Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Everybody Dance Now! Or just stand there.

Earth to Annique (in Gatekeepers): you can come down now! Photo: David Andrako
This fall, two organizations have opened within one block near the BAM Harvey Theater, BRIC House and Theater for a New Audience. BRIC's new headquarters is on the location where it was previously based along with Urban Glass (which also has new digs in the complex) and is an impressively varied multi-use space, including "the stoop"—an amphitheater like open atrium with step seating, a gallery space, a tv studio, a rehearsal space, a cafe area, and a 250-seat flexible theater.
Ron Brown shows the way to his company and community dancers
 in On Earth Together. Photo: David Andrako

The good news is that the mood was celebratory at one of Evidence's first week of performances (and the first ever dance in the theater). The theater was pretty full, and the audience eager to embrace the company. It presented an older work, Gatekeepers (1999), to music by Wunmi (who also designed the costumes), and the latest version of a growing Stevie Wonder tribute, On Earth Together, begun in 2011 and now nearly an evening-length work in itself. The twist this time around: dancers from the community were smoothly incorporated into several of the numbers. Their ages ranged wildly, from elementary school-aged to grandparent-aged, but all danced enthusiastically and with composure. Some looked nearly ready to substitute for one of Brown's excellent regular company dancers, including the ever-magnetic and silky Annique Roberts, who became Brown's partner in the final movements. She clearly inspires him, as she does us. 

The bad news? The sight lines are wanting in the chosen bleacher-style setup, at least for dance. Seated behind an average height person, I had to lean forward to glimpse the dancers' feet. Hopefully, the arrangement can be tweaked to fix this drawback, but it wasn't enough to dampen the crowd's exuberance. And the stage is perhaps half the size of the just-big-enough Joyce, where Evidence often performs. The run continues this week with Torch (2013) and On Earth Together with a different group of community members. 

Huggin' it out in Way In. Photo: Ian Douglas
Way In, at Danspace Project, by Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener, also included non-professional performers. It they wanted to—not that they do—this pair will never be able to shake the fact that they were stellar dancers with Merce Cunningham. Fortunately, the skills they honed with Merce are now like a superpower, summoned at will to astound us mortals. Technique aside, they have an intellectual and conceptual curiosity that is catalyzing some fascinating and varied work (Interface and Nox). Here, they chose to work with lighting and set designer Davison Scandrett and writer and ex-dance reviewer for the NY Times, Claudia La Rocco. (Question: Why did they collaborate with La Rocco? Answer: So she couldn't review the show! *rimshot*). Jokes aside, La Rocco has always been unsparingly honest with her opinion in reviews, and here she takes a risk in exposing herself physically to what is most likely an audience very familiar with her point of view. 

The piece begins somewhat tediously, with Scandrett lying on a dolly, awkwardly wheeling hand-written signs (turn off phones, emergency exits, etc) to La Rocco, who coyly holds them up like a boxing ring "girl," and exaggeratedly imitates a bored airline attendant. The set, by Mitchell, Riener, and Scandrett, played a major role—pink lace fabric formed a false ceiling over the stage, and walled off the altar area. It created a perfumy bordello feel, and the resulting compartments were lit to delineate on and offstage. Light was shone through the lace to capture its textural pattern in shadow. 

The work is so stuffed that those who crave technique are rewarded, as are those who care more about ideas. Riener and Mitchell's focus, flexibility, and control are peerless; in one section, Riener relevés on his incredibly articulated metatarsals and ever so slowly rotates 270º, tracking Mitchell as he slinks around the perimeter, close to viewers. You can hardly see Riener moving, so great is his finesse, and even though his laser gaze directs you to watch Mitchell, it's impossible to stop watching Riener. Backgrounding the first half, over Muzak-style early music (Rameau and Lully) we hear a monologue (spoken by La Rocco) shifting between descriptive and postulative: what do we expect to see? How important is technique? After awhile, the verbiage devolves into noise, but the mere juxtaposition of the two "teams" and their respective activities calls into question many tenets of performance that have been raised since there was dance, and more frequently since the Judson movement.
The Way Out of Way In. Photo: Ian Douglas

The non-dancers were both ungraceful enough in contrast to the Riener & Mitchell that it was hard to resist feeling resentful toward their presence onstage, presumably intentionally. (I should add that nearly anyone would be ungraceful compared to those two.) This particularly held true toward the end, when Riener & Mitchell moved behind the scrim to change from their sleek black unitards and rehearsal clothes that they'd layered on, into silver, dollar-print trunks and pink lace jumpsuits. Onstage, the other two played catch-the-rolling-gumball for a long time. A dialogue between them played, and again became noise. (They also lay like odalisques, drank tea, and ate cake.) No doubt it was intended to ask what kind of movement constitutes performance, because the gumballers clearly were "performing." 

But we were given plenty of virtuosic dance by the trained ones, who had a sort of throw-down. They repeatedly ran at one another from opposite ends of the sanctuary, clashing like elegant wrestlers, lifting each other with effort. They circled the stage, doing bold assemblé jumps. Mitchell promenaded in arabesque led by Riener's hand in his mouth. Down to their trunks, they moved like powerful boa constrictors, sliding their legs up the columns into splits, bending and twisting in yoga poses, slipping into mid-stage splits done as close as shadows. They danced as one at times, their shared histories and understanding becoming rich fuel to add to their Cunningham superpowers. 

In the finale, Scandrett moved a bunch of spotlights into place around a mic. La Rocco changed from her jeans into a long taffeta skirt, untied her voluminous hair, pulled white tulle netting over her head, and began intoning into the mic like a priestess. "Why did you come here tonight? What did you expect?" Her speech echoed increasingly until it was unintelligible. Riener and Mitchell, sweaty, by now had squidged their way across the sanctuary, up the steps, and were posed fawningly at her feet, like sweet putti, before standing at attention. It seemed like they might be married, but perhaps it was more marking the union of collaborators, of ideas. But it was an odd, kitschy ritual capping a show that did indeed pose a boatload of questions—many old, some new—about a way in. 

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