A schedule as tight as a traffic jam required me to see Lar Lubovitch’s new Men’s Stories in preview, a day before its official opening. As the company requested, I’m noting this here, but I don’t see how another 24 hours could have made the dancing any better. It was well-nigh perfect – lusty and elegant. Mastering Lubovitch’s lush mix of classical and modern dance, the nine male performers worked seamlessly in the choreographer’s fluid ensembles without sacrificing the fierce singularity that made Lubovitch choose each of them to begin with. In the group work and the many brief solos that stud the piece, Gerald Casel and Michael Thomas were particularly notable, the first for his creaturely quality, the second for his suggestion of the passion and madness lurking in every human soul.
The choreography, though pleasing, was less successful than the vivid performances. As Lubovitch explained in recent interviews, he was attempting to create a piece that displayed the individuality of its dancers, whose temperament and history would be conveyed by the way in which each executed his material. While it’s true that body language invariably reveals character – indeed, that anatomy itself often proves to be destiny – it’s impossible to build an effective dance solely on this phenomenon. Whatever tales may be inferred from Men’s Stories, they have no specific narrative and no compelling drama – not even any definite characterizations. What does come across is a composite account of dignity won and maintained despite the toll life constantly exacts. The men in the piece are cavaliers (and suavely costumed as such by Ann Hould-Ward). The choreography suggests that they have overcome adversity imposed from outside and their own inner conflicts, electing to comport themselves as men who are free and strong – emblems of what a human being can be. Of course, both classical ballet and traditional modern dance aim for this ideal, so with masterly dancers like the ones he assembled, Lubovitch was halfway to his goal the moment he brought them together.
Lubovitch’s Men’s Stories was performed at the Orensanz Center for the Arts, a former synagogue whose decaying neo-Gothic altar, heady proof of the poetry of ruins, supplied the dance with an evocative architectural backdrop. Lower Manhattan, first home of successive waves of American immigrants, is rich in such venues, redolent of social history. Doug Varone chose another of them – the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a dilapidated warren of claustrophobic apartments, as the setting for an experimental semi-interactive piece, Neither.
An audience of about twenty is led into the tenement and shunted from room to room in the wake of a cluster of dancer-actors who play out a peripatetic mini-melodrama. Its subject, a frequent one of Varone’s, is the intimate communal relationships that provide a full measure of terror along with the tenderness the human animal so desperately craves. Neither presents two small societies operating in tandem: a tradition-bound immigrant family with a renegade daughter and a dance company with a dictatorial director. Varone plots his dual drama feebly, succumbing to dialogue that’s embarrassingly trite. Apart from two duets in gesture for Merceditas Manago (Mom) and the always distinguished Larry Hahn (Pop), the acting is mediocre. The movement, the element that might have salvaged the piece, is simply insufficient.
The viewers are much put upon. Given some freedom to roam around the action, they’re denied the security of a fixed vantage point. Thus disoriented, they also find themselves dangerously in the way, buffeted by the force and frenzy of the performers in the constricted space. To cap their discomfort, they’re intermittently coerced into becoming part of the show.
The real star of this project was the disintegrating tenement – the suffocating close quarters forbidding privacy; the naked ceiling lights creating shafts of glare in unnervingly unplumbed darkness; the touching remnants of attempts at decoration serving as poignant ironies in a shelter that – even before the paint peeled off in sheets and the doors began to fall from their hinges – allowed its inhabitants nothing more than the bare necessities. The place seemed to be haunted by past lives far more complex and compelling than Varone was able to evoke.
Typically, Eiko & Koma built their own environment for their latest work, installing it on the stage of BAM’s Harvey Theater, like a spaceship from aeons past landed by whim or dire intent on contemporary urban turf. The construction, originally designed for an environmental piece, is a mobile caravan holding a rough, gleaming rock formation that incorporates a hill-slope perch, a nest or cradle overhung with filigreed plant life that trembles in a breeze from an unseen source, and a sealed-off hollow that suggests a cave or womb. Bearing its two often barely distinguishable inhabitants, bathed in Scott Poitras’s now silvery, now golden, now fiery light, this eerie terrain advances, recedes, and rotates at a pace so slow as to be nearly imperceptible. The pace of the performers’ movement is similarly protracted, yet for the viewer with infinite patience, the proceedings can be riveting because of Eiko & Koma’s absorption in their narrow, intense vision and the fascinating grotesqueness of their postures and gestures.
If this piece can be said to convey a story, it is the one the Japanese-bred husband-and-wife team have been telling us for a quarter-century now: Male and female primordial beings meet, mate (seemingly overcoming every obstacle harsh nature might devise), fall away, and then segue into a new cycle that repeats life’s implacable process of a brief kindling, followed by death and subsequent renewal through metamorphosis. To my eyes, the choreographers add no new information or commentary on their perennial theme with When Nights Were Dark. The piece is most distinguished for Joseph Jennings’s score – evocative humming and crooning for an a cappella choir that Eiko has aptly called “the very breathing of landscape” – and for being visually ravishing. During its longueurs, I thought a lot about the fact that the set’s geologic and botanical features had been fashioned from rags that Eiko & Koma had hand-painted themselves, adding twigs and pieces of driftwood, and that the caravan is moved manually, not mechanically. You don’t need to know this to understand what they’re doing, but it helps.