful innocence, was what impressed me most about Anna Myer & Dancers, whose "Angle of Repose" included a mostly-duet to a mix of an acoustic silent night and Vietnam War news reports.

It might be going too far to call Mark Haim the male Fritha Pengelly, and yet the edges he gave to Bach's seemingly tranquil "Goldberg Variations" at least suggest the likeness. His goal, Haim explained to the presenter-heavy crowd, was to take music essentially written to put people asleep and see if he could create movement to keep people awake.

Haim, accompanied by Andre Gribou on what Gribou caveated was a "PLO" or "Piano-like-object," definitely found a way to keep the audience awake from the get; one of the presenters was charged with calling out the numbers of the variations Haim then danced to. Well, while this music -- you may have heard the famous Glenn Gould recordings - is reflective, Haim's dance ideas for it were reflexive -- demanding great reflexes from him, in a careful, specific response to the notes. Not so much note-by-note specific -- thank you, that other Mark - but pace and spirit and mood specific. What's the surprise, you ask? Exactly that Haim's choreography to this pensive music called for fleetness and dashing, delivered fleetly and dashingly by his, ahem, dancer too.

A more strictly lyrical mood came from Randy James Dance Works's "Moonlight Sonata," to Beethoven excerpts. Laura Colby, whose Elsie Management hosted the series of showcases we're breaking down at the moment, had cautioned at the beginning of the afternoon that the setting was not ideal one -- i.e. that the City Center studio setting was sans the usual full-bore theatrical elements. And yet James and his dancers, particularly in a quartet where they kept huddling together, the women extending bent legs as the group twirled, made me forget we were in basically a cold, barren studio. I felt as if in a full-bore, transporting theatrical experience.

Now, starting with Dennis O'Connor Dance, I experienced the first of my three (two good, one bad) biggest surprises for the day. I hadn't seen the former Merce Cunningham dancer's work before. And the first work on his 15-minute program left me cold -- a bit too rangy for me, to a rangier, acerbic David Linton score. Tho I admired Linda Sastradipradja's intensity and seriousness of purpose, O'Connor, as dancer, was all over the place.

But then "The Yellow Wallpaper" kicked in, or excerpts there of, and, specifically, Jodi Melnick stepped up, and man! I can see now why "Jodi's Body" inspired a film of the same name. Call me a dance outsider, but tho I'd heard of Melnick, I'd never had the pleasure of a Melnick tour-de-force, which is, I think after watching her solo from the "Charlotte" section of this work, what all her performances must be. Another talking dance this -- in fact, Melnick never stops dancing, or, importantly, moving, in a slithery but exact, quick manner. It soon became clear -- to me, anyway -- that what she and the choreographer were evoking was New York City. Particularly when her babble -- a litany mostly of complaints of annoyances encountered on a city street -- is briefly, without her losing a breath, interrupted when she flicks her head to the side and notices, "Oh, a new gallery!" before flicking it back. Make Melnick another to add to Veronica's requested tributes to major moderns, at least in this critic's book.

I must admit I was skeptical about KT/Dance when I saw that its raves came from its hometown of Seattle. See, there was another Seattle company that was the rage a year or so ago -- 33 Fainting Spells -- and yet when I saw its concert I called the "Don't Believe the Hype" mantra up. In this case, tho, I'm here to tell ya: Believe, Believe. I'm just noticing now that the title of the company's showcased piece is "Attracted to Accidents," but it makes sense. Highpoints of the controlled havoc, impact-sensitive movement include when all watch, their heads bobbing, an accident in progress offstage. At another point, they all hit the deck face-forward and then, I swear, reverberate, their bodies bouncing up and down. A female dancer is thrown in the air by two others, and easily caught on the way down. A woman talks about an earthquake that hit her hometown, the other four dancers act it out, and only at the conclusion does she tell us that she wishes she was there when the quake happened. These dancers, tho, put us there.

They've given accidents multiple physical dimensions, and chaos beauty. My only fear, tho, was that some of our New York choreographers might try to steal these pitch-perfect performers.

Risa Steinberg is a dance archeologist. Her "Celebration of Dance" one-woman show includes not just works of the famous in the modern canon -- like Duncan, Humphrey, and Sokolow -- but lesser-remembered choreographers like Eleanor King, whose "Wrath" conjured a witch's brew of sweeping movement.

....I left Elsie's showcase early to make my way through the persistent Manhattan rain down 7th Avenue, towards the bright lights, big city of Times Square. As I approached the new New 42nd Street Studios, I had to run the gauntlet past a horde of screaming teenagers, penned in behind police barricades, who seemed to be shouting and screaming, on cue, at something above me. My first conclusion of course was, "Oh, some enthusiastic Parsons fans," but no, I looked up and saw the "MTV" logo on the clear window, and the cameras behind it. And yes, I was tempted to coral these adulants and bring them to the REAL show happening around the corner.

Well, it's a good thing I didn't, because the IMG showcase, at studio 3A in this new building, was packed, SUOHRO (Sitting Uncomfortably on Haunches Room Only). The 90-capacity room was full of about 200 people, mostly presenters. Notwithstanding my snide inside joke above, my aching back was the only reason, really, why I left the studio before the Parsons showcase. Before that, tho, I temporarily forgot my pain, given perspective by Pilobolus and, particularly, Matt Kent and Benjamin Pring as, attached only by Pring's arms behind him around Kent's torso, they double-cartwheeled -- among other feats -- off the stage. This was one of several gasp moments for the audience. Maura Nguyen Donohue has previously reviewed this dance, so I'll add just one thing about "Tsu-Ku-Tsu," this collaboration with Taiko drum master Leonard Eto: I'm well-versed enough in the Pilobolus vocabulary to be able to recognize which old phrases they've tapped for a new dance and its "new" combinations. Here, tho, every single phrase seemed new; I liked not just the way Renee Jaworski (sp.? Sorry, she's great and lithesome and winsome, but she's new, and unlike Elsie's showcase, no program was handed out by IMG listing the dancers, at least to me. Oy!) slowly climbed up Gaspard Louis, but the way she calmly sashayed her upper body while in what must have been a strainful position. I also liked how Josie Coyoc, tossed in the air, spun complete around before coming down in another dancer's arms. (So impressively, in fact, that I've completely blocked out the identity of the dancer who caught her!) (While we're on the subject, heart-felt Dance Insider condolences to Ms. Coyoc, who recently lost her step-mother.)

Adam Battelstein and Rebecca Stenn, who make up Pilobolus Too, performed a riveting duet from the ever-poignant classic "Land's Edge." I'm aware that in my last I rhapsodized at length about Stenn's own company, and with she a friend, yet, so I won't say more about this piece here, although I would like to repeat the mantra those of us who support and pitch Pilobolus Too have adapted: This is not your typical second company. Stenn and Battelstein, its founding dancers, are seasoned veterans of Pilobolus and Momix. What this essentially is is a company that specializes in Pilobolus duets, some old, some new; that can travel cheaper because of its size; and that excels at teaching residencies.

The New 42nd Street itself, through the New Victory Theater, excels at teaching children about dance. Its studios seem to have come through just in the nick of time for the companies showcasing at the Arts Presenters conference. Next year, word has it, City Center studios will be less available to these companies, so the New 42nd Street studios are expected to help fill this void.

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