"newyou: I think you might be in deep denial"
Merce Cunningham Studio
New York, NY
December 21, 2011
By Martha Sherman
Copyright © 2011 by Martha Sherman
Don’t trust these smiles. As if to claim a new day, the johannes wieland company brought back a 2008 work “newyou” to the Merce Cunningham Studio, but the work was still filled with the same old cynicism. More a performance piece than a dance, Wieland told the tale with five dancers and a score of walk-on redheads, all grinning enthusiastically. It’s all lies; not a smile – or a statement – is true. This is a lonely, flashy crowd of performers, hoping to con yet another audience, or maybe to fool themselves for a little while.
Wieland, a German choreographer, now the artistic director of the State Theater of Kassel, has roots in ballet, as well as contemporary training from NYU. His movement choices reflected both. The dance scenes were filled with graceful turns; the combinations included lifts and poses in a crisp architecture of bodies that were tableaux vivants without stories – just silent groupings, beautifully placed. Mostly, in this work of tanztheater, his dancers told a story of emptiness and alienation in both cynical dialogue and disconnected movement.
Jon Guyman, the sole male dancer, and the four women in party wear and high heels each entered claiming “This is my birthday.” It was safe to assume that that all of them were lying. The hostess and MC, the stunning Eva Mohn, was the only one who came clean, declaring “I’m a liar” among her many darts both at the audience and the other performers. She was lovely and snarky, sporting the brightest smile and gorgeous eyes, a trick mirror into a nasty soul.
She taunted the other performers, embarrassing Kristin Clotfelder, whom she called “Monica” and later outed for her failure to achieve orgasm in years. Isadora Wolfe crawled toward Mohn, who dragged her across the stage as she provoked the audience asking, “Are you waiting for dancing? Nothing’s gonna happen.” That, too, was a lie – Wolfe did, indeed dance in fluid lovely movement, as Mohn taunted and insulted her.
The action wasn’t confined to the stage. Mohn moved into the audience in provocation as well, asking questions whose answers were always wrong, and pulling one audience member to perch uncomfortably with the dancers upstage. To further augment the drama onstage, a video of Guyman’s face was projected on a large screen. As he offered his birthday wish, it came true: a score of the redheads he “loved” paraded across the stage to satisfy his desire (though his film alter-ego reminded us later that he’d actually “commit suicide” if he were Jon Guyman.) Other performers froze in place, like Beth Griffith, who stood upstage with microphone in hand and stared at the audience for a third of the performance, unbidden (by virtual puppeteer Mohn,) and therefore unable to either move or speak.
The wide, deep studio space was covered with water bottles (an image used by many choreographers, notably Reggie Wilson in 2009,) here didn't project an idea of water, but provided an architectural obstacle course. As they stumbled or kicked bottles, flashes of reflected light gave a liquid sparkle to the stage. Occasionally, Wieland arrayed the dancers on opposite edges of stage diagonals, perched on a block of 6 water bottles, solid and uncomfortable, where they stared at the audience or looked expressionlessly at the other dancers performing in the center. Late in the dance, as Mohn’s controlling demands became increasingly frantic, she finally stumbled into her own dance, a mix of elegance and imbalance as she fell backwards, hard, onto scattered bottles on stage and then found her feet again.
Mohn even knew when we were almost fed up with her shtick. Announcing “We’re almost there,” she invited the audience to influence whether they would choose the happy or sad ending. First, the dancers moved across stage in a long diagonal of twirls, with angled hips and plastic smiles; Mohn demanded they “try another,” and they whirled, dervish-like until she decided “I like this one, so we’re done.” She was right; it was time to be done. The close, like the rest of the piece, was crisp and bracing – but unsettlingly empty.
copyright © 2011 by Martha Sherman
Photos by Nils Klinger
Top: Eva Mohn in "newyou"
Bottom: Jon Guyman and cast in “newyou”