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Flash Review 1, 3-3: Ride the College Dance Loop
Barnard Dances Back to the Future

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

There's an elderly women I sometimes see perambulating the streets of Greenwich Village, sometimes by herself, sometimes accompanied by a young man, often with a confused look in her eyes. I don't know her, but I do know who she is. Because I am aware of her stature, I always try to greet her by name, in the notion that it means something to her to be recognized. I've seen all too little of her work; I've just taken the word of others that it's got grit. Thursday night at the Miller Theater, thanks to a group of women on the opposite side of their careers--dance students at Barnard College--I saw why Anna Sokolow is a legend.

To a pedestrian like me, Sokolow's "Riding the Culture Loop," staged by Lorry May, seems like a tough dance to take on, for dancers of any age, let alone those at the beginning of their careers. The title refers to a bus route which began in Greenwich Village, passing through the Upper East Side and Spanish Harlem. The music reflects this diverse landscape, streaming from electric guitar to symphonic jazz to Latin jazz to mambo. The movement goes from the vivacious--such as a semi-spastic beginning, to the guitar, and a conga line towards the end--to the pensive, such as a duet, danced calmly by guest artist Benjamin Cortez and Heather White. It has a feeling of travel, at a wide range of tempi, with varying degrees of urgency. Sometimes they bundle together as a group, at one point waving, as if from a bus; at others the patterns are more spread out and spare. I was impressed not only that the dancers could pull this off, but that they did it so seamlessly. Those dancers: Cortez, White, Miranda Calderon, Elyssa Dole, Kate Garroway, Julie Grinfeld, Katie Higham-Kessler, Tohko Kosuge, Jessica Lewis, Leah Nelson, Cathy Paras, and Diana Torba.

What impressed me about Sokolow's style is that it had no one style, no recognizable set of phrases. I understand some might find this a liability. For me, the attraction is that the phrases were built specifically on and for the music.

An even more intricate musicality was presented by Neta Pulvermacher in her 1994 "Good Bye and Good Luck." A program note refers to this piece as "Klezmer Grunge, which draws upon a Jewish/Yiddish heritage of humor, hope, guilt, longing, and fate." Pulvermacher and the dancers brought me at least one epiphany along these lines, dancing to the more up-tempo parts of Anthony Coleman's original score: Even when Jews dance, they do so with a heavy heart, their shoulders sloped with the burden of life even as they ostensibly celebrate it.

There's an Eliot Feld work set to Klezmer whose name I have erased from my mind, much as I wish I could erase the memory of the dance. Feld uses about one phrase in the work, which basically expresses, "Isn't this music just zany?" without any shadings.

Pulvermacher, on the other hand--working, like Feld, with young dancers--gives us a nuanced, layered reading of Klezmer. Rather than the trite generalization of Feld, she gives us a specificity of phrasing, it seems, for all the limbs! Pulvermacher also gives her dancers violins and bows; a device which I was at first suspicious of, because it seemed so obvious. But choreographer and dancers do the work. Their mime of playing the violins is sincere and second nature, not just indicated. The violins are not just artificial extensions of the dance, but integrated with the dancers, almost as extra limbs.

The dancers, too, give nuanced performances; I find young dancers can have difficulty conveying tragedy, and often find myself saying, "You're 20 years old-- what do you know of suffering?" But here, the dancing to the somber sections was weighted. Standouts were Liz Pearlman, a wizened and wry narrator; Thea Little, who brought up the dark side; the reckless (in a good sense) and imposing Joya Powell; and a windswept Emily Prager.

The least substantial and sophisticated--and, to my mind, uninformed--work of the evening was Francesca Harper's "Liquid Steel." Harper was a principal dancer with Frankfurt Ballet under William Forsythe, and we can see that influence--much diluted. The balance between the mathematical genius of how Forsythe extenuates the ballet vocabulary, and the pique-for-pique's sake of Complexions is precarious. I almost think you have to be in the brain of Forsythe to avoid becoming Complexions, and that even once removed the genius is removed, and we're left with posing. Harper also copies another Forsythe trick--having the dancers speak-- with flat results. The two dancers who talk are not actors, and they certainly couldn't have been inspired to reach beyond themselves by cliche-ridden dialogue that was strictly high school drama class.

In effect, this was classroom exercises, not a refined dance. Ditto for the D.J. Spooky "music," described as having been "composed for the dance," but which was yet another version of the percussive ambient "music" composed for five out of six new dances at the Alvin Ailey company over the last five years.

One can clearly see the difference between a beginner like Harper and Janet Soares's premiere, "Camera Obscura." Recognizably in the style of Doris Humphrey and Jose Limon, it lacks the pungency of works by those authors, but nicely approximates the poignancy. If "Liquid Steel" is an assemblage of steps, "Camera Obscura" is a well-assembled dance, a successful, succinct lesson for these dancers in how to present an important historical style. It is easy to exploit these young bodies for the extensions rampant in Harper's work. It is less showy-- though, I would argue, more important--to teach them how to dance an important part of their heritage. At the least, they do this beautifully--as in "Camera Obscura." And at the most, as in the Sokolow work, they rescue that heritage from the dusty history bins and infuse it with the air of the future they carry in their oh so very young bodies.

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