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Letter from New York, 4-11: A Rose By Any Other Name, Please!
(But Nelson's Still Smells As Sweet)
By Melinda Lee
Copyright 2008 Melinda Lee
NEW YORK -- At the start of Jeremy Nelson's restaging of his 2006 "Mean Piece," seen March 14 on a double bill with the premiere of "Sail," the space darkens and the performers are heard booming heavily into place. Regulars to performances hosted by Danspace Project (DSP) in this formidable sanctuary of St. Mark's Church probably relish the spongy-footed boom boom of dancers' feet walking into position. It's a clear, coded tradition that signals a hush, a caught breath, and an ooh ooh! -- something exciting is about to happen! Yet DSP is set up like a proscenium stage tonight, and already some of its magic on me is lost. Luis Lara Malvacias's vast canvas and string cyclorama hangs in such a way as to cut us off from the church's iconic altar, but the looming curve of the altar's still visible upper arches begs me to notice that we are STILL in a uniquely totalizing space. I have to ask myself at the sound of the herd's purposeful, predictable tread: is all of this going to be a little flat?
Lights up, and a lone dancer (Rebecca Serrell), like a stag in an imaginary, abstract wild, runs an arc into the space and pendulums back empty-eyed into the bush from whence she came. Then six dancers -- strong, youthful, bounding -- vault through the space in lines and cross-throughs as if still on the stage for which the work was first made, the deep-bellied, black-marleyed, and raked-seated Dance Theater Workshop, a striking difference from the airy, khaki-toned, and contiguously flat DSP. An insidious lapse of attention starts to tug at my sleeve -- something is not working for me with this staging. When the dancers "exit" and "enter" with the amount of momentum, drive, and quirkiness that is characteristic of Nelson's explosive choreography, their arrival into "off-stage" carries no resonance but controlled breathing and watchful eyes scouting the next entry. I feel from the choreography as if I am being asked to feel trepidation and weightedness when all my senses are taking in is a distant meditation. It all seems a little too staged, too forcefully ignorant of audience perspective; I am being cued to watch this like a "dance concert," and while I am trying my best to watch it on these terms, it hurts that so much of what is available for me to see and feel is a no-man's land.
Don't get me wrong, Nelson is a dancer's dance-maker, and the movement is full of personality, exuberance, complexity, and grace. There are leaping head bobs where you'd never think to say yes and bobbing leaps where you'd never have thought to find brambles on a path. Yet -- handcuffed staging aside -- the choreography fashions an arena at times amiable like a playground of child-stags and school recess push-and-pulls, at others annoying, a schoolish attempt to reveal something more sinister but ultimately superficial. Shaven-headed and silky Lawrence Cassella seems to be the renegade adolescent on the playing field, being the only one to exude a flavor of conscious sensuality and secret motivation that makes me think he is performing beyond the role of "a dancer in a dance piece." The demanding nature of Nelson's movement may make it harder for the stakes to shine through, but it is also the symbolic nature of his vocabulary that presumes self-sufficiency: technical feats are layered with idiosyncratic gestures signifying the theme "mean," including pounding fists, an open-palmed thumb-to-nose, stare-downs, take-downs, foot-stamps. It is textbook form-equals-content choreography structured with the geometry of the modern ballet, a formula no doubt descending from Nelson's performance history with the queen of form-content kings, Britain's Siobhan Davies, and Stephen Petronio, virtuoso a la Paxton plus Nureyev (heavy on the Nureyev).
(What do I mean by form-equals-content? Once in a workshop with Davies for the Bank Street Project in Philadelphia, for example, we dancers were asked to create movement phrasing from patterns. Davies comes arm-laden with bundles of pattern booklets designed for handicrafts like quilting and embroidery: "Celtic pa'erns, African pa'erns, Oriental pa'erns," she enthuses. Now, I love the lady and think she's got an amazing thing going in the British dance world. But when approached with Clip Art Choreo (outside-in, um, short on the in), I think as much then as I do now: "Who cares?!" This is a matter of personal taste, I realize, and so want to recognize the strategy as part of a genre of "form-equals-content." I also really want to position Nelson within that legacy because I assume that given his long history in New York, this can be easily forgotten or is hard to recognize.)
Nelson's own formula is solid and is a joy to behold. Yet his gutsy and inventive phrasing seems to be begging for something more emphatic structurally. In certain sections my ooh ooh! of excitement comes back -- Nelson excels particularly at point-of-contact duets and trios, in which lifts, drops, and balances are innovative, streamlined, and often delightfully unexpected. But each time when I am readied for a pleasure above and beyond the initial visual cuing, his choices towards stage dance conventions put a halt to my experience and distract me with some other configuration of display. The end result is pastiche, behind a fourth wall that at first seems unselfconscious but soon becomes presumptuous and distancing.
On two occasions in which I find myself being carried away and dropped again, I wonder what could happen there as the perfection of form and structure begins to concede to mystery... transcendence, maybe? Midway through the piece, the dancers seem to have been given more active opportunities to perform in a collective (rather than coincidental) state. As the cast travels across the space in a tightly, if not dangerously packed mass, the neutrality of Nelson's focus on form begins to shift. Each performer has his or her own sequence of chaotic, grasping gestures, but together they appear to be of one mind, growing more aggressive in reaction to the well-paced crescendo of tones, chirps, and buzzings of Pavel Zustiak's ominous soundscore. I am reacting with them. I begin to release my viewing of details and start to fall into a different state of consciousness all together.
At another point the group herds into a circle, with Meredith McCanse centerstage. Her gaze -- which in earlier sections has already shown it can change skillfully from endearing to maniacal in a heartbeat -- forms the mask of the comic possessed, an absurd smile on her face that says: I know we are all here to play dodge... but you jerk-offs don't know where I hid the ball. It's revenge of the playground. It's children of a lesser god. When I discussed this piece with other New York performers recently, someone suggested that had "Mean Piece" simply not been called "Mean Piece" it could have been a lot more interesting. A rose by any other name, please!
"Sail," the premiere, has a creative transparency much like "Mean Piece" but comes closer to hitting home. Inspired by the influences of Nelson's childhood (including English country dancing, Maori hakas, spiraled wood-carving, rugby line-outs and the sea, according to the program), the movement palate seems akin to the evening's opener but with an authenticity that vastly alters the landscape. For this viewer, Jeremy Nelson's own performing presence in the work has a lot to do with this changed dynamic.
Nelson begins "Sail" visible to the audience sitting 'off-stage,' watching his dancers perform sequences of skipping and other rhythmical tasks. He is a gentle figure rather than an authoritative one, observing as I imagine a scientist observes a new bacterial culture -- patient, encouraging, custodial. Movement sequences performed by the dancers are more sparse and focused than in "Mean," allowing for an other-worldly space and out-of-time time to emerge: the space-time of memory. Luis Lara's set in this work includes a totemic crucifix mound far upstage and movable panels which are eventually manipulated by the performers through space. Performer Francis A. Stansky's solo work is technically immaculate, and perhaps in the role of "young Jeremy" is what finally draws Nelson himself into the space to dance.
And finally, when Nelson dances, his world of quiet innuendo and explicit signifying becomes buoyant and floating. Everything comes into stark relief with the precision and elegance of his delivery. The four other dancers in this piece do appear more personally engaged with this material than earlier in the evening. (McCanse and an ebullient Omagbitse Omagbemi in particular seem to have asked of themselves what it means to be a part of Nelson's dream-memory world, and with that insight transport the viewer alongside.) Yet with Nelson's performance, all it takes is one moment in his torrent of choreography and the only audible sound he makes -- a wide-eyed sigh -- to make clear that whew! this is something. This means something. And yet this is not something that he has managed to fully translate to all his performers individually.
As a group, Stansky, Omagbemi, McCanse, and Serrell eventually do find meaningfulness in each other. In a break of silence from David Watson's eclectic score, we get a taste of common purpose through the unadorned rhythm of their breath and soft, fleeting gazes in which they kindly implore each other to give way or to mutually assist as they move through space. We don't know why they do this, or if this image is from Nelson's memory, or if it is a rose-colored fantasy of how he thinks dreams and memory should be. It is probably both. Seeing that this particular world is based on giving, trying, kindness, and lightness, I leave satisfied that a rose, even not called by any other name, still smells as sweet.
(See an excerpt of "Mean Piece" at Dance Theater Workshop and other Jeremy Nelson choreographies by clicking here. Read Deborah Jowitt's Village Voice review of the above concert here, and Jennifer Dunning's New York Times review here.)
Melinda Lee has danced for Keiko Abe, Luciana Achugar, Maija Garcia, JoAnna Mendl Shaw, and Donna Uchizono Company. She has seen works by at least 150 different dance-makers and madly has the programs to prove it! Her independent work incorporates dance, poetry, video, and installation, and has been produced through the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the Puffin Room, Dance New Amsterdam, the Williamsburg Arts Nexus, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and the International Festival for Contemporary Dance Arts (Poland). A Sociology/Anthropology graduate of Swarthmore College, Mel invites you to musings on dance, bodies, culture, conflict, and other randomness at her blog: tothinkthethought.