New York Live Arts
New York, NY
May 28, 2014
by Martha Sherman
copyright © 2014 by Martha Sherman
Beautiful is not what one expects from John Jasperse’s choreography. Challenging and energizing, yes; but beautiful, not so much. In “Within between,” he intentionally upended his own history and habits, partly by using classical movement as a launching point for a work that cleverly wove his four exceptionally talented dancers in formal choreographed movement. Then, winking, he intruded on that formalism with idiosyncratic tags of his own. The result was a gloriously danced, beautiful piece about shifted expectations. It was laced with humor, unexpected twists, and a powerful instinct for reaching out and pulling the audience in from the first moment to the last.
That magnetic pull came not just from the dancers, but from the music as well, performed live by four musicians, including the score’s composer Jonathan Bepler. As they settled themselves downstage, dancer Simon Courchel moved to the center of the green graph-lined stage, carrying a 25’ thin metal pole. He walked deliberately toward the audience, the pole pointing directly into the group. Until the very last moment, no one expected to actually be touched, but that was precisely what happened. Courchel lowered the pole on to the shoulder of a patron in an upper row (the sharp intake of the audience’s collective breath, audible with surprise) then dragged it back down, lightly touching others. At one point, he moved the pole’s tip slowly from the left shoulder of one hapless fellow, outlining his head, then resting on his right shoulder.
Having literally broken through to the audience, Courchel was joined by Stuart Singer, who stood downstage and became the target of the pole drawing. Courchel outlined Singer’s head and body; then the long metal rod connected their bodies, as they controlled it with small muscle movements, allowing it to roll down their extended legs and to their feet and toes. They moved to the floor and began their pole duet in earnest, arms and legs curling around the pole to create angled geometric poses, as Bepler’s score shifted with each scene from buzzes, pops and plinks, to giggles and vocalizations (“it’s okay” “oh my God.”)
Maggie Cloud and Burr Johnson joined the pole duet as standing partners. Though mismatched in height (Cloud is diminutive; Johnson looms above her) their well-synched leaps and arabesques were like the upper deck to Courchel and Singer’s floor duet, until all four stood and morphed into a quartet at a ballet barre. The pole, which had slid to the ground and eventually was pulled off the stage, was there in spirit, and the four moved through class ballet exercises, lovely tendus, arabesques, and port de bras, to taped music that had been woven into the live score. Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” was entirely in keeping.
Jasperse’s use of a quartet of three men and one woman kept the classical movement from being typical; he didn’t choose the usual two couples. Having moved through a series of perfect poses, suddenly mid-jeté, more traditional expectations were shattered, as the dancers’ faces twisted into gurns, with thick protruding lips jutting diagonally down. Their eyes, up to now calm and neutral, widened and bugged out – in shock or surprise, as their poses crinkled, arms and hands twisted, fingers wriggled in a kind of anti-ballet. It took very little to twist the classical to the contorted.
In the opening scenes, the dancers were all costumed in black and white stripes of plaids, and the stage was lit brightly, the green grid lines the only outlying color; later they changed to wildly colored, mismatched costumes of clashing colors and patterns, a signal that they were no longer bounded by formalism.
As the score moved between sounds and words, music and noise, the dancers moved from balletic leaps and twirls to squatting, thigh-slapping hiccups of movement, their facial expressions and the details of their moves never predictable. Most of “Within between” was danced on a diagonal slashing across the stage, including the pole dance duet and the quartet dancing as a pair of duets, or entering and exiting along the longest possible angle. Again, the strength of the line felt formal; when the dancers broke free, (in a few scenes where they were not partnered, or in a parade of trios in a later scene) it was bracing.
Each duo had a personality of its own. Courchel and Singer used long leg extensions to swivel along the floor, later into a more approximate duet, warily circling, approaching and falling back from each other. The relationships were cemented, though, as the four moved in and out of mixed trios, one dancer off stage as the other three created their specific connection, then the offstage dancer replacing one onstage, until all four had rotated with each other.
When Cloud was in the trio, she was the lightest to lift and swing over two sets of shoulders; when the men danced, they moved as a closely bound threesome, but with weightier shifts and lifts. Yet not always: when we got used to the weight, Singer did a bright cartwheel over the other two. As the trios wove in and out, the dancers were increasingly loose and the movement relaxed, though rigorous. Eventually all four danced together. They hopped, hit their knees, arms flipped around and clapped each others’ shoulders; a few fleeting smiles escaped – this was fun, and their enjoyment was palpable.
Finally, the quartet faded offstage. Courchel and Singer, having been our opening guides, returned to end the piece. Their eyes were closed and they murmured to each other, first inaudibly, then we could hear their instructions (“let hands wiggle,” “raise arm and put on my head.”) Although they obeyed, each interpreted the rules slightly differently, and their movements, though synched, were no longer intent on perfect alignment. Their final instructions, before leaving the stage, were for themselves and for us, too: “Open my eyes.” “I watch, I look.” They were worthy reminders from a striking performance.
copyright © 2014 by Martha Sherman