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Jennifer Lafferty in Christopher Williams's "Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins." Photo by Julie Lemberger for the 92nd Street Y.

Copyright 2011 Daniel Gwirtzman

NEW YORK -- Christopher Williams's choreography, seen in performance February 27, marked the second week of the 92nd Street Y's Harkness Dance Festival at Buttenwieser Hall. Signifying Williams's 10th anniversary as a professional choreographer, the bulk of the 90-minute intermission-less retrospective showcased swatches of dances from 2003 to 2010 in chronological order. The presentation concluded with the premiere of a full dance ("Mumbo-jumbo") and a work in progress ("Untitled Excerpt"). Throughout, accomplished dancing and fresh imagery prevailed. Entering into Williams's highly-stylized worlds of esoteric stories and characters yields fascinating if sometimes murky visions.

An air-tight hand constructs the compositions. Steps are precise. This is exacting choreography, deftly danced by terrific dancers. Slow rond de jambes en l'air (standing on one leg as the other traces an arc in the air) and balances in arabesque showcase the choreographer's preoccupation with a classical vocabulary, an interesting juxtaposition with the dances' overall quirkiness. Sometimes we get Cunningham-like twists of the torso in attitude penchée. But why should ballet and modern techniques claim these movements exclusively? Raising a leg, stirring it in space and rotating the trunk are obvious choices for the human body. Regardless of the references, these movements are the work of an inventor. While it is repetitive to find these movements in nearly all of the dances presented here, consistency of vocabulary brands a style and demonstrates sincerity. In Williams's work, craft balances creativity.

As adept as the dancers are, it is the characters and the costumes that take center stage. The greatest illustration of this masking of individuality comes in "Untitled Excerpt"; one recognizes Kira Blazek, a full wolf's head supplanting her own, only by the credit in the program. The greatest illustration of the opposite, where the dancer's identity is not obscured by the costume, occurs in the new work, where Raja Kelly and Paul Singh investigate facial expressions equal to the elastic full-bodied movements.

The retrospective form allows for a macro view of a body of work. Williams reveals an enthusiasm for the nude body which unifies all of the work on display. Three-dimensional breasts appear on the outside of unitards in the first dance, "Virgo Genitrix," and eight breasts adorn a costume in the second, "Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins." Then we see the real thing, first with a soloist, and then in last year's "Hen's Teeth," in which six dancers, covered in feathers, remove their and others' costumes with their teeth. Men's torsos receive equal billing. The use of nudity in contemporary dance can smack of disingenuous obligation, but not here. The cumulative effect is more of sensual grace than sensational gratuitousness. Williams's characters, though otherworldly, are still made of flesh and blood.

When watching excerpts questions flicker: How can we know what this dance is ultimately about? How should we know where it started and where it will end? How can one fully understand the trajectory? Most of these dances have been extensively reviewed. But surely Williams doesn't expect his entire audience to be familiar enough with these dances to know which sections we are seeing. What of new audiences seeing his work for the first time? Or does he expect a reviewer to fill in the gaps? Considering the meticulousness of the work, it is hard to ascribe laziness or oversight to these omissions. The lack of program notes suggest it is less important to him for us to know what the works are about, their historical or mythic references, then to have us experience the dances purely for their visual glimmer and aural splendor.

"Virgo Genitrix," the oldest work, opens with three dancers interlocked in a line. Their slumped bodies and monochromatic nude-colored unitards and caps recall Paul Taylor's dance "3 Epitaphs." Connected web-like, the dancers pull away from each other and reel themselves back in. Gentle lifts feature variations of two dancers supporting a third in which one leg rises first before the other joins it. Dancers scatter like beetles, crouching on half-toe. There is an economy of steps. The vocal score by 14th-century composer Guillame de Machaut casts a gravitas. At the close when the dancers climb onto each other in a ladder-type effect, the notion that this same dance would be received as humorous, not holy, with other music takes hold.

"Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins," inspired by the legends of early virgin martyr saints, is an acclaimed work from 2005 with vivid costumes. The program does not identify which of the saints we are watching in the three excerpts seen here. In the first solo, Jennifer Lafferty enters with a dragon (Andrew Champlin) fastened over her shoulder. After wresting herself from its clutches, she kicks it away. The choreography's parts, full of ronde de jambes, battements and attitudes, are known, but how Lafferty gets from one position to another is mysterious, especially in a quick passage that travels upstage near the end.

Storme Sundberg, red light burning her aforementioned eight-breasted torso, struggles in a solo dense with convulsive floorwork. Small gestures, such as a waving hand and a lush head roll, stand out against this larger wave of fire. Her speech cues mezzo-sopranist Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, singing live, in a call and response. The last saint, Ursula herself, is easier to identify; at the dance's end she whispers her name. She's danced by Caitlin Scranton cloaked in a costume of furry leg coverings and arm wraps with claws (Ursula means little female bear), her topless sculpted torso coupled with the claws provoking a new silhouette. Meditatively lifting her leg into slow battements and wheeling them in the air, she demonstrates an ease of performing and technique.

"The Portuguese Suite," represented by a robust, too-brief duet for Paul Singh and Williams, shows a fullness of movement and clever partnering that registers in the viewer's brain step by step. Moving to a traditional fado love-song, the dancers, clad in red gloves and red ribbons dangling from their thighs, frolic with evident ardor. A strong kiss comes out of nowhere, and is a perfect, surprising moment. Why create a metaphor in movement when the real thing will suffice? Let's just call it what it is; this is romance. At the end, Williams slides down Singh's body with a slight tilt to his verticality, recalling a central image from Lucas Hoving's "Icarus." Things are just slightly off.

"The Golden Legend," set to 12th-century music, showcases tall and lean Burr Johnson, who has the face and body to be typecast in Williams's work. When he walks in slowly in a gold-lame pleated mini-skirt and halo-like head piece, washed in yellow light, it as if a religious iconic sculpture has extricated itself from a church's wall and wandered into Buttenwieser Hall. Dancers travel directly upstage in a series of lunges, punctuated by Johnson's staring back toward the audience. On the floor, holding his big toe with his opposite hand, he cranks his leg up to the ceiling, pumping it, and gazes back at us again, suggestively. These moments effectively remind us that we are not part of this scene; we are on the outside looking in, caught in the act of observing a private act.

The first thing one notices in "Mumbo-jumbo," the premiere, is the white lipstick painted on Raja Kelly's face. Taking inspiration from Helen Bannerman's "Little Black Sambo" and Joel Chandler Harris's "The Tar Baby and Other Rhymes of Uncle Remus," Williams deconstructs these 19th-century stories, and the theatrical form of minstrelsy, into a few bold strokes. Sambo's costumes, by Carol Binion, are true to the source's form. Kelly and Singh, enter in identical red tails, blue cropped pants, white shirts and green scarves. We know that more lurks beneath the surface of these stereotypical characters. The dance, which signals a new direction for the choreographer, seeks to uncover some truths about misconceptions of race. As it develops, the entertainers gradually shed not only their theatrical personas, but their clothes, item by item: first wigs, then jackets, then shirts, until, yes, they finally discard their pants, leaving the men in their white underwear. Mugging for an audience turns to introspection. Jon Harper's lighting, fantastic throughout the program, creates a colorful floor resembling stained glass made from crushed jelly beans, an apt metaphor for the mash-up of identities and ideas.

After the contemporaneity, in subject and expression, of "Mumbo-jumbo," "Untitled Excerpt," the work-in-progress, seemed an about-face into the woods of the fairy-tale world, with costumes even more literal than those Williams has featured over the past ten years. Old interests die hard.

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