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Donna Scro in her "One. Constant. Change." Photo ©Daniel Hedden.

Copyright 2012 Nicholas Birns

NEW YORK -- When Stacie Shivers appeared before the audience to open "Breath of the Heart," the first piece on the bill for Donna Scro / Freespace Dance's concert on September 23 at Peridance Capezio Center, an excited young boy behind me whispered, "That's my teacher!" It was both disconcerting and illuminating to see performer as pedagogue; instead of being absorbed into the scene, one became alert, prepared to learn lessons. Shivers's languorous yet graceful movements, elastic but just slightly awkward in how she stretched her legs and bent her knees, called attention to the way the human body, as medium, can be both virtuosic and halting. Shivers's movements not only placed tremendous demands on her body but also appropriated an extraordinary amount of the space -- the range of area traversed from one end to the other was approximately 12 feet. For all that, though, there seemed no particular reference to any traditional purpose of dance: dirge, for instance, or ecstasy. It was as if the dancing introduced and encompassed all those possibilities. Amanda Harberg's music, performed plangently on viola by Brett Deubner, prominently and almost magnetically facing the audience, reminded me, across the eons of time and idiom, of the role played by the viola in the music of Henry Purcell. Purcell's operas combine words, music, and dance in the same way Scro's choreography, minus of course the words, celebrates the creative impulse by combining a deep melancholy with a sense of overall festivity.

As Deubner's viola-playing increased in speed and ecstasy, four new dancers suddeny entered, forming two pairs, one male and one female. Dan Mueller, firm and graceful, and Robert Mark Burke, spunky and pugnacious, ably complemented Lauren Melusky-Smith, who strides as regally as a moving caryatid, and Linda D'Amico, from Derek Jeter's birthplace of Pequannock, New Jersey, whose movements are as lithe and unexpected as the Yankee shortstop's famous flip-throw in the 2001 playoffs. This section of the dance is a pent-up release after all the implied emotion of the solo, and both parts of the scenario, the conception and the realization, formed a fundamental aspect of the piece not only as choreographed and danced but also as experienced by the audience. "Breath of the Heart" was followed by a Deubner solo on the viola, a scherzo by the teenage composer Wells Lang, which continued the pace of the score of the previous piece towards its end, making me wonder whether this was an epilogue or a separate piece. Scro's foregrounding of music, and especially the somewhat underutilized viola, is daring, allowing music and dance to be part of a combo, overturning ideas of what is in the background and foreground, something that has artistic implications beyond these two specific media. The viola's gravid dignity, even when played rapidly, acts as a counterpoise to the frenetic turbulence of the dance steps, absorbing the steps and grounding them. The solo also dilated the viewers' experience of the previous dance, causing its memory to hover and linger.

Deubner's diligent, stately rendition of Jordan Kuspa's original music set the scene for the next piece. "Brethren" was an ambitious composition comprised entirely of male dancers, confident and boisterous. Like music, the male body is an omnipresent but underutilized (and undertheorized) element in contemporary dance. After some tentative stretches, almost like calisthenics done before a sporting event, the men engaged more actively with each other, gesturing enigmatically, then moving faster, almost verging on a sort of delirium or religious frenzy. All the dancers were outstanding, especially the charismatic Kyle Marshall and the emotionally invested Nicholas Sciscione. What was the link between these people? Was it collaboration? Competition? Is it possible for men to work together, to work in tandem? Is collaboration gendered in a way that makes it unmasculine? Are fraternal relationships, real or metaphorical, filled with rivalry? Or can they be sites of amicability and complementarity? These questions added a bit of tension to what was generally a work that the viewer could delight in for its sheer enjoyment because of its virtuosity and rapid though not manic intensity. There was no palpable narrative given, but enough was suggested to inspire viewers to dream one up. The music, animated if perhaps slightly worried, added to this sense of a slight wrinkle, which prevented the tableau from lapsing too much into cheeriness or lyricism. Both music and dance evoked a verve tinged with formality that, though the idiom in both cases was very contemporary, reminded me once again of the Baroque. That musician and dancers collaborated without ever overtly acknowledging each other again pointed to the enabling melancholy, or sense of distance, in the piece.

"One. Constant. Change," a premiere, closed out the evening. An ambitious, intricate piece, the work allowed the many dancers in the Freespace company to exhibit their talents to the utmost. The soundtrack was contemporary and vocal, including hits by bands like Radiohead and Bon Iver. Dancers entered and exited the space rapidly, moving in various combinations, which was as disconcerting as it was enhancing. The title raised pre-Socratic philosophical issues: Is the world comprised of change, as Heraclitus thought, or is the world made up of one thing that will take different forms, as a more jazzed-up Thales or Anaximander might have conjectured? A kind of seal or signature initiated the piece, as Donna Scro herself danced a lithe and vigorous, though not unceremonious, solo. The to-and-fro of dancers and costumes reminded me a bit of Balanchine's "Four Temperaments" with its sampling of the palette of human emotion through deliberate contrast and counterpoise. My favorite stretch of the dance occurred when Shivers, returning after her bravura solo in the first piece and wearing purplish blue, partnered with Nikki Albert, wearing aquamarine blue, to dance in tandem, raising the specter of the contemplative and the active life, this dichotomy acting not as opposition but as complementarity. Constancy and change whirled together in a way that took full advantage of the "free space" signaled by the company's name, but also necessarily exuded a sense of discipline and design. There was so much information in this last dance, I wish I could see it at least once again. Its generosity and variety augured a step forward in this company's already exciting and distinguished record.


Nicholas Birns is a literary and cultural critic living in New York. His web site is www.commitmenthomepage.org.


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