"Working in Process/New Bodies"
Works and Process
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
New York, NY
November 14, 2016
By Carol Pardo
Copyright ©2016 by Carol Pardo
"Stretch as though you're reaching for diamonds." "Your arm is only as long as it is." The first is an exhortation familiar to the New York City Ballet dancers, Jared Angle, Gretchen Smith and Sara Mearns, who performed "Working in Process/New Bodies"; the second, a statement by its choreographer Jodi Melnick. Taken together, those remarks reflect two very different ways of looking at the moving body, with no assurance that ever the twain would meet. In fact, this meeting of uptown and downtown was not supposed to result in a new work at all. Rather, Mearns became fascinated by the choreographer during another match up of uptown ballet dancers and downtown choreographers at the Dancspace Project in 2015, although each was working with someone else. Mearns pursued Melnick, who did not want to make a ballet. Mearns, only 30 and at the height of her career, does not need to design a career beyond pointe shoes (often -- or good or ill -- the reason behind such collaborations). A residency at Jacob's Pillow ensued, with Smith and Angle signed on, and "Working in Process/New Bodies" came into being.
The piece opened with Smith appearing around a pie-shaped wedge, about her height, mounted on the left wall of the auditorium. Having checked it out, she strode on a diagonal to the back of the stage, setting off an earthquake in light and shadow gold and black. The wings seemed to spin, the ceiling to explode. (The Peter J. Sharp Theater is a small space, seating only 290.) Disorientation ensued, and with it the question, how do you move on from here? You change registers, with Sara Mearns appearing seated at the front edge of the stage, head propped on fist, lost in contemplation. What followed any permutations possible with three dancers, solos, duets, trios and including partnering with the fulcrum at the neck or thigh. Grounding the whole, keeping it taut, was the repeated use of a wide, firm fourth position, which momentarily stopped the action so one could take in what had just happened and reset the eyes (and mind) for what was to come, and of a leg extended in back, coupled with widespread arms, as if in exultation, and directed, over time, to all areas of the stage space. The evening ended with a chair dance to spoken text, the choreographer arriving, chair in hand, to make it a quartet. At one point Mearns, gently assisted by Angle, sank to the floor, while Melnick, voice increasingly panicky, asked if the dancer was all right. Eventually, Mearns sat back up and the quartet segued into the Q & A that finished off the evening.
Melnick ran several risks beyond the over-familiarity with and failure rate of the uptown/downtown collaboration. Placing a dancer at the edge of the stage to stare at the audience was probably old hat and annoying by 1962. Melnick, and Mearns, save the moment by keeping it non-confrontational, reverie rather than threat. The use of text might have been more grating had the words not been the dancers'. Mearns' slide to the floor, and the choreographer's response, seemed overly stagey until it came out that Mearns had collapsed, exhausted, in rehearsal, triggering memories of Melnick's mother's heart attack. (She survived and was in the audience). The response was genuine. Also genuine was Melnick's ongoing interest in the dancers' performing space, all of it, whether the dancer is facing front or back, the audience looking forward or having to turn the head side to side (see that initial wedge, above), or engulfed in alternating golden light and shadows. if "Working in Process/New Bodies" is explicitly about anything, it is about the nature and extent of the performers' space. It was also a demonstration of what can happen when everyone, whatever their background, is mutually open to everyone else. As Melnick said sotto voce during the Q & A, "There's nothing wrong with reaching for diamonds."
Top to bottom: Gretchen Smith, Jared Angle and Sara Mearns; Sara Mearns; Gretchen Smith, Jared Angle and Sara Mearns. Courtesy of Works & Process at the Guggenheim/Jacklyn Meduga