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Flash Review 1, 3-8: Style-Busting Daddy
Seamless Swimming with Munisteri & Crew

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2001 Alicia Mosier

Ben Munisteri brought his lean, mean, gorgeous company uptown last night for the first of five performances at the Duke on 42nd Street, as part of the seventh annual 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Project. With a tight-knit program of three pieces, Munisteri presented a concert so bold and satisfying that, frankly, if somebody told me his group was performing in some guy's living room in Jersey on a Tuesday afternoon, I would drop everything and get on the train. But this is not an ensemble that will be performing in anyone's living room anytime soon. They are masterful, and it was excellent to see them in their debut with Harkness.

The buzz on Munisteri -- a Brooklyn-born choreographer who got his start in dance clubs and has been presenting his pieces in New York for seven years -- is that he's come up with an inventive mix of club dance and ballet. What I saw last night was a mix that didn't look like a mix. It was a fully articulated style that comes at you from a single, comprehensible, confident point of view. Sure, Munisteri will follow an entrechat quatre with some Saturday Night Fever arm action; there's a pas de bourree to die for, right before the hip swivels that would put J. Lo to shame. But the real revelation in Munisteri's style is that all of this is completely integrated: no seams show. This places it in a different category from most of the other hybrids out there, whose ballet/modern/hip-hop juxtapositions look like exercises out of a textbook about how to be postmodern and cool. Munisteri's dances look like *dancing,* and there's not a cliche in sight.

A huge part of the reason that's so is the spot-on musical sense that shows up in his pieces. Maybe it's his history of listening to great DJs that gives Munisteri his ear for these connections. There are fresh beats from the Ohio Players, old-country wails from Iva Bittova, and the soaring sounds of Renee Fleming all edited together by Evren Celimli in "Unspeakable Plastic Plastic Earth"; brooding Richard Strauss and the unbelievably funkadelic Celimli again in "The Rosenkavalier (Lust is a Pig, Wallowing and Groveling in Mud and Filth)"; and Bela Bartok and Kate Bush, who turn out to be soul-mates in a weird way, in "The Day I Learned to Swim." The flow from genre to genre in these scores is analogous to the flow from movement to movement in Munisteri's choreography: the stylistic interruptions are not ruptures, the mixing's not mixed-up. It all makes a delicious sort of sense.

It also makes for a delicious sort of tension. Every single thing makes you cock your head and surrender to it all at the same time. In "Unspeakable Plastic Plastic Earth," Lisa Wheeler does an arabesque penchee while cradling her cheek in her hand, an intrepid, tender gesture that telegraphs the mood of the entire piece. The almost hieroglyphic silhouettes that begin the sensual and refined "Rosenkavalier" turn into a menage of fluid angles in trios and duets; then there's Christine McMillan regally perched on the head of Munisteri, her feet on another dancer's shoulders. When Celimli starts to make that Strauss score rock about halfway through, you see five dancers lined up with breakdancing arms and pulsing grand plies, or burning across the stage in whip-fast half-turning leaps. The partnering is smooth and creative -- a lot of the partnering at the New York City Ballet isn't as strong as this! -- and the slightly skewed patterns on the stage are invariably beautiful. It's just what you want to see: movement that's both surprising and right.

"The Day I Learned to Swim," which premiered last night, began as a project at the Pyramid Club, a venerable dive in the East Village, and I wish I'd seen it there before it came uptown. Its energy was hot on the stage of the Duke, but at the cramped, smoky Pyramid it must have been absolutely fire-starting. The piece begins with Munisteri doing push-ups to Bartok and ends with three simultaneous duets, in exquisite, explosive slow-motion, to a keening Kate Bush. What happens in the six sections in between has the same dynamic range and magic I saw in the other pieces. Munisteri moves his dancers through drastic shifts in velocity and more subtle shifts in style without ever losing the clarity of his design. There's a hint of a doggy paddle and an almost-plunge in "The Day I Learned to Swim," and a suggestion of risk and trust and trials and errors, but there are no pretentious lessons here -- just a total experience, at once raucous and reflective, that evolves through intelligent movement. I liked the short purple, pink, gray, and black patchwork tunics Julia N. Van Vliet designed, and here as elsewhere Kathy Kaufmann's lighting made a wondrous world out of a boxy stage.

And what dancers! Every forty seconds I had a new favorite. They make a tight team, but their distinctiveness is never hidden. Munisteri himself has a casual, Brooklyn-boy air, long legs and arms, and incredible strength. Mikey Thomas was sweet and shy in "Unspeakable Plastic Plastic Earth." Toby Billowitz was an axis of power in "The Day I Learned to Swim." Wheeler has been with Munisteri from the beginning; she dances like she doesn't care who's watching her, and it makes you want to watch her even more. (She also choreographed one section of "The Day I Learned to Swim.") McMillan, who dances with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, has a degree in ballet and psychology, which may explain the wry, wild consciousness you can see edging out of her classical body. Dusan Tynek caught my eye as one of a pair of warm, wide-eyed brunettes in the first piece on the program; he was friendly yet detached, and beautiful to watch. The other half of that pair was Tricia Brouk, who has a Julianne Moore pallor and a style so clear, honest, and eloquent that -- especially in her dance to Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work," with Wheeler dancing the same steps a couple feet away -- it brought tears to my eyes. Toward the end of the show I couldn't stop looking at her.

Catch Ben Munisteri at the Duke, 229 W. 42nd Street, tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 and 8 p.m. Call 212-415-5552 for more information. You can find more on Ben by visiting his web site.

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