80s Night. Photo: Mike Manning
This weekend marked the beginning of Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company’s 2011-12 season. Last year’s final show was a retrospective of the work of Alwin Nikolai. It was so colorful and imaginative, its use of props and costumes so startling, it seemed reasonable to ask how the company could possibly supersede that prior spectacle. The company’s artistic director, Charlotte Boye-Christensen, was wise enough, however, not to attempt such a feat. Rather, she courageously took the company in the opposite direction. While last night’s show bore the title Polychromatic, the set of pieces performed seemed considerably subdued compared to work produced by Ririe-Woodbury in recent seasons.
The first piece of the evening, Larry Keigwin’s 80’s Night (2007) launched the event on a playful note. Members of the company, clad in white and silver lamé, ascended from beneath the floor of the stage to the music of Tchaikovsky. But string serenades soon gave way to a very different brand of “classic”: the immediately recognizable hip hop beat and bass of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It,” and the hilariously inane octave-jumping of Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance.” Here, the members of the company broke out the full repertoire of hip hop and disco moves. After a handful of planned false starts—the company seemingly attempting a return to proper decorum—all eventually surrendered to the rhythm and completed the rest of the piece without interruption. Allusions to the Solid Gold and the YMCA dance (an instance of literal choreo-graphy, or “body writing”), kept the piece fun and familiar, arguing that modern dance need not restrict itself to high seriousness, either in terms of music or thematic source materials.
The next piece of the evening was a world-premiere performance Push, by Ririe-Woodbury’s own Charlotte Boye-Christensen. This piece, though highly effective, was (perhaps deliberately) less groundbreaking than Boye-Christensen’s recent choreography, making few or no references to film and video projection as has so much of her recent work. Right down to the casual wear donned by the dancers, this piece contributed to the less flamboyant, at times muted, mood of the evening. The piece began with the members of the company seated in formation on the floor. The use of bare, black-box staging made the dance feel situated in a studio or practice space. Many of the gestures, and even the breathing and grunting, brought to mind basic attitudes assumed in kundalini yoga. Over the course of the piece, the dancers rose to their feet and struck more dramatic poses, including some impressive examples of partnering. In general, Push felt—again, seemingly deliberately—like a preparation or prelude to dance more than a dance in its own right, just as yoga is a preparation for savasana, the state of total rest which complete one’s practice. Indeed, many of the movements during the piece brought to mind the act of rooting into the earth and then finally surrendering to it.
After an intermission, the evening continued with Spurts of Activity Before the Emptiness of Late Afternoon (2010), by John Jasperse. This piece was also written for a black-box performance space. It begins with a pair of dancers facing away from the crowd in three-quarter profile. Their movements are fragmented and tentative, timid. As other dancers enter the stage, the movements become more animated, but deliberately lacking in coordination. Bodies wobble and collide. A feeling of blasé detachment pervades the entire scene. The dance makes extensive use of the pocketed far wall of the stage. Individual dancers seemed coffered within their own private cells. One might have been tempted to read the entire piece as a reflection on the relentless tedium of prison time. However, Jesperse’s brilliant choreography included a number of handstands and inversions which, performed against the wall, seemed to rotate the vertical wall surface and transform it into a horizontal one. Technical feats of a sort were first pioneered by dancer/filmmaker Maya Deren, whose genius lay in her ability to dramatically shift the very coordinates of space itself, and always through the most economical cinematic means, mere tilts and cuts of the camera. In Jasperse’s piece, prison walls, suddenly viewed as if from different angle, seem to become a bed seen from above, and expressions of claustrophobia and stir craziness turn instantly into tossing and turning, frustration over sleeplessness. The dancers repeatedly launch themselves against the wall and then descend back to the floor, creating the impression not of bodily movement so much as cinematic jump cutting, the camera shifting its perspective each time by 90 degrees. Choreography becomes a form of editing. The entire piece reads, like Andy Warhol’s Sleep (1963), as a kind of cinematic mediation on insomnia and somnambulism, and the neither/nor interval between waking and dreaming.
The final piece of the evening was New York choreographer Brook Notary’s G R I D (2009). As if to bring completely home the irony of the title Polychromatic, this piece opened on the third blackened stage in a row, though this time a scrim covered the theater’s bare far wall. The stage, rather than empty, was dissected by a row of bungee cords. Dancers clad in grey business suits fought to negotiate their way through an obstacle course of lines and bodies. The first contact with the ropes revealed them to be coated with white powder which billowed in the air throughout the duration of the piece, and chalked the dancers’ attire. The dancers worked with and against the cables to establish their positions in a madcap game of cat’s cradle. The effort evoked subway tracks and power lines, the experience of living “on the grid,” an effect enhanced by the music of John Elliot Oyzon. The spectacle might have appeared entirely tragic or existential if not for the peek-a-boo vents and windows cut into the dancers’ business suits. This small but salient detail allowed the suits to be seen not merely as suits, but as literal costumes. Consequently, all the bouncing off and twisting within the array of ropes could not fail to suggest the neo-baroque melodrama of professional wrestling, business attire here providing one more popular motif to be appropriated and parodied in a televised enactment of agony and ecstasy. For all the wit and athleticism of G R I D, the dance ends on a poignant, indeed sentimental note: the figure of a solitary dancer, like a lone bird on a wire, struggling but failing to escape the power grid. If G R I D presents the world of Wall Street as a kind of acting or play, it remains play with dire consequences.
Polychromatic ran September 22–24. The Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company’s season continues with Prism, which runs from December 8–10.