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Letter from New York, 2-26: Channeling
Cardona's intimate humanity, Alston's musical inspiration, and Zollar's spirited women

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2010 Gus Solomons jr

NEW YORK -- "A Light Conversation," a collaboration between New Yorker Wally Cardona and Londoner Rahel Vonmoos, seen again in an encore presentation at Joyce SoHo on January 11, is indeed a kinetic chat but so much more. The two appealing performers could hardly be more different, physically: Cardona is tall, dark, and muscular, but in spite of his size, he can move with the speed of a panther. Vonmoos is slim, dynamically cool, fluid, and virtually embodies the movement rather than performing it. The collaboration in fact grew out of Cardona's fascination with Vonmoos's kinetic quality.

With the audience sitting on three sides of the intimate performing space at Joyce SoHo, the two dancers alternate solos and duets, accompanied by skillfully edited excerpts from a British chat show, presented by Milton Bragg. On the recorded radio panelists wax verbose on Socrates, Plato, Kierkegaard, and their philosophical notions about love, existence, and relationships. Dancing and words occasionally synch up but more often reside comfortably in simultaneous time without being specifically connected.

So riveting are both dancers in their own ways, it's often a hard choice which one to watch, and I found my head wagging from one to the other. Do I watch Vonmoos, lunging and twisting vigorously across the long diagonal, or Cardona, standing quietly still in a corner? Do I choose Cardona, lurching, skidding, and stopping on a dime or his partner, gesturing delicately in a private conversation with herself?

For a long time, when they dance together, Cardona and Vonmoos don't touch, though their limbs slice through the negative spaces between their bodies. Roderick Murray's miraculous lighting keeps reshaping the space with brash work light or shadowy beams or inky blackness. At one of a few arrestingly dramatic moments, loud percussion music by Shoji Hano signals a radical change, where light comes from behind the black curtains that surround the space, as if daylight had suddenly dawned outside our darkened room. The pair race madly around the room, threatening to collide in the dimness.

At last they do touch and remain constantly attached, leaning insistently into each other, leveraging their weight or softly stepping this way and that, gently connected with her arm tucked under his armpit or his hand wreathing her shoulders.

Although the dance was created with the partners at times sharing movement materials electronically across the Atlantic, their rapport and comfort with each other is utterly captivating. Over the course of the piece's 50-plus minutes, we feel as though we come to know these characters almost as intimately as they seem to know each other.


The Alston shuffle

Richard Alston has been making dances for 40 of his 61 years and has enjoyed a stream of accolades from the press. For the Joyce season of his company, seen January 12, he chose three varied works that show his highly developed musicality, which has been compared to that of Balanchine's. Alston's other chief influences include England's great ballet maker, Frederick Ashton, and the master whose kinetic clarity articulates the rhythmic complexity of intricate movement, Merce Cunningham.

The opener, "Shuffle it Right," set to an interesting assortment of studio recordings by Hoagie Carmichael, including "Stardust," and closer, "Blow Over" -- backed by three Philip Glass settings of lyrics by Suzanne Vega, Paul Simon, and David Byrne -- are packed with movement but somehow unmoving. Alston's vocabulary depends heavily on the petite allegro of ballet -- fast footwork and little jumps -- that sometimes feel uncomfortably rushed instead of fleet and virtuosic.

Alston shapes space with skill. In "Shuffle," parallel lines of dancers shift instantaneously from a vertical corridor to a diagonal one, or five couples in a straight line suddenly shift into a chevron formation. But blatant imitations of Carmichael's musical rhythms and especially his verbal ad-libs feel cute and condescending.

When Alston puts together men and women for duets, he demonstrates a studied intelligence in design but kindles no chemical reaction between the partners. The dancers are capable and enthusiastic but don't evince an emotional connection to what they've been given to do. It's as though Alston has blended Ashton's musical phrasing and Cunningham's clarity of shape but failed to inject his own passion into the work.

"Movements from Petrushka" (1994), the middle work, alludes faintly to the tragic clown of the Stravinsky/Nijinsky classic, but eschews narrative and thus remains more compositional study than flesh-and-bones ballet. Pianist Jason Ridgway, stationed dead center-stage, plays -- brilliantly -- the composer's excruciatingly difficult piano arrangement of his notorious score, as a quartet of men and another of women in blousy, white tunics and black pants dance mostly in unison in the awkward, U-shaped space around the Steinway. Soloist Pierre Tappon in the central section transcends the studiously musical steps with an innate drama that makes his performance entirely engaging. He's the one dancer that positively asserts his person-ness.

According to a Times of London interview, Debra Caine described Alston as making dances "just as he pleases, even if that means he's completely out of step with a younger, more unruly generation." Good craft is never out of date, but Alston's well-made dances, born of the more leisurely sensibility of a former era in modern dance, now seem prim and safe, somewhat disconnected from that refreshing unruliness around him.


Urban Bush Women in Jawole Willa Jo Zollar's "Zollar: Uncensored." Yi-Chun Wu photo courtesy Dance Theater Workshop.

So seductively engaging are Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and her Urban Bush Women it feels slightly ungrateful to highlight flaws in their presentation, "Zollar: Uncensored," seen at Dance Theater Workshop on January 20. The hour-long work is a compilation of excerpts that run from 1995 back to 1987. The program listing of the reverse chronology lists the original cast members, who helped create the dances.

Zollar's theatrical dance works deal with women's issues and especially ones pertinent to women of color. With insight and humor she and her troupe have paid tribute to kinky hair and luscious, ample bootie, among other peculiarly African-American characteristics. In "Uncensored" she deals with matters of sexuality.

A roving flashlight beam catches women in black lingerie posing provocatively in one section. In another, Zollar speaks about a woman being raped, while supporting a nude woman -- Samantha Speis -- curled against her back. Subsequently, Speis convulses in a heart-wrenching paroxysm of screams and crashes to the floor.

For all the drama and passion of the performers and the importance of the messages, sometimes you wish the dancing were more inventive and better done. Often the movement seems like a generic rough sketch, to be filled in later with more emotionally specific choreographic material. But UBW's fans aren't concerned with such finicky niceties. For them, the spiritual communication apparently fulfills all their needs.

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