back to Flash Reviews
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
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
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
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.
back to Flash Reviews