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Letter from New York, 2-1: East Side, West Side
Post-Ballet Versus Pre-Postmodern; San Diego Dance Theater, Complexions, & Aspen Santa Fe Ballet

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2007 Gus Solomons jr

California Streaming

Jean Isaacs brought her San Diego Dance Theater to Dance: Access Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church (January 11-13) with a program of spacious, airy dances, which delight the eye while they're happening and fade quickly from memory. Isaacs is an accomplished crafter of movement and space, weaving canons and counterpoint motifs into rich, delicate textures of continual motion that remain energetically fairly even.

The first duet in her "Cheers" (2006), set to songs by gravel-throated Damien Rice, and danced with convincing dramatic intensity by Sadie Weinberg and Bradley Lundberg, showed the most sophisticated, inventive partnering of the evening. And the premiere "Her It Age" recounts in recorded monologs humorous and poignant autobiographical details of choreographer Isaacs's Italian background sandwiched between musical excerpts -- Pablo Casals's cello virtuosity, Puccini's "Nessum Dorma" aria, and Italo-American pop vocal renditions by Dean Martin ("Memories are Made of This"), Peggy Lee ("If That's All There Is"), and Lou Conte ("Lazy Mary").

Guest choreographer Jeffrey Gerodias, Isaacs's former student who danced for a decade with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, contributed "Giallo per Quattro" ("Yellow for Four"), a well-crafted essay for two couples, set to Beethoven's "Moonlight" and "Pathetique" sonatas, played live by Steve Baker, and a recording of Hilary Hahn playing Bach's "Violin Concerto in D." Rhythmically and dynamically intricate phrases and diagonal spatial geometry signal the personal imprint of a promising young dance maker.

The women of the company dance voluptuously -- especially Weinberg, Erica Nordin, and Jessica Reed de Cancel, a tall sturdy threesome. Small, quick Veronica Martin-Lamm and lithe, wispy Liv Isaacs-Nollet complement their earthiness. John Diaz, Victor Alonso, and -- greater of equals -- Lundberg assert strong muscularity that sometimes overpowers the movement's subtler articulations.

A Blizzard of Diversity

Few choreographers can pump up the volume of physical exuberance to "eleven" the way Dwight Rhoden does in the Joyce Theater season (January 9-14) of Complexions, the company founded by him and his muse Desmond Richardson, a dancer's dancer. Rhoden's movement invention is boundless, although critics have faulted his choreography for packing the movements-per-beat so densely the work becomes illegible.

In fact, torrential movement is a signature of Rhoden's style, and it seduces you with explosive energy. It's hard not to be astonished by the technical prowess of the extraordinary dancers Rhoden assembles and the lightning speed with which they propel their resilient, hyper-flexible bodies through his rhythmically driving dances. And the lightning-quick perceptiveness required to take it all in is very much suited to multi-tasking generation-X-ers' facile minds.

One might argue that if Rhoden would moderate the pace at which he delivers movement, his dances would gain even more expressive power. Articulating the visual/kinetic density more compassionately would give the audience -- especially those of us not used to perceiving at nanosecond speeds -- time to catch up with the rich physical imagery and give the gorgeous dancers, who truly represent a rainbow of racial diversity, space to give their dancing more expressive nuance.

Opening the show, "Hissy Fits," set to amped-up Johann Sebastian Bach, sends five women and six men in tank tops and briefs hurtling through space in fleeting encounters -- legs flying, arms flailing, spines thrashing in a hedonistic display that makes your head spin. In the slower movement that follows, five couples, including a male pair do duets that show off Rhoden's knack for unexpected lifts and complex physical entanglements that symbolize passionate, tempestuous love/lust relationships.

Sharing the wealth, Rhoden programmed dances by guest choreographers Jodi Gates, the rehearsal director; company member Matthew Prescott; and actor Taye Diggs, better know as a stage, film, and television heartthrob, but who has bona fide dance credentials. Gates's quartet for two couples "Barely Silent" (aptly titled), set to a mood-shifting live piano and string score by Alan Terricciano, shares Rhoden's hyperactive vocabulary, but the manic movement reaches no palpable conclusion.

Prescott's duet "This Heart," to music by Sinead O'Connor, slows the frantic pace, giving the couple's relationship welcome breath, although Prescott's movement choices, too, are largely indistinguishable from Rhoden's. While Diggs's "Loose Change" rated Richardson's customary technically stunning performance, its obsessive restlessness portrays a petulant adolescent -- unworthy of the brilliant dancer's dynamic elegance and increasingly mature expressiveness.

The closing work, "Chapters," showed excerpts from Rhoden's dance musical-in-progress, set to Marvin Gaye's soulful music. The stage throbs with 15 restless, drug-involved X-generation youths -- whose characters will doubtless become better defined as the final show takes shape. In the array of highlights shown, to hits like "Ain't Nothin' Like the Real Thing" and "Mercy Mercy Me," characters vie for visual attention, everyone living out different stories simultaneously. Your eye lights on a fascinating moment, like six-foot-plus Rubinald Pronk tipping around in stiletto heels, only to realize you're missing a rape happening across stage and is that a drug deal that's going down upstage? Rhoden's imagination for narrative incidents and pulsating vernacular movement runs rampant.

Rhoden and Richardson have an eagle eye for great dancers, and they inspire them to dance to the limits of their capacity, both technically and expressively. The women include veteran superwoman Sabra Perry, who joined in 1999, razor sharp Karah Abiog (2004), Ebony Haswell, Kimi Nikaidoh, Victoria Sommer North, and Yusha-Marie Sorzano (2005), and newcomers like fiery Christina Dooling and engaging Monique Meunier -- alumna of NY City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, who seems to thrive on the freedom of this non-classical dance idiom.

Besides co-founder Richardson, Prescott (2005) and Pronk (2006), the men also include smoldering Juan-Antonio Rodriguez (2003), back-bendy Clifford C. Williams (2004), dynamic Bryan Arias and lanky charmer Ian Robinson (2006).

One of Complexions's major assets is lighting designer Michael Korsch, who keeps the stage alive with vividly dramatic lighting that pierces the misty blackness with beams that emanate from unlikely directions, silhouetting bodies or illuminating them as brightly as lab specimens. His striking light often gives greater visual articulation to Rhoden's pulsing continuum of sizzling action.

Fresh as Mountain Air

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet returned for its third Joyce Theater appearance, January 23-28, with New York premieres of commissioned ballets from Finnish flavor of the month Jorma Elo and Brooklyn native Nicolo Fonte, along with the lovely but seldom seen "Sweet Fields" by Twyla Tharp. Under the steady direction of Tom Mossbrucker and Jean-Phillipe Malaty, the ten talented dancers of this wholesome-looking troupe are thoroughly ingratiating, lithe, and muscularly toned.

Their dancing exudes confident athleticism and restrained projection that doesn't scream, "Look at me!" In fact, Elo's movement in "Pointeoff" is so aggressive in its speed and attack it looks slightly incongruous on these sweet-faced all-Americans. The choreography sends its four women and two men careening through a continuum of stretchy, sinuous snatches of discontinuous phrases in ever-changing groupings.

Dancers fly on- and offstage in mid-thought, using the Bach piano score merely as a driving pulse. Even when the music slows to adagio, Elo's digitally fragmented movement remains hyperactive. You get the feeling the music could be Bacharach as easily as Bach for all the attention the choreography seems to pay its musical architecture. But if pure exhilaration is the goal, "Pointeoff" makes its point.

Fonte's take on contemporary ballet style is more temporally spacious than Elo's. Whereas Bach becomes mere texture for the latter, Fonte's skillful phrasing and clearly etched kinetic patterns seem to modulate the unmitigated persistence of Steve Reich's "Three Movements for Orchestra" and "The Four Sections."

The angular comings and goings of four men (Eric Chase, Sam Chittenden, Stephen Straub, and Luke Willis) and three women in toe shoes (Katie Dehler, Samantha Klanac, and Brooke Klinger) were inspired by the driftwood-and-metal stabile by artist James Surls that hangs above the stage. Michael Mazzola's luminous lighting brilliantly amplifies the three-dimensionality both of the sculpture and the dancers, dressed in short, bronze-toned tunics and knee-length gray tights by Christine Joly.

The ballet gains dramatic focus when lanky, resilient Willis sets the sculpture spinning during his beautifully lyrical solo. Fonte allows relationships among the dancers to flourish in faceted duets for Dehler and Chittenden and for Klanac and Klinger, which imply emotional attachment even in their abstraction.

"Sweet Fields," made in 1996 for her eponymous company Tharp! is the heart of the program, both literally and figuratively. Book-ended by the more frenetic ballets, this essay of comparatively gentle episodes takes its title from the Shaker hymns that accompany it. Danced by the full company, it plays group against solo, men against women, contemplation against joyousness. Couturier Norma Kamali dresses everyone in flowing white -- men in pants and open shirts, women in hot pants under open coats.

The movement is clear and simple, expansive and open, but, of course, physically challenging -- it is Tharp after all. The separation of genders gives the dance a charming modesty. In a moving ritual three men by turns hoist the fourth overhead, as the fifth dances adjacent to them. The women scurry in busy loops, fluttering their hands, perhaps knitting. When men and women come together they're a spiritually bonded congregation -- an apt metaphor for the company itself.

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