Simon Says: Dance! Or, the Secrets of Choreography Revealed

Interrupting Infinity Exclusive Commentary. © 2013 by David St.-Lascaux


Janis Brenner, Kyla Barkin and Esmé Boyce. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Janis Brenner in the Dig Dance series at the 92nd Street Y
October 11, 2013

THE HUMAN BODY IS, at least externally, bilaterally symmetrical. The instant one begins to walk, this ceases to be the case: one foot and one arm move forward, one move back. Add another person and the possibility of replication of movement – itself a kind of symmetry, or rather pattern, emerges. Because humans are spatially situated, we need to know where we are, and because we associate safety with control, we love the stability that we equate with predictability and place. The background ballerinas in “Dance of the Hours” from Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, the Rockettes, and the synchronized swimmers in Busby Berkeley’s By a Waterfall appeal to our sense of order, and have much in common with rose windows, formal gardens and rows of poplars in the French countryside – and the grid configurations arranged by Shen Wei and Elizabeth Streb.

Being human, we also crave chaos and asymmetry, and dynamic disequilibrium. The tension of dancers out of balance, in flight or in metaphorical conflict attracts our attention. Here, the analog of martial arts, such as t’ai chi, comes to mind. (Meanwhile, the hidden choreography of World Wrestling Entertainment® characters, whether intentional or improvised, has coincidental commonality with Steve Paxton‘s “contact improvisation” and Merce Cunningham‘s chance-derived innovations.) And of course, we primævally associate movement with sex, food and music (aka sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll). We like to watch movies, and to be movers and shakers.

An ambitious agenda of exploring “questions of place, relevance and reasons for continuing on an artistic path” and “the mind-body connection in the moment of dancing.”

A program of works by choreographer/dancer/educator Janis Brenner and her protégé, choreographer/dancer Kyla Barkin in the 92nd Street Y’s Dig Dance series presented static symmetry and dynamic asymmetry in a transparent and often slo-mo manner. These works prompted renewed consideration of the above-cited fundamentals of dance, and a few others: of dancers as matter in space, as personifications of time, as ergonomic machines, and of synchronization and its discontents. The claimed agenda of exploring “questions of place, relevance and reasons for continuing on an artistic path” and “the mind-body connection in the moment of dancing” went over my head; it was, on second thought, a paraphrase of the preceding.

Brenner’s three-night set opened with a piece by a different alumna on each night: first Barkin, then Lilja Rúriksdóttir, and finally Helena Franzen. Barkin’s piece was “Reflexive” (2012); it featured her, Aaron Selissen, Andrew Chapman and Kristi Ann Schopfer. “Reflexive” also used a disco ball, had a René Magritte moment of “Ce n’est pas la danse,” and included intimations of MDMA, hyperventilation and insufferable pop music (by the Cure).

Brenner’s “Where-How-Why Trilogy,” a premiere accompanied by the music of composer David Lang, Joni Mitchell and the electronic music band Tosca, followed. The first movement was danced solo by the always impressive Esmé Boyce, doing her signature impossible things, i.e., methodically contorting her body in serpentine ways and assuming tortuous poses, channeling a Giorgio de Chirico dress form or a pithed Hans Bellmer poupée. The second movement featured the ever-interesting, if understated, Brenner herself in lithe, acrobatic recombinant symmetry/asymmetry. “Trilogy” closed with the trio of Brenner, Boyce and Sumaya Jackson accompanied by up-tempo electronica, conveying a kabuki of existential angst.

Brenner used microphone commands to great advantage: besides invoking a manipulative deity, she and the dancers brought physical humor, and pulled back a veil on the choreographic creative process.

The performance concluded with Brenner’s 2011 “The Mind Stuff Variations,” incorporating excerpts from William James’s (yes, that William James, the nitrous oxide philosopher) “The Mind-Stuff Theory” (“… that our mental states are compounds… composite in structure, made up of smaller states conjoined”), Chapter VI from The Principles of Psychology (1890), the stuff of Wilhelm Reich’s Orgone boxes, psychokinesis, and Facebook pages as windows on the soul. Forgiving and forgetting the foregoing, “Variations” had much to like. The first movement utilized a metaphorical “god” sitting cross-legged stage right behind a low-stand microphone giving the dancers movement commands à la the children’s game “Simon Says,” hypnotic suggestion, or James Weldon Johnson’s “Dem Bones” (“Knee bone connected to the thigh bone,” etc.). Brenner used this device to great advantage: besides invoking a manipulative deity, she and the dancers brought pantomime and physical humor, and pulled back a veil on the choreographic creative process. In the second, Barkin was literally manhandled by Christopher Ralph and Selissen as she read excerpts from James (Chapter XVI. Memory. … “The stream of thought flows on; but most of its segments fall into the bottomless abyss of oblivion.”), literally, weightlessly folded, rolled, pitched and yawed on the stage’s zero gravity plane. In the third movement, Kendra Samson and Jackson were magnetically repelled while Elizabeth Derham played a single note on her violin. In the next movement, the six dancers’ hands paired into bird wings and flew around the stage as composer/pianist Jerome Begin’s score directly evoked Philip Glass minimalism. The fifth movement reprised the first; the sixth, standard modern dance aggression. In the seventh, Boyce and Selissen recalled Carl Sagan’s Voyager couple, or Adam and Eve; ultimately, she proved ticklish. In the eighth, the microphone god was reincarnated as the dancers flowed in and out of synchronicity. The final movement was consistently abstract, with further commentary about air and space and nature and the like.

The live musical accompaniment of Begin, Derham and cellist Loren Kiyoshi Dempster in “Variations” should have made it the evening’s highlight, and it was certainly true that their presence trumped the recorded music. Probably because its content and intentions were so subtle, and the costumes so gray, the harmony of music and movement in “Variations” was atmospheric rather than dramatic. Still, Brenner’s intellect and humor, her dancers’ discipline and the satisfyingly complex music made the evening a cultural pleasure.

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