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Flash Review 3, 4-3: Muscle Without Weight
Neo Labos Neo-Limited at Columbia

By Kate Garroway
Copyright 2000 Kate Garroway

The inclusion of "theater" in the Neo Labos Dancetheater's name evoked immediate questions and expectations for me as I anticipated the start of the performance (in a very sparse audience....Dance happens uptown too!) on Friday at Columbia University's Miller Theater. Would this be a text-based performance? Would the work emphasize narrative and character? As "Study for the Presence of a Myth" began, I felt the inkling of that myth--the four dancers clad in icy-pale modernized tunics, complete with biker shorts. Three female dancers surround their token male in stark neo-classical lines, vaguely recalling a modernized "Apollo." As "Study" continued, I lost the mythical thread I had first sensed and became involved in watching and thinking about the dancers and the vocabulary that choreographer (and artistic director) Michele Elliman created for them.

Inspired by visual artist Cy Twombly, Elliman's movement in "Study" is limited to a particularly neo-classical balletic vocabulary of line: legs rise with steely strength to arabesques, parallel side attitudes, and sharp slicing battements in all directions. Although the vocabulary grows as the piece develops, the constant motif of being pulled forward by one body part, only to be held back by another does not expand or develop to a new level of freedom; rather, it remains exacting and restrained. Mesmerizing at first, the consistent quality of pushing through jello with incredibly strong limbs, but not getting anywhere, loses its appeal about half-way into the less than half-hour piece. Impressed as I was by the impeccable strength of all four dancers, I found myself wanting to yell "More! More!! More!!!," waiting for someone to push it, to fall, or at least look dangerously close to it. But I controlled myself, and so did they. A repeated motif of one arm circling neatly during a penche or tilt simply does not give the impression of true instability or of reaching beyond one's physical space.

Even as the music shifts, from original work by Kirsten Vogelsang to the very recognizable "Autumn" presto concerto of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," the movement remains technically superb, but safe. The tempo increases to match Vivaldi's driving score, but the emphasis on positions and shapes continues, leaving out the most fascinating aspect of dance--how the dancers get from place to place, what happens to their bodies in those moments of transition, and how that becomes part of the choreography. The in-between moments disappear in "Study." A leg suddenly appears in the air, a body flips from one position to the next.

Elliman's work certainly involves a lot of skill. She uses stage space with extreme sophistication and invention. New threads of myth appear to replace the ones I first lost in each new chunk of phrasing--especially suggestive is a "Leda and the Swan"-type duet between Desiree Sanchez and Steven Washington during the Vivaldi section.

Despite the choreographic skill evident in Elliman's work, and the extreme strength and aptitude of all her dancers, these aspects faded with the performance, although I continue to ruminate on and analyze WHY those attributes didn't work together to create a lasting impression. Missing were breath, energy beyond the limbs, and a sense of abandoning one's body to the movement. Throughout "Study" the dancers seem to guide the steps rather than being drawn into and around the stage by them. Perhaps Elliman was after this very control I failed to enjoy, but the lack of dynamic change in the work diminished the initial awe I felt while observing the powerful bodies of the dancers as they formed shape after shape. Distanced from the dance by the inhuman exacting quality, I felt less and less connected as it continued in the same vein. In a post-performance discussion, Elliman explained that she had immediately reacted to how "physical... [and] kinesthetic" Twombly's abstract paintings are, which influenced her use of them as inspiration. Those are the very qualities that did not emerge in "Study."

"Codex," the other work on this short program (one hour and fifteen minutes, including intermission!) opens with tension, three dancers sitting at attention, facing the audience and looking beyond us into a foreboding void. The other five dancers in the cast strike the same pose facing upstage. One by one the dancers break off into floor sequences, separate from one another but pausing in moments of interpersonal connection. A sense of care and humanity emerges in these long looks that never appears in "Study." Also refreshing in "Codex" was a lovely contrast between the strong, exacting lines of "Study" and a soft submission to the floor or the space around one's body.

The earth-toned costumes and warm lighting contribute to this softness, whereas the harsh red bars of light projected on the backdrop in "Study" emphasize the austere lines of the dancers and their limbs. Alejandro Valesco's original music initially struck me as Vogelsang's had; they both feel atmospheric and pleasant, but not integral to the dancing. As Valesco's score develops in correspondence to "Codex," it switches tones to a more acoustic, Latin feel and adds a nice texture to the piece.

Three factions of dancers form, each member of the group triggering the others' actions, and each group affecting the others as well. Speaking about "Codex" in the post-performance discussion, dancer Sarah Weber noted that the development of the piece through the Pan American New Creation Project, with dancers from Canada and Mexico, was imbued with a natural sense of tension and conflict deriving from the dancers' differing backgrounds and training that was a challenge to re-create within the Neo Labos group. That particular challenge was well-met: Although the narrative I was anticipating still wasn't there, a sense of searching for individual and group support is the paste that effectively holds "Codex" together.

As "Codex" progresses from separate groups to individual relationships to final group unity, some cold compositional moments exist along with the "hot" ones I mentioned: powerful relationships, and a melting softness of submission and release.

Generally "cold" is the partnering; whether male-female or same sex, the contact lacks authentic physicality. Interspersed with a few moments of rhythmic, strong lifts, are many instances of lifts and support that seem only indicated and ornamental. For instance, two women assist each other in movements that do not require assistance; it is not an effective trick and draws attention to the false support rather than giving an impression of dependency on one another. Shortly after, a similar duet between the two men occurs; they easily lift one another, but in between these instances are awkward "shows" of partnering. One dancer's foot searches for his partner's hands, so he can place it in them and appear to use that dancer's support to shove off. Finding the arms just slows him down.

I was torn: I wanted to like "Codex." I appreciated the oppositional qualities I had longed for in "Study," and again, Elliman's use of the stage is masterful. The intricately shifting groups, moving in unison briefly, then separating into different facings and juxtaposed timing as the dance approaches its conclusion are beautifully engaging. A duet between Mei Hua Wang and Chan Koo Paik excludes itself from my frustration with the pseudo-physical partnering. Reaching into and away from each other, they are truly tender. Full lifts happen because they are inevitable, and there are none of the awkward half-way supporting moments of the other duets. A brief solo for Sanchez is reminiscent of the symmetry and lines in "Study," but is more effective in the context of the contrasting qualities of movement established in "Codex."

Ultimately, "Codex" is more satisfying than "Study," but I still felt like asking for "More!, More!!, More!!!" These dancers could do more--and maybe that is the barrier. The difficult movements are muscled through, rather than given weight, breath, and lift. Elliman could push for more, maybe by asking for less virtuosity in favor of complete focus on each step, and physical investment in each partnering movement.

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