58 Group

at the Vittum Theatre, April 19-29

By Kelly Kleiman

Dance fans regularly bemoan the absence of live accompaniment at most performances. But what happens when live music is not only included but treated as an equal partner with dance? That’s the question posed by the 58 Group, directed by choreographer Ginger Farley and jazz musician-composer Cameron Pfiffner. They take the marriage of dance and live music to its logical extreme: every piece is a collaboration, and the dancers and musicians interact onstage. The results, on display during the company’s recent engagement, suggest that we be careful what we wish for.

Farley and Pfiffner’s Imprint (2001) shows both the possibilities and drawbacks of collaboration, contemplating directly the battle for primacy between sound and motion. After an initial moment with musicians and dancers frozen together at center stage, Pfiffner’s score begins with percussion, to which the dancers (six women and two men) respond directly and largely individually. Their walks and hesitations, lunges and pauses highlight the intersection between stillness and sound or stillness and motion. The movement owes debts to yoga and gymnastics (a cheerleader pyramid provides visual counterpoint to an a cappella passage), while the piece evolves from the atomized individual to the dynamic collective. One group strides forward boldly in ranks like conquering explorers but pulls up short, suggesting the fear shown explicitly in another group’s knocking knees. Then the musicians advance on the dancers, who respond as one with a series of challenging unison turns and leaps from full-length on the floor. The music itself–a single riff elaborated by each instrument in turn–seems ideal for dance: its simplicity supports the choreographer’s formal statement while permitting us to concentrate on the dancing. But blending into the background is not a goal often sought by composers. Does Imprint show it’s Dance 1 and Music 0?

The Arrival (2000), brilliantly danced by Mary Chorba, is the most exciting product of Farley and Pfiffner’s collaboration. The connection between music and dance is nearly palpable, especially when saxophonist Pfiffner helps Chorba respond to the music by removing some of her clothes, whereupon she writhes like a snake answering a snake charmer. (He completes the image by sitting cross-legged on the floor to play.) At another point the prey turns hunter, as Chorba swoops and leaps at the musicians (Josh Thurston-Milgrom accompanies Pfiffner on bass) like a vampire bat about to strike. The solo is a difficult form, but here Farley shows herself mistress of it–or, better, shows that it’s not a solo at all when music and dance fuse in perfect call and response.

That’s a delicate balance, though, and the rest of the program fails to sustain it. The musicians seem not merely superfluous but intrusive in 567 West 18th Street (1999). The music itself is terrific: Pfiffner’s Latin-based composition provides the perfect setting for this witty homage to flamenco, which abstracts the form rather than merely copying its movements. What a shame the musicians won’t get out of the way. Positioned right in the middle of the stage, they oblige the dancers to dodge them and the audience to crane their necks to see around them. Musicians are–obviously!–better heard than seen, and it ought to be possible for dancers and musicians to collaborate without getting them in a tangle onstage.

Similarly, two music-only interludes sit awkwardly in the midst of a dance concert, though that’s clearly the point: check your preconceptions at the door. Still, neither listening to percussion solos nor watching instrumentalists nod appreciatively at one another during riffs is all that interesting visually. Pfiffner is a fine instrumentalist, but as a composer of jazz-based world-influenced contemporary music, he’s no Bela Fleck.

Nor is the music always the weak link. Not even Rodgers and Hart, or Juli Wood’s magnificent smoky voice, can redeem Farley’s 1999 The Birth of Venus. The piece represents a battle between stereotype and reality (“You’re too beautiful to be true”), and no doubt the vapidity of blond Venus (Sarah Cullen) is an intentional contrast with the edgy energy of the four ensemble dancers. But it’s possible to convey vacuousness without sinking into it. Farley’s now familiar gestures–windmilled arms, legs twisted on the floor–start to wear thin. Similarly, The River Shannon (2000) contains some fine athletic dancing by Chris Conry and Brock Clawson (including a dazzling scramble across the front of the stage braced only by the dancer’s hands on the backs of the front-row seats). But it’s overlong, and its playfulness is heavy-handed. The solo Deep Stripe (2001) gives Stacy DiCristofano a few opportunities to demonstrate her strength, precision, and general excellence but not enough to produce a satisfying piece. Dancers who can move like this shouldn’t be wasted flailing and twitching. When Farley lets her troupe dance, they’re first-rate.

Her own gifts are similarly hamstrung. In Flamingo (2000), Farley seems constrained by the notion that dancing has to be serious. This cluttered piece features upbeat music and dancers in showgirl costumes but also self-conscious poses, lurking men in overcoats, and a falsetto solo. All this irony may stem from the fear that popular dance is a low taste, redeemed only by knowingness. That’s the trap of being avant-garde: you have to make excuses if you want to have fun.

More often, though, Farley seems impelled to interrupt the arc of the dancers’ movements by redirecting or repeating them. This may be her homage to jazz, but if so it reflects a fundamental problem with the 58 Group’s purpose: those formal devices may produce outstanding music, but they interfere with the creation of outstanding dance. Thelonious Monk claimed that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Perhaps dancing about music is equally impossible, and one form must triumph while the other fades. But in a few pieces the 58 Group lets us glimpse that when they do merge, and the spontaneity of jazz improvisation inflects the structure of carefully designed choreography, they can form something wonderful, and wholly original. i