New Dances 2003

Melissa Thodos & Dancers

at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, June 20-22

In its never-ending quest for trends, the Wall Street Journal reported the “end-of-the-school-year crunch,” time demands placed on parents by the spread of graduation ceremonies from college down to prekindergarten. The Journal sagely attributed this phenomenon to a national hunger for ritual. If such a hunger exists–and when doesn’t it?–“New Dances 2003,” an evening of work created by members of Melissa Thodos & Dancers, offered a splendid way to satisfy it.

Rituals can be stifling, to be sure–choreographer Liz Lerman says the best way to decide whether something needs changing is to substitute the word “convention” for “tradition” and see if you’re still interested in its preservation. But these choreographers managed to maintain their artistic vitality as they rang changes on the traditions in which they chose to work.

Paul Christiano, whose piece addresses rituals most explicitly, was the evening’s MVP. The two sections he presented from the five-movement First Love; Second Sight so brilliantly embody coming-of-age and fertility rites that they seem not quaint customs but essential vehicles for human connection. “Eclipse: Natalia at Sixteen” is an ambitious piece for ten dancers who leap and reach to Dulce Pontes music, which sounds derived from central European folk harmonies. The rich music permits a rich tapestry of movement; though occasionally overbusy, it has a thrilling complexity and clear emotional tenor–a compound of celebration and danger. Tarah Brown was superb as Natalia, whether dancing with Christiano in “White Night: Natalia at Twenty-Five,” an erotic pas de deux, or holding her own against four Village Men/Brawlers liable to tear her to pieces with their desire.

Amy Page’s Field Glass Perspective offers an anthropologist’s view of mating rituals, made powerful by the naked emotion animating each of five dances, two solos and three duets. Jennifer Meek performs the opening dance of unsatisfied desire. Then Jesse Coffelt and Amanda Petersen spar awkwardly, turning mechanically like robots or swinging their arms low to the ground like apes. But rather than merely mock the futility of courtship, the dancers show how to make genuine contact. Petersen throws herself at Coffelt, somehow attaching to his unresponsive torso; but once he looks at her, never mind how disdainfully, they’re obviously paired for life. The second pas de deux is romantic from the start, and made more so by Sean Kessler’s fine partnering of Talya Salant. He’s tall, and thus able literally to sweep her off her feet in every way and every direction. The third duet features Mikhail Kaschock and Hillary Murphy in simultaneous solos that eventually blend, a fine metaphor for successful partnership in love or anything else. Alison Williams, whose solo of loneliness brings up the rear, together with Meek joins the duos in a brief but thoroughly satisfying, yes, ritual: each dances to his or her own score, but somehow all the dancing is integrated.

Carlos Gonzalez dedicates Detras de los Brujos to his “spiritual roots and to all the magical traditions” taught him by his family. Using Latin music throughout, he moves from orthodox modern moves to high-spirited barn dance based on Tex-Mex boot scootin’, down to thumbs hooked in the belt. It’s refreshing to be reminded, as in Christiano’s piece, that rock isn’t the only vernacular accompaniment for dance.

After all this courting, the mourning in Jennifer Meek’s Path 24 was a shock, though come to think of it the only really big themes are sex–that is, life–and death. Here four women enact ceremonies in which one dances while the others support or entrap her before finally carrying her off as in a funeral cortege. Though abrupt changes in the music–between movements and from artist to artist–undermine the piece’s unity, each component is highly satisfying, and the final sound of a bird chirping is poignant.

Altin Naska’s Petite D goes even further in drawing the circle of life, albeit comically. Six dancers begin silhouetted behind a screen, wriggling around the shadow of a circle while a voice-over cheers “We’re goin’ in!” Conquest of the ovum apparently successful, they appear onstage in diapers and then fast-forward through childhood, with appearances by Barbie, Big Bird, and Superman. By the time the protagonist is an adolescent, she’s dreaming of a Prince Charming in white and a Wild One in black (both played by Christiano). The dancing becomes ever more erotic until he lowers himself on top of her, and we’re back to the fucking start–literally. Despite a narrative glitch–the protagonist is slow to emerge from the crowd of other dancers–the piece is charming.

Funny wooing also animates Amy Michelle Wilkinson’s delightful Dr. Turvy’s Dream, recounting a man’s ludicrous determination to chronicle his life in letters to the woman he will someday meet and love. Christiano is perfectly deadpan as the befuddled dreamer, contrasted with Meek as the object of his dreams, a no-nonsense woman in Zorro mask. Four other women attend her, scattering fairy dust and throwing paper airplanes made from the letters. They’re all fine dancers but Meek stands out, fearless and sassy whether she’s moon walking across the stage, duckwalking in and out of the wings, or ambulating atop her posse’s hands toward her winsome but clueless swain. Meek even finesses Wilkinson’s ending, which requires her to unmask and gaze tenderly at Christiano, a sentimental touch ill suited to this gleeful parody of sentimental conventions.

Lauri Stallings (the evening’s guest choreographer, from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago) sets the mysterious Liquid Attic partly to Thomas Newman’s music but mostly to the sound of water running or falling. In what seems a meditation on the rituals of a madhouse, the dancers succeed one another in a single pink tutu (including the always game Christiano). The scenario suggests the 1966 cult movie King of Hearts, in which asylum inmates, among them a would-be ballerina in full getup, take over the countryside–and the countryside is better for it. Enigmatic elements notwithstanding–what’s with the water?–this is a thoughtful piece that falls short only of its own high aspirations.

Tarah Brown in Orenda, one of the few disappointments, comments on dance’s own rituals with the not-very-original point that ballet exercises can be speeded up and done to techno music. The piece also suffers from the sort of bogus profundity that inspires people who’ve had a year of French to write poems consisting of variations on “to be”: “Je suis, tu es, il est, elle est…” Existence is an important subject, but there’s more to addressing it than just conjugating. By the same token, the simplicity of ballet drills can inspire reflection on the body’s capacity to extend or distort itself, but just doing the exercises isn’t enough.

Nikki Pinchott’s Opposite Track looked tired by comparison to the other works. Partly this was due to her choice of a Giovanni Sollima score, which sounded enough like the music in Petite D and Path 24 to suggest a run on the jazz-violin bin at Tower Records. Earlier such string work had seemed edgy, but in this piece it resembled a relentless zither or the bouzouki that drives a customer crazy in Monty Python’s cheese shop. In any case, Pinchott’s work for five offers neither intense emotion nor fresh moves.

“New Dances 2003” coincided with the summer solstice, for which some ritual is certainly appropriate. But if the only passage celebrated had been the emergence of a flock of full-fledged choreographers, that would have been enough. Or, as is said in a ritual with which I’m familiar, “dayenu.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cheryl Mann.