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Letter from New York, 11-29: An Open Mind
Popkin Makes the Most of Miniatures; Stein Responds to Orff

By Alison D'Amato
Copyright 2006 Alison D'Amato

NEW YORK -- The weekend before Thanksgiving, in two different East Coast cities, two different choreographers demonstrated the difficulties and rewards of entering into collaborative relationships with existing works of art. In Philadelphia, Leah Stein presented her take on Carl Orff's opera "Carmina Burana;" at Danspace Project in New York, Lionel Popkin premiered "Miniature Fantasies," a dance inspired and accompanied by centuries-old Indian miniature paintings. It's really Popkin's work that I intended to cover, but watching "Carmina Burana" the next night induced me to further reflect on the complexity of such an engagement. The question seems to be how to dance with a completed, self-sufficient work (or works) without veering into either slavish mimicry or pointless juxtaposition.

It may seem odd to frame this question in terms of collaboration. Collaboration is about synthesis -- one set of ideas working off and against another to produce something bearing the imprint of both. Stein and Popkin are sidling up against the immutable, the immovable, the "finished." Yet there is little reason to enter into such a project if the aim is to take an already beautiful object and merely ornament it. These choreographers are both clever enough to know that the thrill lies in getting an audience to see these works differently, anew. Their job is to mobilize a kinetic world that unearths new dimensions in the static (in the case of the paintings) or the invisible (in the case of the music). We imagine that without the dance, this new dimension would remained buried, its power untapped.

About a third of the way through Popkin's lovely piece, we are treated to a playful physicalization of the push and pull between a dancing body and its painterly inspiration. The dancers have been manipulating slide projectors that cast the vibrantly saturated Indian paintings onto the inner surfaces of St. Mark's Church. Carolyn Hall, holding the projector, facilitates a pas de deux between Jennifer Dignan and the image. She hops, it hops. She swerves, it swerves. There are moments when Dignan seems to be chasing the image, exploring its contours to find her way inside as perhaps Popkin, the choreographer, is. But the bouncing and jerking projection indicates another possibility: that this 400-year-old tableau might be willing to respond to our modern eyes, spirits, and bodies.

The images, or ragamalas, certainly respond to their temporary home. St. Mark's is a space that can often seem both intimate and cavernous, and the projections curl around the sanctuary's architecture, with just a few sly echoes indicating that Popkin carefully placed them as opposed to just superimposing them randomly. The arch of a gazebo graces the arch of a doorway, for example. It's also nice to see technology so calmly integrated into the choreography. We've grown accustomed to the onslaught of motion sensitive lights, light-beaming costumes, and individually programmed iPod scores; I for one found myself breathing a sigh of relief to see the dancers creep around to the dark side of the projector and focus it manually. No tricks.

Responsiveness also characterized the movement, which relied heavily on contact-based partnering. Popkin's work here is solid and studied. Hall, Dignan, and Popkin, who joins them onstage, share the obvious bonds that come from a lot of time in the studio spent giving and taking impulses, listening to a partner's breathing, and feeling for another's shifting weight. In a few sections, however, the flow of this chemistry was broken as Popkin stood apart, possibly isolated by the demands of the choreographic process. His solo sections were powerful and exact (all three dancers are excellent), yet they felt slightly self-contained. We were treated to one trio that was a thrilling flurry of slicing and scooping limbs, but we could have used more such charged, visceral moments.

"Miniature Fantasies" is also successful because images and movement sequences have room to breathe. Nothing rushes forward simply to make way for the new. Even fairly mundane material gets a mysterious boost: something like the crooked leg of a back attitude can look unexpectedly fresh, like you haven't seen it done just that way before. The dancers are confident in their presence, and work through moments of minimal kinetic material with assurance. In fact, the piece opens with a strikingly sensual image of all three performers sitting on the floor facing us, leaning back on the palms of their hands. Feet flat on the stage and knees up in the air, they roll through their shoulders to create a wavelike pattern. This sustained gesture is one of extreme openness. I continued to feel drawn in throughout, and at the very end, the dancers approach us directly, pointing the projected images above our heads or at the walls behind us. All of this contributed to a warm sense of inclusion, indicating the work's responsiveness to us, and the choreographer's responsiveness to his source material.

Leah Stein's "Carmina Burana" was performed in Philadelphia's magnificent Girard College Chapel, with over 100 singers from the Mendelssohn Club backing the dancers, so the circumstances were somewhat more grandiose than Popkin's setting. Yet the important thing, an essential responsiveness, was still there. It is what helped Stein make sense of Orff's monumental score, just as it allowed Popkin access to the intricacies of his Indian ragamalas. I could have imagined either piece being conceived and executed differently, exposing different facets of the work the choreographers aimed to tackle. However, the real pleasure of both evenings was in hearing a choreographic voice in response to something, not trying to overcome it, not overcome by it, but approaching it openly, wondering what might reveal itself.

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