It’s a New York truism that you can get any sort of cuisine here; the same might be said for the dance menu, which ranges from standard to exotic. Recently, while the middlebrowed were shepherding their young to The Nutcracker, nonconformist choreographers were providing vital alternatives.
At BAM’s Majestic Theater, Eiko & Koma weighed in with the proscenium version of River, which started life in ‘95 as an outdoor environmental piece performed on the Delaware in Pennsylvania. The Japanese-bred husband-and-wife team has been showing its unique brand of butoh dance in the States for more than twenty years, so it wasn’t surprising to find the pair lying nude in shallow water, attempting slowly, clumsily, and doggedly to reach land, to breathe air, to grasp with hands that were lately fins, to mate. The earliest stages of life – the eons-long prehistory of the human race and the blind persistence of the thrust toward evolution – are Eiko & Koma’s chief (perhaps only) subject. Like the couple’s previous pieces, River requires vast patience from its viewers, who are duly rewarded with ravishing visual images and a poignant feeling of empathy toward the nameless creatures that were our ancestors and whose story each of us has echoed as a fetus.
Jeff Fontaine’s extraordinary lighting of the work made the spectator believe he could see in the dark. The sights I’ll remember longest are that of Eiko (the more eloquent of the two artists) reflected in the murky water from which she struggled to emerge, as if she were being mirrored by a conjoined twin, and that of Koma, finally erect on dry earth, his stalwart figure swathed in a cloak, his rough-hewn face unmoving, waiting for his partner to clamber toward him. He looked like Rodin’s Balzac – a monumental figure of unyielding will.
Onstage, the Kronos Quartet played Sômei Satoh’s sparse commissioned score, which lent atmosphere, if not innovation, to the choreographic element. The group specializes in forward-looking music – old in its repertoire means Bartók, Ives, Webern – but the experience of perching on a mobile mossy bank, clad in evening dress, as if a natural part of the scenery, when the theme is evolution at its most primal, may be new even to these adventurous musicians.
Whimsy with an ironic element attracted me to the work created by the postmodernist Ralph Lemon in the decade – ‘85 to ‘95 – in which he maintained his own company. Other viewers saw him primarily as a formalist. Few, if any, thought of him as a “black choreographer.” Though Lemon is African-American, the particular concerns and experiences of his ethnic group were not (at least not obviously) central to his downtown-New York-style choreography. With Geography, presented at the Majestic, Lemon, who now works on a by-project basis and in several media, shifted focus to examine a part of his cultural heritage he was finding increasingly relevant, both personally and aesthetically.
A rambling, ingratiating spectacle, the new piece unites native African dancers and drummers with Lemon – a sly, fluent mover – and Carlos Funn, a black youth from Virginia who’s adept at a fusion of colloquial and academic dance forms. Each of the performers has ample opportunity to explore his own familiar dancing turf as well as that of his colleagues. (The African artists are masters of complex polyrhythms and communal efforts.) Vocabularies and styles are thus set forth, juxtaposed, and temporarily borrowed – with miraculous evenhandedness. No group colonizes another; there is no patronizing and no false sentiment, just an almost feral attentiveness to the unfamiliar.
As is typical of Lemon’s productions, the costumes and scenery are elegant. Liz Prince designed the clothes, which range from suave street garb to ceremonial robes. The set, by Nari Ward, is based on a mobile group of wire rectangles, each with a different repetitive pattern that might be seen in African cloth. Its tour de force is a huge curtain made of strung-together tinted bottles; it might be a stained-glass window in a cathedral dedicated to recycling, and it works as a metaphor for the dance.
To the delight of those who achieve their pleasure via danger and masochism, Elizabeth Streb moved into the Joyce for three weeks with a ton of equipment – metal scaffolding, trampolines, harnesses for flying – and eight brave and muscular stalwarts. The members of this troupe entertain the crowd with brief vignettes that challenge both gravity and the perception of pain. They hurtle through the air like guided missiles, dodge one another’s caroming bodies, plunge from heights, slam themselves against walls or – rib-crushingly, groin-punishingly – flat against the floor. Albert Elmore Jr. (sweetly nicknamed Junior), a running back and wide receiver in his football days, goes so far as to charge horizontally, headfirst, through a pane of breakaway glass. In their most relaxed mode, the performers bounce from trampolines to execute gymnasts’ feats aloft, intermittently seizing monkey-bar poles overhead and holding hands in space. The circusy feats are performed with an awkwardness of form – and sometimes even timing – that is unnerving. You have to assume the rough edges are deliberate, but still you worry (and I think Streb intends you to worry) that one of these derring-doers is going to be injured or even killed.
Streb contends, via interviews and program notes, that her concept of dance (or, as she revealingly prefers to call it, “popaction”) values the sheer visceral execution of a move over attention to form. Her approach, she claims, offers a heightened sense of living in the here and now – presumably experienced by her performers and communicated to their audience. For me, that simple thrill of doing is best experienced firsthand, in the physical activities of ordinary life, or in participatory dance genres like folk dancing. When I’m in the position of spectator – having chosen to watch expert movers – I prefer to see them operating in highly evolved techniques such as classical ballet, which crystallize far more effectively the sensation of leaping, spinning, balancing on a razor’s edge, allowing acute timing to make the difference between disaster and ecstasy.