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Flash Review 1, 4-28: Transformation
Liederbach: The Best Night of Dance I've Reviewed All Year

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

Last night at the Joyce SoHo, I was transformed. And it made all my Flash Reviews of the past few weeks look like just so much niggling. I.e., I analyzed, I praised in some cases, damned in others, but all the ideas were capturable in words. Good or bad, I was able to analyze it. Last night, in the season of Marijeanne Liederbach Choreography, I was reminded, perhaps for the first time since seeing Pina Bausch last November, that dance shouldn't be something you can break down in words. It should and CAN be something that breaks you down.

I have to say, I was shocked, in more ways than one -- the shock of surprise, the shock of recognition. The surprise was that Liederbach, well.... Hmmm. What do I want to say here. As the director of research and education of the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries, Liederbach has her hands full with her day job. Having interviewed her last fall, I was aware that she was a dancer before she became a pioneering physical therapist for dancers. I was also aware that she had taken some time off from P/T for her art. But frankly, her job at Harkness seems so all-consuming, that I couldn't imagine she'd have the time to develop her craft. I presumed -- not from anything I'd seen, but just from her profile -- that Liederbach's choreography was sort of a side thing, a love she didn't want to give up, a way to stay involved in the artistic side of the field. In a word, a sort of vanity project. Boy, peoples, was I ever wrong!

The transformation started with the theater. I've talked a lot in the past couple of months of what a difference the theater can make in the artistic experience; this was that paradigm in reverse. Through technical factors such as low lighting in the lobby, to what we were given on stage -- all top caliber dance with top caliber dancers -- I saw for the first time, really, the potential for elegant presentation of the Joyce SoHo. Although there had been some exceptions (most recently Sara Hook, see Flash Review, 4-20: Over the Top), for the most part I considered the Joyce a venue for untested, younger choreographers - dancemakers not quite ready for prime time, still working things out.

But what I saw last night was a program whose tight, taught, varietel pace didn't let up until the final moment, as Liederbach, Amy Cox, and Ted Johnson swung from cranes from which they hung on pulleys.

Not anticipating such an evening, what had initially drawn me to the theater was the announced appearance of Valerie Madonia, longtime Joffrey Ballet ballerina. Y'all know that first and foremost I'm a fan, so you'll understand the significance of this rare appearance to me when I say that Madonia was one of my early favorites, from when I first saw the Joffrey in 1991. I hadn't seen her perform since 1994, when I caught her with Alonzo King's LINES Contemporary Ballet. Her appearance last night was her first performance in a year, but you wouldn't have known it.

What I remember most from that LINES performance was Madonia's acute pointework. It would be the first thing you'd notice about her, except that her face also has a mystical, magical, fairy-like quality to it.

Pristine pointework and fairy-quality were in evidence last night, in the 1991 "Good Apprentices." First, Madonia is essentially aloft for the whole dance, as is her partner, Meredith Rainey. They take their positions in the dark on two two-foot long, two-foot tall wooden boxes, with much of the illumination coming from the clear glass/plastic tops of the boxes. They stay on those boxes or above them for the entire dance, never touching the floor. The impact of pointe can be big enough done on a stage in a 3,000 seat opera house; imagine the effect when it's ten feet away from you, and the dancer is barefoot. You see the muscles, you see the veins, you see the strength it takes. The friezes here were eloquent; here are some that I jotted down: Madonia balancing on Rainey's haunches, both looking forward; he droops her over one shoulder; she crouches on her box; she hangs upside down basically attached to him only by her feet on his shoulders; she drops backward over his shoulder. The only fault here was that the lighting was a little blocky; we could see the transitions/switches.

After an expressive, virtuosic recital of Chopin's Mazurka No. 2 in C Major, Opus 56, and Valse Brillante, in E-flat, Opus 18 by Byron Janis (he also wrote and performed the piano music for the first piece) -- woe! The woe is for the recital, but also for what came afterwards: Leslie Ann Cardona of Dance Theatre of Harlem and Ricardo Gomez in "Two to Tango," with largely percussive music by Richard D. James. Tango here meant passion in restraint, taut. (This is where the shock of self-recognition came in!) You know, that erotically and romantically charged time when you know you're going to end up with her/him, so you're just enjoying and digging the foreplay. It's restraint when you don't need to restrain. Their eyes never leave each other.

She places a leg over his neck; then dangles from him and climbs over him, by the legs; he spins her; there's a sort of tango. This is the heat of slow restraint. Then he carries her over his back, twisting her 'round him. I love the way Gomez's hand caused ripples in Cardona's naked chiseled back, cinching her skin together. Now she slides down his frontside; he lifts her; she's upside down, then rightside-up, her knees folded over his shoulder. They are melting into each other, and I'm melting too.

(Note: My dancer companion referred to this as plastique, i.e. the use of the body for sculptural purposes, and suggested that the success of these pictures depends on the dancers, and their investment in the movement. I see her point. Which is to say, skilled as the choreography was, Liederbach was very blessed to have these particular dancers interpreting it with their smoldering temperaments and pliant bodies.)

The next piece (arghh! He's being linear for once! There's a method to my sanity: This was also a well-structured and ordered program, as a whole.) was Pilobolan, and, again, Liederbach was fortunate in her vehicle, the sinuous Barry Wizoreck. I still remember Wizoreck from a piece with a title something like "Flight," by Michele Elliman of Neo Labos. This is a beautiful male dancer whose ardency fairly drips from his pores. In Liederbach's "Black Box," a premiere, his sphere was circumscribed by, you guessed it, a sort of upright black picture frame. The gimmick here was the holes punctured in the underside of each plank of the frame, enabling Wizoreck to enter the frame itself. For example, at one point he hangs upside down by his feet; from the knees down (or rather up!) they disappear into two holes above him, and he seems to have stumps for legs. The position he always reverts to is hunching, ape-like, on the bottom side of the frame, arms dangling. There's a faint tho not desperate sense that he's trying to escape, probing the contours of his cage with all his limbs. His performance in "Flight" -- I remember a sort of dying bird, indeed struggling to fly -- still in my mind, it occurs to me that Wizoreck's gift is his adeptness at metamorphosizing into magical but struggling creatures. He may appear to have the body of a human, but it's just the outward form; in fact, he's an eagle or a gorilla or something else. Wizoreck danced with Paul Taylor and indeed, his torso is Tayloresque, but it's a bit more rubbery, reflecting perhaps his ISO lineage. (ISO being a branch of the Pilobolus-Momix tree.)

For the final piece of the evening, "A Spring Waltz," we had the treat of seeing the evening's star herself, Liederbach, harnessed like Cox and Johnson to a sort of small scale leaning crane.

Robed in black-grey tights and pink mesh tops, they sway from the cranes, arms loose, their gray shadows on the theater's white walls swaying too. They swing around the cranes. They stand, but still anchored by the pulleys. Now they release and fly with their backs parallel to the floor; now they pivot around the cranes and return to the front, presenting themselves to us, arms spread wide, feet barely planted on the ground, bodies leaning slightly backwards.

The music helped here too: a waltz by Johann Strauss, Jr., which set just the right tone.

In fact, I have to note here that the music throughout the evening was attentively chosen.

Attention is the operative word here. I am so OVER generic release-contact improv choreography, where the choreographer seems to have just set the dancers loose on a general style but without a specific blueprint, that it's a relief to see someone who evidently takes care to sketch out every single phrase. There is no fat here, folks. You can see the work and thought, in both the overall schemes of each of the works and the moment-by-moment details. Every cornice is painted carefully and lovingly. And the dancers, too, respond to this high craft by etching every movement decisively; there's no blurring here, no rushing over a phrase.

Even the purpose for the evening was carefully chosen. It's not unusual for companies to have evenings to benefit themselves, and one might even expect it from a company that performs rarely. But this evening benefited the SoHo and TriBeCa Partnerships, and their services for the homeless.

And even the evening's cause was made tangible. In a company gala benefit, you might see the board chairman come out before the show and make a speech, or the company director come out and thank all the sponsors. But when these soft house lights dimmed, along with Liederbach and partnership benefactor Henry Buhl, there stood Raymond Yancy, the Custodian of the Joyce SoHo.

Yancy, Buhl noted, was a graduate of the partnerships' programs. "I lost my job because I was homeless through alcohol addiction, and was fortunate enough to get into the partnership," Yancy reported, also sharing that he was coming up on four years clean.

So there you have it: Those fortunate enough to be in attendance last night got tangible results in seeing where their dollars went, tangible results in a dinner afterwards at Buhl's ornate Prince Street loft, and tangible dance. Dance that this toney and NON- dance insider crowd could grasp and heartily applaud and take with them out of the theater. The only disappointment which it grieves me to report to you is that, due to circumstances beyond Liederbach's control, this season was one-night only. I hope Liederbach and her fine company return soon. Dancers will probably tell you that in her work as a physical therapist, she's indispensable. I selfishly say the body dance needs her as much as the dancers' bodies do.

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