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Flash Review 1, 6-21: Upstaged and Trumped
Caines Reaches for the Stars and Falls just Short

By Douglas Frank
Copyright 2005 Douglas Frank

NEW YORK -- Thursday's premiere of "Tenebrae" by the Christopher Caines Dance Company at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church inspired awe -- thanks to the magnificent music of Thomas Tallis -- and there's the rub. Other aspects of the work -- Caines's choreography, dancing, costumes, lighting -- paled (understandably) in the light and grandeur of music by Tallis and its live performance.

"Tenebrae" was set to three compositions by Tallis (c.1505-1585) -- one of the most influential English composers of the Renaissance as well as today, aided by the monopoly right granted to him and his famous student William Byrd by Queen Elizabeth I in 1575 to print and publish vocal music -- and included his magnum opus, "Spem in alium," an amazing a cappella motet for 40 vocal parts. One of the greatest of great works, it has mesmerized audiences in countless performances for nearly 500 years as a transformational star.

Tenebrae translates from Latin as "darkness" and also is a solemn service during Holy Week in the Catholic Church -- lit by candles, extinguished one by one. A kind of funeral service for the Christ, it recreates betrayal and abandonment and ends in total darkness. The very bright lighting design for "Tenebrae" seemed at odds with its title. Adding to the challenge of achieving balance between the music and the visual elements of this interdisciplinary creation was the captivating performance of the 40 singers assembled by Robb Moss for the "Spem in alium." With expert direction by conductor Kristina Boerger, the ensemble delivered crystal-clear and glorious singing that all but obliviated other elements of the work.

Now, Mr. Caines and his dancers deserve a lot of credit for reaching for this star, so this reviewer returned on Friday evening to try to focus on the dance itself; it remained challenging. What was evident, however, was that the choreography related far less superficially to the music than, for example, many dances by Mark Morris. There were no hands fluttering to trills in the music in this work -- a credit to Mr. Caines that dance insiders surely can appreciate. Dancers with arms held straight out to their sides were carried like human crosses by other dancers. The company formed a cross in the center of the church and each dancer raised one arm to the heavens in a memorable moment. The dancers performed with tremendous heart and intensity not equal to the celestial music by Tallis.

It's a good bet, however, that even if the greatest dancers of all time (40 would be four times as many as deployed in this "Tenebrae") were here working with the best choreographer of all time (take your pick), the resulting work would likely still reflect the final words of theTallis motet -- "respice humilitatem nostram" -- "look (or gaze) upon our insignificance / unimportance / humiliation; commonplaceness; lowness (position/rank); humbleness; humility."

"Spem in alium" has delighted (and humbled) about 20 generations of human beings, so these dancers found themselves in good and plentiful company.

Also on the program was Caines in "Stay" (2004). Dressed in white tails, he gracefully stretched up and sank down in a pleasing homage to Isadora Duncan set to music by Brahms, also performed live and with feeling by pianist Marija Ilic; a dance-music pas de deux.

A great switch to a group of Cabaret-style dances followed, "Can't Sleep" (2004-2005), set to sophisticated music by William Bolcom (b.1938) and texts by Arnold Weinstein. Ms. Ilic sustained the rewarding music, joined by the singers Silvie Jensen (soprano) and Alan Reinhardt (baritone), who sang from that deeper place that all singers and dancers seek to tap into. The dancer Val Loukiano stood out from the company with amazing arm and leg extensions and suppleness of torso, fully realizing without words and through movement a deliciously devilish character, Black Max. Another unique and funny piece of vocabulary by Mr. Caines was making a 'dead man' walk -- having two male dancers hold another up by his arms while kicking his legs forward one after another.

Carry on, Mr. Caines. Employing musicians performing live music in this and all of your work is a far more powerful thing than music emanating from speakers. Your guts in taking on Tallis and experimenting, enhancing and refining your brave and worthwhile endeavors deserve praise. Without artists like you, we might wind up in a world with few options in dance-music-theater other than those downtown dance blues and things like "Movin' Out" -- and what an un-wonderful world that would be. Thank you for your dedication and for offering a gratifying place beyond the scope of so much of (that oxymoron) American culture.

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