The Next Generation in New Summer Dance Festivals

By Meredith Benjamin

Late summer is often a slow time for dance in New York, as companies and performers scatter to festivals across the country. Ben Pryor however, creator of the annual “American Realness” festival, injected some “Emergency Glitter” into the contemporary dance scene’s summer with a new festival of the same name, the first iteration of a new project called “Festival TBD.” Held at the Abrons Art Center, and spread out over five days in late July, “Emergency Glitter” featured performances by a number of young choreographers (many of whom performed in each other’s works) as well as a series of conversations and parties at a “B.Y.O.Beer Garden” set up in the center’s courtyard.

Like American Realness, Emergency Glitter draws playfully and provocatively from both high and low culture, with a description that references “feminist ideologies” and “pop cultural phenomenologies” alongside “butt cheeks and twerking” and a recommendation to “Bring an open mind, a generous spirit, a tank top and a fantasy.” This, my friends, is queer studies in motion, and it is having a damn good time.

The audience’s position as spectator was immediately thrown into question as we took our seats at the back of the stage for Rebecca Warner’s “Into Glittering Asphalt,” and looked out into the empty seats of the Playhouse Theatre. Throughout the performance, a dancer would occasionally appear in the audience or the balcony, sometimes watching her onstage counterpart, sometimes mirroring or dancing with her. The performer onstage was thus being observed from both sides, and we, as the audience, were also being watched. This use of the space to multiply the levels of observation was intriguing, but could have been developed further. The majority of the interaction between the six dancers (Evvie Allison, Rachel Berman, Siobhan Burke, Ashley Handel, Juri Onuki, and Warner) occurred onstage, alone and in various groupings, their slides and spins moving to an ever more joyous crescendo.

While Warner focused on the “glitter” to be found in movement—the pleasure inherent in dancing, and dancing with others—the two pieces I saw in the upstairs cinder block Experimental Theatre were more interested in how movement and choreography are constructed and what they conceal.

Grinding and Equations: Two Duets at Abrons, performed by choreographer Gillian Walsh and her dancers Maggie Cloud, Mickey Mahar, and Robert Maynard, had a casual, exploratory air. The titular equations were testing grounds, and the dancers made no efforts to hide the work and communication that went into them. Entering in baggy grey and purple sweats, the dancers chatted casually seemingly oblivious to their audience.

Walsh and Maynard alternated positions, one in a “crab walk” pose—hands and feet on the floor, torso lifted, facing the ceiling—repeatedly propelling the other into the air with a series of traveling thrusts. It was almost uncomfortable to watch when one landed on the other with a loud smack, often evoking a grunt from the dancer on the bottom. Overheard murmurs of “sorry!” or “let’s switch” gave us an opening to their intimate and provisional world. The choreography simultaneously engaged formalism—dancers performed stylized movements carefully synchronized—and lightly mocked it. At one point, Walsh and Maynard responded to spoken counts by flexing their butt cheeks along with the pattern.

The various choreographers whose work I saw share a fascination with pop music, explored in this piece by Walsh and Maynard, dressed in black underwear, swiveling their hips to a loop of Nicki Minaj, while their counterparts continued their own blank-faced gyrations. The deadening repetition and lack of emotion de-sexualized and made banal these movements and poses. But it may have worked a bit too well, and made the piece itself boring.

Lauren Grace Bakst’s piece was entitled “You Are Special,” but steadfastly avoided any presentations of special-ness. Dressed in grayish-white sweats, Bakst looked suspiciously at the audience in between standing at various points along the walls. She was later joined by Niall Jones and Lydia Adler Okrent, a pair who eventually made their way into the audience and asked various spectators to read from a vague scripted dialogue, asking if they wanted to be “you” or “me.” This invitation to see subjectivities as transferable had intriguing potential. There seemed to be a tenuous connection between Okrent’s silent mouthing, the angst alluded to by the script, and the ending in which the dancers took turns under a pink sheet. Unfortunately, the piece as a whole never cohered.

Burr Johnson’s piece was paired with Warner’s, and as its title “Shimmering Islands” indicated, was similarly unafraid of reveling in spectacle and the pleasure of classical technique. The curtain rose to reveal Johnson, posed in front of an empty theatre and then animated by the infectious sounds of Robyn’s “Indestructible.” He tore through the small space, alternating between classically beautiful movement and playful strutting. His large, powerful body and long limbs were incongruously encased in a delightful short romper emblazoned with a bright floral pattern. The costumes were designed by Reid Bartelme, who performed his own elegant solo, before being joined by Johnson. Even while dancing together, the two never connected, remaining isolated (perhaps a reference to the “islands” of the title), despite Bartelme’s yearning looks.

Finally, they both collapsed to the floor, lying as if washed ashore under an ever-brightening light. Rising, the two performers retrieved flower pots from which they distributed a gold-painted woodchip to each audience member: a bit of the shimmer to take with us. Johnson’s reconsideration of the potential of technique and spectacle, mixed with playfulness and just enough incongruity to keep things interesting, epitomized the best of Emergency Glitter.

A little further uptown, at the Joyce Theatre in Chelsea, another festival was also promoting the next generation. Ballet has typically found its home with larger, established companies, but Ballet v6.0 featured six small companies, each with their own take on what the art form might look like in the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, I was only able to catch one of the featured companies—Whim W’him, a Seattle-based company directed by former Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Oliver Wevers.

The problem with much so-called “contemporary ballet” is that it all looks strikingly similar: sleek, sexy movements and costumes that would seem cool or exciting to a young ballet dancer who didn’t have much sense of the dance world beyond the confines of the ballet studio. Unfortunately, the opening and closing pieces on this program (all choreographed by Wevers) fell into this category, despite some valiant attempts to explore new territory. Monster—a series of three duets focusing on “Society, Addiction, and Relationship”—was as unsubtle as its subtitles led me to fear (the dancers actually mimed sniffing cocaine during the second section). In case there was any chance of the audience missing the themes, each was introduced by a section of a poem by R.A. Scion. Wevers seemed afraid to let the movement speak for itself, resorting frequently, for example, to performers covering their faces with their hands to signal grief or masks.

In the first duet, two men (Andrew Bartee and Jim Kent) dance together, despite the prohibitions of “Society.” While it is refreshing to see a ballet choreographer featuring same sex couples, it is hard to claim much subversion of gender norms when the women of the company were consigned exclusively to the traditional supported role (without even the benefit of solos). Anytime women appeared, they were paired with men, who, more often than not, were throwing them about or manipulating them.

Sofa, the final piece on the program, revolved around the titular piece of furniture, which served alternately as prop, obstacle, resting place, and seating for an ever-shifting group of onstage spectators. Danced to Mozart’s “Jeunehomme” Piano Concerto No. 9, there were moments of insightful playfulness, but not enough material to sustain the length of the piece.

Overall, the company’s dancers were uneven—some, like Lucien Postlewaite (former PNB principal, currently with Les Ballets de Monte Carlo) made the most of the material they had to work with, while others seemed like ballet students still uncomfortable stepping outside of the bounds of classicism.

The most successful piece on the program, and a welcome bit of levity, was Flower Festival, in which Wevers reimagines a traditionally classical pas de deux between a young peasant boy and girl as a confrontation between two men (Bartee and Postlewaite) who begin in business-like suits. Seated in opposite corners of the stage like boxers, the flirtatious give-and-take conventions of the traditional pas de deux structure were replaced by a dance-off that was alternately goofy and aggressive, as the men gradually removed layers of clothing, till they were left in tank tops in shorts. Wevers seemed most at home in this playful light-hearted style, where he was able to play knowingly with his familiar, classical ballet tradition. Experimentation with what ballet can be is important, but I hope that choreographers will begin to find more sophisticated and complex avenues to relevance.

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