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Letter from New York, 11-25: Autumn Colors
O'Connor's Beckettian existentialism, Armitage's African pastiche, and Complexions's contemporary ballet with African roots

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2009 Gus Solomons jr

NEW YORK -- Surrounded by shimmering wings at the sides and a back curtain made of thin string and shredded fabric strips (by Walter Dunderville and Tere O'Connor), five dancers stand, scattered, in silhouette, swaying slowly, rooted to their spots. Gradually, they begin to slouch into space, as Michael O'Connor's lighting bathes them in an incandescent environment. So begins "Wrought Iron Fog," Tere O'Connor's new opus, seen at Dance Theater Workshop on November 12. The dancers' animation escalates until they are flying around with Dionysian abandon.

In the past, O'Connor has often had his dancers speak nonsense syllables or non-sequitur words as they moved, but his previous major work, "Rammed Earth," relied entirely on movement, and so does this new hour-long dance. The only text occurs as part of James Baker's colorfully fragmented score -- excerpts from Samuel Beckett's poetic novel, "How It Is." In one section, the dancers mouth words but never give them audible breath.

O'Connor's dances are not narrative, although he never fails to extract and expose the deep humanity of his performers. Their gestures imply messages that only they need understand. But the coherence of O'Connor's structure, with expertly modulated densities, tempos, and spatial distribution, keeps your attention. Transitions seem inevitable. Duets, solos, and trios emerge from group passages to create a satisfying dynamic arc that leaves a lasting, if ineffable, emotional impression.

When Hilary Clark, Daniel Clifton, Erin Gerken, and Matthew Rogers lift Heather Olson and carry her through the air, her body ripples in what one might interpret as a passive struggle. Then Olson exits, and the others stand for a long, pregnant moment, considering her departure, before launching into their quartet. Every so often, the performers gaze at the audience without irony or judgment, simply acknowledging that they know we are watching.

In Rogers and Gerken's upstage duet, they flip over each other's bodies and he lifts her magically without obvious preparations, while on their knees downstage, Olson, Clifton, and Clark root like animals at a feeding trough.

Rogers and Clifton begin their male duet lying supine like sunbathers. They tiptoe around in make-believe high heels, their posture alternating between innocence and campiness. Olson, Clifton, and Gerken shuttle back and forth across the stage in unison, like kids at play, counting their repetitions. And Rogers performs a solo that's a masterpiece of fleeting moods, varying energies, and shifting rhythms.

Gerken flies at Rogers, taking them both to the ground, and Rogers twitches out from under her, as if he's contracted palsy. The men revolve Gerken like a turnstile.

Olson, Clifton, and Rogers repeatedly run and crash to the ground, upstage then down.

When Gerken collapses in the middle of the stage, the others move in to gawk, concerned. When she does it again, they barely notice and don't seem to care. At the end Clifton leaves, and the others each catch an imaginary something in outstretched arms.

O'Connor builds imaginary kinetic worlds that are completely real -- and engrossing. We grow to know and like these odd characters, whose unusual antics and strange relationships soon seem like perfectly normal ways of behaving. His dances show us how eloquently movement as a language can communicate without translation.

Armitage Gone! and Burkina Electric in "Itutu," a collaboration between the two companies. Julieta Cervantes photo courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music.


The adjective "loud" leaps to mind to describe the set, costumes, dancing, and especially music in "Itutu," the new collaboration between Karole Armitage and the African musical group Burkino Electric, seen on November 4 in its New York premiere at the Harvey Theater as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival. Armitage's 11 dancers plus the five dancer/musicians of Burkina Electric fill the stage with noisy, high-energy frolicking that borrows from multiple sources.

Designer Philip Taaffe created fabric designs for the costumes -- sport jackets and shorts or miniskirts -- and magnified the motifs into a backdrop that looks like a panel of gigantic wallpaper. Clifton Taylor's masterly lighting at times makes the insistent design luminous with saturated colors then softens it into relative unobtrusiveness that doesn't obscure the dancing.

Employing eclecticism has always been Armitage's modus operandi in her ballets; yoga, break dance, and voguing have joined neoclassical ballet in her past works. Here, she blends ballet, musical theater staging, and West African vocabulary. "Itutu" is a Yoruban word that translates as "cool," but there's nothing cool about this bombastic, in-your-face piece; it's geared far more to entertain than to enlighten.

The 70-minute dance opens with song and dance by Burkina Electric -- charismatic singer and dancer Mai Lingani, accompanied by Wende K. Blass on guitar and backed by male dancers Vicky and Zoko Zoko. The fifth member of the group is percussionist/composer Lucas Ligeti (son of composer Gyorgy Ligeti), who wrote some of the dance music; he appears onstage, drumming, in the finale.

When the company dancers first enter, it becomes clear that trying to get the requisite African grounded-ness from classically trained ballet dancers is an errand into futility. Only pint-sized Leonides D. Arpon makes the torso-rippling look authentic. But the circle formations in the group passages look appropriated rather than synthesized from African dance.

"Itutu" is intended as collaboration, but the music -- partly because it's over-amplified to eardrum-splitting level, partly because it's rhythmically infectious -- overpowers the dancing. And too much runway-like parading and arbitrary running on and off stage expose lapses in a cohesive concept.

Apart from a few elegant passages, the staging resembles old-style Broadway back-up dancing: frontal and presentational. The exceptions are duets for Megumi Eda and Kristina Bethel-Blunt, partnered by Leonides D. Arpon and Bennyroyce Royon, respectively, and one for Abbey Roesner with Luke Manley that show -- despite their reliance for impact on freakishly high extensions by the women -- Armitage's ability to mold space and time with the brashness that in the '80s earned her the sobriquet "punk ballerina."

Daredevils and demon-gods          

Briefly, Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson's contemporary ballet company Complexions is developing an international reputation for high-powered, break-neck dancing by gorgeous, daredevil dancers. A feature of the company's latest Joyce Theater season, seen November 21, is the two-part "Mercy."  Imagine putting "Carmina Burana" and "Revelations" in a blender and setting it on puree.

Using music by a broad array of composers -- Phil Kline, Michael Murray, Steve Reich, Felix Mendelssohn, and Hans Zimmer of film-score fame -- Rhoden creates a kaleidoscope of typically luscious dancing by his lithe company in skin-revealing leotards, sometimes overlaid with flowing sheer white pantaloons and circle skirts, by Christine Darch. If there were not quite so much movement, you could better see how inventive some of his lifts and complex manipulations are.

Even though "Mercy" will elicit the usual rap from detractors -- it's non-stop, furiously fast, and kinetically dense -- the emotional power of the work is hard to deny, especially in a solo, "Prophet," by Rhoden's artistic partner and muse, the astonishing Richardson, in which he conjures a mighty spell, wearing an off-white leotard with corset stays and lacy inserts and wielding a baton. Richardson's star power as a kind of Brechtian demon-god illuminates the stage with kinetic poetry of mythological scale.

Lighting magician Michael Korch articulates each beam of his moody, active lighting, worthy of an arena rock show, with clouds of stage fog in front of a burgundy back curtain, through which dancers appear and disappear like spirits in a haunted marsh.  Things happen so quickly it's hard to take it all in, but the finale, "Hallelujah," virtually takes your breath away with Zimmer's swelling music impelling 16 dancers' surging and sweeping in canonic ecstasy.

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