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Keith Johnson in Colleen Thomas's "Damsel." Photo by Julie Lemberger for the 92nd St. Y.

Copyright 2011 Daniel Gwirtzman

NEW YORK -- The 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Festival's opening program Litup, seen Sunday, ignites the moment one enters the usually predictable space of Buttenwieser Hall. A disco ball hung high in the center sends spheres of light whizzing around the perimeter, smoke and DJ-spun music billows into the space, and four red Chinese lanterns illuminate the darkly-colored ceiling. Choreographers and artistic directors Bill Young and Colleen Thomas have sought to recreate, with the aid of Luke Miller, the relaxed ambience of their SoHo performance loft with oriental rugs, oversized pillows, couches, and cafe tables augmenting the typical seating plan of chairs upon risers. The front of the performing space is re-oriented so that it plays to two sides of the room, with de-centralized action taking place throughout the program in a delightfully transformed space.

This shifting of setting underscores the philosophy of Bill Young / Colleen Thomas & Co., which wants to inject some levity into the concert dance-going experience. We are encouraged to leave our seats and try another one and to partake of drinks, for sale in the lobby. Dance concerts don't have to be so staid is the message, and the seven distinct works, not all of them dance, presented by Young, Thomas and four guest artists, hewed to it. Running from one piece into another without bows, and pausing once for an intermission, the program included three solos, two duets, a trio and a group dance. The dancers joined the audience after performing their respective pieces, lending to the informality.

There was nothing casual about "Tensing," the new group dance by Young which opens the show and offers the most developed piece of choreography. Ten dancers stand scattered in a darkened landscape, revealed at different intervals by Jonathan Belcher and David Ferri's striking lights before being submerged back to black. Split into two quintets, the dancers stay in unison within their groups, one contrasting with the other, creating a constantly-changing terrain of levels and dynamics in which control fights tenaciously with abandon. Stillnesses with only fingers fluttering give way to full-bodied convulsions; windmill arms lash through the moody space; scootching feet quickly send the dancers on circuitous paths. Dancers pull at their faces with their hands, look around and at each other enigmatically, and arch their backs, sending their faces and stomachs skyward. Sudden jumps punctuate the landscape. Compositionally solid, the movement spreads like earth tremors. Near the end, the two groups enter into one passage of unison, sinking and rising from the floor, only to cleave in half again. For the end, backlit, a graveyard of bodies is exposed. For the first time, subtle solos, like muted voices, emerge, involving the lowering of a leg, the lifting of an arm.... The dance succeeds on its own purely choreographic merits, as well as by suggesting a larger struggle for individuality amid the prescriptions of society's grasp.

Kyle Mulligan (foreground) and Young/Thomas & Co. in Bill Young's "Tensing." Photo by Julie Lemberger for the 92nd St. Y.

A similar tension exists in Alexey Taran's dance-theater work "Asesinos Por Una Noche," performed by Taran and film director and dancer Carla Forte and based on Cuban playwright Jose Triana's play of the same name (which translates as "Assassins for one night"). Live music by Carlos Ortiz and spoken text perforates the pre-recorded score as a cryptic film depicts shards of a story we struggle to shine more light on. Jagged spasms of movements and confessional pronouncements ("I killed them") convey a world we can see but not fully enter, like a David Lynch movie, in which darkness repels and attracts in equal measure.

Entering in total darkness, save a few small lights attached to a pair of gloves fit with small bells, Pedro Osorio, in orange wig and a grotesque mask, interacts with the audience in his solo "Presenter." I find myself in the hot seat as these gloved hands crack an invisible egg on top of my pate, then run down my neck. Like the emcee in "Cabaret," only wearing a white suit with a Tharpian backless vest and black heels, this innocuous character welcomes us to the show, conducts with his arms, executes pratfalls, and whispers "boo." His hands beating over his chest, this is a clown with a heart, leaving us as quickly as he came with one final command, "Enjoy."

Thomas's "Damsel" is the only work to use the Y's actual stage, which in this context made it novel. As Pink Martini's version of the familiar "Que sera sera" begins, Keith Johnson enters on an imaginary tightrope before crouching to a fetal position and writhing on the floor. Standing with arms straight to the side, his head scans a full 180 degrees, taking the time to pause and to see. Gestures trace a pregnant belly, a thumb is sucked. Is this a piece about impending motherhood, notwithstanding its enactment by a male dancer? "Whatever will be, will be. The future's not ours to see." Johnson reaches for a pile of rope and holds it close to his face. Umbilical cord? Lifeline or noose? Thomas gives us striking clues and keeps us guessing.

There was little guesswork among the audience what Levi Gonzalez was up to in his improvisatory "Performance Experiment with Furniture," a task-based exploration of how to move from one piece of furniture to another without touching the floor. While unsuccessful ("This one is a little farther than it usually is," he commented), the attempt mattered more to this audience than the perfect execution, as it cheered him on through the winding obstacle course of a bench, wheeled and stationary chair, couch, stools and a long end table. "I want to remember this," Gonzalez declares as he jumps on the cushions of the couch, using them like a trampoline, to the strains of Joy Divison's "Dance Dance Dance to the Radio." "I want you to remember this. I want you to feel what I'm feeling. I want you to experience something similar." I remember more the brief and urgent solo he danced with his shadow far upstage against the Y's wall and door.

This same area was brought out of the shadows in the duet "Off," Young's depiction of a couple in love. As Osorio and Ildiko Toth embrace, nuzzle and tussle, a live film is simultaneously captured by the choreographer and projected onto the same corner of the room where Gonazalez had performed. Osorio removes a jacket from Toth and the niceties are off as well. These are the realistic contours of love, not the Hallmark version. They take turns pinning each other down, and Young keeps straddling the line between erotic intimacy and violence. The overall mood is light-hearted however. The reversals imply an equality. The dancers are illuminated by the light of a roving light source (held by a figure in the space who we cannot otherwise see) and by the beam of a projection unit. Their playful and passionate expressions turn into cinematic close-ups and we enjoy the voyeuristic opportunity to see more than our naked eye would normally discern from this distance.

Characters metaphorically in the dark are put through a keen inspection under the directorial lens of Nancy Bannon's "A Man of Wealth and Taste." Not dance, and resembling something one might see on Saturday Night Live, this sketch has a trio of not-at-all-grown-up boys behaving badly in the stands at a hockey game with language as offensively foul as their souls. "My wardrobe costs more than your fucking life" one of them shouts. Beers in hand, these guys are clearly lit up. While trafficking in stereotypes and characters we know all too well, the insightful lewdness of the banter sheds light nonetheless into these hearts of darkness.

Vaudeville, variety show, edgy cinema, performance art and dance kicked off the Y's Festival with a festival of its own. More beer and popcorn anyone?

Daniel Gwirtzman is an established producer, director, choreographer, teacher, and critically acclaimed dancer. Celebrating 16 years as a New York City choreographer, Gwirtzman has earned praise for the creation of a diverse repertory known for its humor, inventiveness and accessibility. He directs Daniel Gwirtzman Dance Company, a nonprofit performing and teaching organization, "founded upon a philosophy that dance should celebrate human achievement through a combination of discipline and unbound optimism." (The New York Sun) For more information, click here.

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