doug elkins choreography, etc.
Harkness Dance Center | 92nd Street Y
New York, NY
March 4, 2012
by Kathleen O’Connell
copyright © 2012 by Kathleen O’Connell
Doug Elkins talks in hypertext. His exuberant pre-performance analysis of “Mo(or)town/Redux”—a retelling of Shakespeare’s “Othello” set to Motown hits—gleefully double-clicked links to Cholly Atkins, Yvonne Rainer’s “Trio A,” and a Soul Train ad for Afro Sheen featuring the ghost of Frederick Douglass. The reference to Rainer may seem like one rabbit hole too many, but once the work of Cholly Atkins has been dropped into your brain, you can’t watch Robert Alexander’s famous film of “Trio A” and not think of The Temptations. Elkins’ pre-performance performance was every bit as engaging as the dance that followed it: when it comes to matters of provenance, pop culture, and the happy surprise of a previously unremarked connection, he’s hugely entertaining—and dead serious.
Elkins has roots in both the club and the studio. He studied with Mel Wong and Marcus Schulkind at SUNY/Purchase, while at the same time immersing himself in New York’s hip hop scene. He began his dance career in the early 80’s as a B-Boy, moved on to apprentice with Bill T. Jones and Elizabeth Streb, founded his own company in 1988, and disbanded it in 2003. Along the way he’s garnered any number of awards, including two BESSIEs; choreographed original works for companies as diverse as Pennsylvania Ballet and the Flying Karamazov Brothers; and taught in both the U.S. and Europe.
“Mo(or)town/Redux” is a refashioning of a piece Elkins choreographed in 1990 called ''Accumulation/Mo(or)town.'' He described the current model as a “conversation” with José Limón’s 1949 masterwork “The Moor’s Pavane.” Elkins hews so closely to the contours of Limón’s original that “Mo(or)town/Redux” seems akin to a Hollywood remake, but it’s executed with more thoughtfulness and tact than such projects usually are.
Like Limón, Elkins reduces Shakespeare’s “Othello” to the fraught interaction of two couples and a handkerchief—though, as with Limón, you do need to know your Shakespeare in order to get what’s up with the hanky. Both works refract their tale through the lens of re-imagined social dance—renaissance court dance in Limón’s case, R&B based styles in Elkins’—and are costumed appropriately: doublets and flowing robes for Limón, skinny ties and suede slip-ons for Elkins.
There’s one notable difference, however: Henry Purcell doesn’t matter to Limón the way Motown matters to Elkins. He’s not just having a conversation with Limón, he’s having one with Berry Gordy, Cholly Atkins, and Don Cornelius, too. When his couples form a circle with their upraised hands delicately entwined it’s both a quote from Limón and an acknowledgement of the exquisite courtliness inherent a Motown number like “My Girl.” When they strut their stuff downstage, they’re the aristocracy of the Soul Train line.
Elkins choreographs in hypertext too, although as “Mo(or)town/Redux” demonstrates, his high octane sampling from disciplines as diverse as hip-hop, martial arts, and concert dance is more than desultory pointing and clicking: he steals with a purpose. When he packs a phrase with moves variously lifted from, say, aikido, vogueing, and ballet he’s building on the dance logic that links them: he can celebrate a gesture without putting it in air quotes.
He’s attuned to a given style’s rhetoric, too, and knows when to use it. The work opens with Othello (Gregory Omar Osborne) dancing with a floor mike to “It’s a Man’s World” like a silky Motown star. It tells us everything we need to know about his authority and allure, and, if we’ve seen a movie or two, Othello’s coming downfall. When Othello and Iago (Alexander Dones) square off in a B-Boy inflected duet, you can taste the testosterone in the air—it’s part and parcel of the style. The duet is an opportunity for virtuosic display, and for theatrical eloquence, too. Osborne’s Othello flows through his moves with aristocratic ease; Dones’ Iago releases them with coiled–spring fury. They both look terrific.
Like Limón’s, Elkins’ Emilia (Cori Marquis) has a more prominent role than she does in Shakespeare’s play and she gets some of the work’s most expressive choreography. We may not know why Iago wants the handkerchief, but we know why she gives it to him: her visible hunger for his touch. Marquis handles the role beautifully; her desire is urgent, not cheap.
As a character, Desdemona (Donnell Oakley) is resistant to Elkins’ style—it’s more suited to heat than light—but Oakley never lets her become a passive victim. She has a gift for the seamless transfer of weight and uses it to particularly good effect in her acrobatic duets with Osborne’s Othello. When he grasps her by the neck and spins her down to the floor in a move that presages her death, she releases herself into the maneuver with a fearlessness that’s the very emblem of trust.
Ironically, if there’s a fly in the ointment, it’s the score. No doubt about it, the songs are great—who’s going to complain about an opportunity to listen to Otis Redding? But they’re used in a way that's hardly more imaginative than a juke-box musical. Othello becomes convinced of Desdemona’s purported infidelity to the strains of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and murders her to “Try a Little Tenderness.” Emilia dances into perfidy to Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good.” To complicate matters, Justin Levine and Matt Stine have assembled the songs into a soundscape with one painstakingly engineered effect—a fanfare built of hooks layered in from “Sugar Pie Honey Bun,” “Tears of a Clown,” and “Dancing in the Streets”—and too many jarring transitions. The Y’s inadequate sound system didn’t help.
But what the heck. The songs are pop perfection, the dancing is tremendous, and luckily for us, Elkins loves everything he’s appropriated too much to cheapen it with lazy irony.
copyright © 2012 by Kathleen O’Connell
Photos by Julie Lemberger
Top: Gregory Omar Osborne, Alexander Dones, Donnell Oakley, and Cori Marquis in “Mo(or)town/Redux
Bottom: Gregory Omar Osborned and Alexander Dones in “Mo(or)town/Redux