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Review 3, 3-4: She's Sort of got the Music in Her
Miller Meets Bach, Half-way
By Nancy Dalva
Copyright 2003 Nancy Dalva
NEW YORK -- In the pleasant
auditorium of the John Jay College Theater (on 10th Avenue between
58th and 59th Streets in Manhattan), Lincoln Center has started
presenting excellent music concerts with a dance component. (A previous
entry, Trisha Brown's choreography to Shubert's "Winterreise," with the fantastic British baritone Simon
Keenlyside, was so popular it will return to Lincoln Center this
summer.) This time around, as part of the New Visions: Bach Variations
series, Ballet Freiburg Pretty Ugly teamed up with members of the
Freiburg Baroque Orchestra to present "The Art of the Fugue," seen
We already know from
Mark Morris that not only can baroque music and post-modernism co-exist,
they can sublimely mate -- but perhaps it takes a choreographer
with a baroque turn of mind to pull it off. Amanda Miller, the American
founder of Pretty Ugly (she previously worked under William Forsythe
at Ballett Frankfurt) has a vaporous musicality, and appears to
little care for structure, or musical hermeneutics. (If she does,
she doesn't show it.)
Miller is fond of twist
and torque, of distortion, and curious misalignments. But her kinesthetic
perversities -- which she sets up in the first half of her program
as a kind of parallel universe to the music-- are no match for the
clear-minded intricacies of the Bach. Only when she bows to the
music, late in the second half, does she overcome the cognitive
dissonance -- and cognitive distance -- she establishes at the outset.
(For anyone thinking that this is like the separation of music and
dance achieved by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company under the artistic
direction of Cunningham and the musical direction of John Cage,
whose music Miller has used before, it is not. There, the dance
is made in silence, and rehearsed in silence, and has an independent
life from the music. Miller's work, in contrast, was made with the
music in mind and exists to be seen as it is heard. )
During the first half
of "The Art of the Fugue," all of the dancers -- there are eight
in the company -- are posturally warped, with a curious carriage.
Their ribs are thrust forward over their toes; their backs are arched
down low, so they are disconcertingly callipygian; their shoulders
are unaligned, with one higher than another. A twisted, hunched
upper arm or a looming bottom are often the initiators of Miller's
phrasing, which comes out of nowhere, and recedes there. (Just in
case we weren't aware that this isn't your usual ballet, the dancers,
with two exceptions, wear socks, as if in rehearsal. Their chic,
dark blue and grey-toned costumes mix shorts or skirts with t-shirts
or more conventional leotard-looking tops devised by the choreographer
and Lisa Brzonkalla.)
In program notes, Miller
says she uses neither counting nor cuing on the notes in this choreography.
"I prefer music which is based more on the resonance of a note than
on the exact note itself," she explains. This vague approach leads
the dancers into trouble when they cannot easily cue off one another,
and by default makes solos and duets her strong suit. (In ensemble,
you could see worried visual checking, blurred attacks, not- quite-
unisons, and the like.) To complicate matters, Miller uses a dual
front, with some in the audience -- and their winter coats and shopping
bags and whatnot -- sitting on a bench at the back of the stage.
The dancers sit on a bench at the left, and the musicians to the
right. The curtains are all stripped away, and some grey walls form
a back and side-drop. This arrangement, quite handsome, is designed
and lit by Seth Tillett, who doubles as the dance company's dramaturg.
On the floor, a grey
pentagonal covering echoes the five-ness of the musical ensemble,
which includes two violinists, a violist, a cellist, and a harpsichordist.
The latter, Michael Behringer, emerges as the spiritual eminence
of the piece, watching the dancers with a keen attention when not
stooped over his keyboard in a gentle, inverted question mark.
Playing period instruments,
the Freiburg establish a warm choral resonance as soon as their
stringed voices join together. Only well into the second half of
the work does Miller answer in kind, introducing a clear canon.
As the dance bends to the music, the dancers revert to a pleasant,
more natural, and more subtle bearing -- which is different for
each of them. This is not surprising, as they come from varied backgrounds
-- Momix, the Rambert Academy, the Institut del Teatre de Barcelona,
the Conservatorio Nacional de Danca in Lisbon, Madame Floriane Vergere
in Geneva -- and various countries. Nonetheless, they cohere. The
cleanest performance, a running around solo that sends the piece
into the same orbit as the music, belongs to Kideto Heshiki, whose
background includes Butoh. The most buoyant is that of Shane Hedges,
who springs from the School of American Ballet and the Joffrey Ballet
School. Maybe it doesn't matter what you train in, if you train
well, any more than it matters what you believe in, if you believe
well. I'm not sure what Amanda Miller herself believes in, from
the evidence of this piece, though I have some idea of what she
doesn't. About J.S. Bach, though, I have no doubts.
Nancy Dalva is the senior writer for 2wice.
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