No worship without sacrifice, announced a plaque on the wall at the Washington Square United Methodist Church, a dictum attributed to Gandhi but well suited to the dingy foyer where the line for the sole bathroom was getting longer. Shabby churches, airless sanctuaries awkwardly rigged out as performance spaces, the audience cramped and sweltering but putting up with discomfort for art’s sake—it was 1969 all over again, though I doubt that Lar Lubovitch meant to celebrate the 35th anniversary of his company by schlepping down memory lane in quite this fashion. As people fanned themselves with programs, I couldn’t help feeling that something was getting awfully old here, and it wasn’t just the critic. Thirty-five years, and sacrifice is still considered an honorable component of the dance-going experience? Thirty-five years, and a respectable, middle-aged company can’t afford to perform in a decent theater? Thirty-five years, and modern dance can’t or won’t give up its role as the poor little match girl of the arts?
To be fair, dance isn’t alone; it just seems to be the art form perpetually struggling hardest with the travails of growing up. But none of the performing arts in this country has a particularly rational financial structure. Like health care, education, child care, and farming, the arts don’t fit well in a marketplace that blindly rewards economies of scale, and holds quality, size, and success to be synonymous. It’s also true that life on the cutting edge of the arts is never going to be comfy. That’s how dance justified its wretched surroundings years ago, and it still makes sense in the case of work that’s genuinely outside the mainstream. But dance has a pretty big mainstream now, and Lubovitch is a good example of a choreographer who works right in the heart of it. Though his choreography is serious, it’s safe—so utterly lacking in surprise or daring that by rights he should be considered a commercial artist and paid very well indeed. If he used pen and paper instead of dancers, he probably would be.
“Soon I find I’m writing the word lyrical over and over.”
Pentimento, the new piece at the center of the company’s anniversary season, offers about 75 minutes in which to ruminate on these subjects. The title refers to the way an older painting on a canvas may partially emerge when more recent layers of paint fade away. Hence we watch the dancing through scrims, and listen to a computer pastiche of musical fragments, some ringing out passionately and others distorted. Eight excellent dancers are on hand, and soon I find I’m writing the word lyrical over and over. Clusters of dancers unfold lyrically, limbs are extended lyrically, and once I have to scribble “lyrical, pious” because they’re kneeling and opening their arms while sacred music pumps away. For hours, it seems, they flow ardently here and there, pause and pose, then flow once more. Smooth and flawless in matching gray unitards, the company looks as though it’s been shrink-wrapped.
The middle section is set up differently: Jason McDole and Ryan Lawrence mirror each other as if portraying a divided self. Ultimately, they break into violence, kicking and punching in a barrage of hatred until they catch sight of a frail figure behind a scrim. It’s a spirit in a white nightie, trembling and looking distraught. All three reach out longingly to one another, and whatever was at issue is reconciled. Oddly, Pascal Rioult made use of the very same device in his version of Firebird, seen recently at the Joyce. Apparently, it’s the season for young maidens in white to bring peace and harmony to odious humankind. (How come we never see tall, strong women in red having such a helpful effect on the world? Just asking.)
Out on West 4th Street afterward, I heard several audience members talking admiringly about the white-nightie moment. Clearly the soft-focus choreography that is Lubovitch’s trademark has wide appeal. It’s as if he’s tapped into some innate comfort zone and discovered exactly what people want bodies to look like when they’re moving to music, and which emotions will be most pleasant to experience. In the interests of peace and harmony, I’ll just waft away and leave it at that.