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Flash Review 1, 5-17: Adults, Dancing
Monte Probes, Brown Misses

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By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

To tell you the truth, I was a bit trepidatious about seeing Monte/Brown (formerly Elisa Monte Dance) last night at the Joyce. I feel about this company sort of like you might feel about that impetuous first love or fling you had before you knew better. Monte's intimately intertwining body sculptures -- especially seeing them close-up in rehearsal, as I had an opportunity to do -- thrilled me with their intricate inventiveness when I was young and new to dance, but within a couple of years the dances didn't seem all that sophisticated to me.

Well, perhaps it's the proximity of the Juilliard debacle -- see Flash Review 1, 5-16: Juilliard in Trouble -- but last night these dancers and Monte as choreographer offered what seems to be the increasingly vital lesson that it is possible to choreograph and dance intensely without emoting. And that it is possible to choreograph and dance allegro dances with incision but without rushing them.

Years ago, Monte told me -- or maybe it was one of her dancers quoting her to me -- that she specifically directs dancers not to emote, explaining that the emotional effects will come naturally out of the emotionally suggestive choreography. Monday's opening demonstrated this fact, at least in Monte's works and in a piece created in collaboration with David Brown.

This starts right away with the appearance of Caroline Nehr and Marden Ramos at the beginning of Monte's 1999 "Amor Fati." "We've seen this," I responded at first; it's a typical Monte dance of a couple entwining in various fashions. But then it hit me: This is the kind of restraint I was looking for at the Juilliard concert, and that sometimes seems to have become a lost art. Namely, we KNOW dancers can move at a kick-ass pace, but the tension comes in getting a palpable feeling that they're trying to control the fire burning within them. Nehr is a mistress of restraint; you get the feeling that she is barely containing something, controlled yet ready to smolder. The rest of the eight dancers enter eventually, and what ensues is basically patterns involving formations of divided groups of four, with the dancers peeling off one by one and, for instance, forming a new pile at the opposite end of the stage. The music helps in providing both an outer musical canvas and a suggestion of the tormented thoughts raging within: Played and composed by the Belanescu Quartet, it combines raging strings with an underlayer of whispering voices.

The show-stopper, tho -- and schooling -- was delivered by Fabrice Lamego in "Run to the Rock," Monte and Brown's 1998 tribute to Alvin Ailey, set to Nina Simone's extended riff on the "Revelations" tour-de-force "Sinner Man." This was really like listening to the Grateful Dead extend a well-known tune in that it was a jazzy, almost free-form interpretation of this classic. And Lamego, by positive example, pinpointed exactly what bothers me about the Matthew Rushing style of frenetic pace interpretation prevalent at the Ailey these days. Lamego's moves were similar, but the difference is he paced them out and savored his angst. Rather than trying to impress us with his speed and those only producing one big hurried blur, he offered us clarity, relishing and feeling every gesture. As opposed to portraying a sort of generalized, monotonous angst manifest in a reeling body, he acted out the angst again and again in each body part. You could almost see the tension and pain running through him slowly but steadily, like a river. Choreographically, Monte and Brown were right-on - this definitely was a tribute. They quoted from Ailey but did not merely imitate him, essentially offering their personal expansion on the phrases, in the same way Simone elaborated on the music.

My non-dancer companion offered the best frame of reference for Monte's "Day's Residue," premiering last night. It reminded her of Fellini films, she said, partly because of the sense of discordance going back into reality. She also noted, correctly, that the dancers and choreography were big enough for the music, Vladimir Godar's stormy Concerto grosso: Presto e molto agitato. It's hard to believe this was all by one composer, as it veered wildly from Shostakovich-style terrorizing to celebratory Bach mode.

The most, er, problematic dance was Brown's "Let's Misbehave." On a smaller scale, the problem here is that Brown asks his cast to be chipper and happy-go-lucky, and I just don't buy that demeanor from this particular troupe. (Everything else I've ever seen them in is serious, so when they simply smile deliriously, it's not convincing.)

The bigger problem is that, well, while Brown usually thinks big in his musical choices, I've yet to see a dance by him in which he's truly musical. He has interesting things to say in conversation about dance, but is not as able to articulate his ideas in actual dance-making. That is to say, he'll usually have a clear idea of the general target he's shooting for in terms of the spirit of the music, but fails to really get inside the particular music to which he's choreographing, in terms of dance phrasing that matches the musical phrases. I don't mean necessarily a literal match; in the program notes for last night, Brown points out, "I set for myself the challenge to not fall into the expected social dance reaction to Porter's intelligent and sophisticated rhythms, but rather to investigate my own personal response to these well-known and celebrated classic American songs." A legitimate tact, of course, but the most personal of responses still needs to resonate on some level with the audience to have an impact, and Brown's responses to music generally elude me. I found his response to this music, at least as he was able to manifest that response in dance, unimaginative. He is occasionally inventive, but even that attraction was missing in this new dance.

Monte/Brown Dance continues through May 21. For more info, go to http://www.joyce.org/monte2k.HTML.

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