“Sit, Kneel, Stand”
The Joyce Theatre
New York, New York
June 10, 2012
“Special Collections,” “Shimmering Islands”
New York, New York
June 1, 2012
by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2012 by Leigh Witchel
There are incremental paths to presenting your work in New York; Andrea Miller and Burr Johnson are on different ones at different points – but both are on the right track.
Miller, with her company Gallim Dance, has shown her work at New York Live Arts, but also at Fall for Dance and The Joyce, at first in shared evenings, most recently with her own show as part of the Gotham Dance Festival.
Her “Sit, Kneel, Stand” started even before the lights went down. A woman came in the house to the front of the aisle and started twisting, dislocating her joints in the hallmark of Miller’s movement style. She pushed against the lip of the stage – was she warming up, or trying to move it?
The same isolated bending and pushing was used by other dancers on themselves and their cast mates: folding, unfolding and prodding them as if another body was a puzzle or an erector set.
The main props were cheap white plastic chairs that got set up in a pile and then moved around. Akira Yamada seemed to sleepwalk from chair to chair. Jonathan Royse Windham, with Ed Grimley contortions, tried to avoid the impending disaster and maneuver her into stepping onto another plastic chair rather than empty space.
Later on Francesca Romo tried to affect Yamada as she crossed the stage, but this time by pushing and prodding Dan Walczak’s arms into being a target for her to step into. But if Yamada was lost in a dream, Walczak was just lost: a doll with batteries that ran out long ago. Maneuvering him, Romo prattled like a child happily preoccupied with an impossible feat: “Bend! No! Uncomfortable . . .”
Miller cut her teeth at Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva company in Israel, and her hour of theater and dance shows some of his process, along with Pina Bausch’s logical absurdities. But there’s a gentle streak that’s Miller’s alone. She owes a great deal to Windham and Romo, whose sweet nuttiness set the tone for the whole piece.
The most deft parts of “Sit, Kneel, Stand” happened when Miller used the humor to set up a point. The music changed for Romo and Walczak. Miller took the same material and drained the comedy out of it. Romo positioned Walczak again, maneuvering into his arms and wrapping herself in them, snuggling. He was just as unresponsive.
Just as deftly, Miller managed a transition to a happier ending, with an apotheosis of leaping and running bodies that morphed slowly into a game of tag as the curtain fell. “Sit, Kneel, Stand” portrayed a world of inane tasks done with child-like optimism – but what choice is there but to keep the rolling the boulder up the hill?
Burr Johnson is terrible at describing his own work. And a good thing too. The release for his two dances prattled on about gender groups and performative presences, steeling you for a theoretical evening of dancing-inside-my-head.
No dice. Get Johnson on a stage and he’s a man of action. He presented an evening of flat-out dancing in two well-made pieces – some of the most refreshing work so far this year.
Johnson hasn’t been on the scene long. He graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2009 and has been working consistently with several choreographers including Shen Wei. He attracted some notoriety for performing buck naked in John Japserse’s “Fort Blossom Revisited.” Actually, he was nude until the curtain call. Jasperse didn’t have the performers put on robes to take applause, and with his sheepish smile acknowledging his friends’ applause, Johnson went from nude to naked.
It’s hard to keep clothing on the guy. In “Special Collections” Johnson and Brandon Washington arrived in their underwear. The two women, Hannah Darrah and Maggie Cloud, were in sequined finery up to their necks.
The dancing started from the get-go, walks in deep plié with Cunningham-ish arms in complex isolation, grand jétés back and forth across the stage. The music was pop schlock – Britney Spears and Men at Work, but it had a beat and that was what was needed.
Johnson knows how to structure a piece cogently, which underpinned the elemental pleasure of watching the group dance. The joy of “Special Collections” was its innocence: the pleasure of being young and intoxicated by moving – it was like watching a bunch of kids who decide to go out clubbing, strip down and clear the floor.
A duet, “Shimmering Islands,” was supposedly about an equal relationship – this time both dancers are in unisex jumpsuits – but once again it’s more about the pleasures of motion. With Cloud, who has also worked with Sarah Michelson, Johnson danced a long duet with several solos using that used depth of the St. Marks space. Individually, Cloud and Johnson strutted forward like models who broke out of the catwalk – almost in our laps.
The work held together tightly until its ending, when both dancers lay sprawled on the floor for several minutes in an aerobic cool-down. The music shifted from Robyn and Enya to Dvorak, and the two went to the far corners of the back of St. Marks to gather a container. Each took one side of the audience and visited each member, distributing gilded twigs as if they were communion wafers. But a young choreographer is entitled to occasionally meander goofily.
One tongue-in-cheek objection to a delightful evening: There’s a body of work (both “Special Collections” and “Fort Blossom” included) that has the men wearing nothing – or next to it, while the women are demurely covered. Enough already. Let’s have some equal opportunity objectification, or just admit that only men get to be sexual objects. But if so, how about costuming the next piece with the men in the buff and the women in burqas?
copyright © 2012 by Leigh Witchel
Top: Photo by Christopher Duggan. Akira Yamada, Francesca Romo and Dan Walczak in “Sit, Kneel, Stand”
Bottom: Photo by David Turnley. “Special Collections” (depicted in an earlier performance with slightly different costuming for the women.)