Strong Danceable Score Propels Pure Choreography

Something remarkable happened at B.A.M. last week-a “Next Wave” piece from Europe that wasn’tpretentious, wasn’t brutal, wasn’t boring, and that gave pure pleasure from pure dance. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s 10-strong group, Rosas, was performing her 70-minute danceathon, Rain , which, once it got going, kept me excited and entranced. In fact, I was gripped even before it began by the very beautiful set (by Jan Versweyveld, who also designed the elegant costumes). A high semi-circular waterfall of thin gold ropes was crowned by a full gold circle extending out from the stage. The curtain of ropes enclosed the dancers’ space yet allowed us to see the musicians who took their place behind it-appropriately, considering how deeply this piece is connected to Steve Reich’s throbbing Music for 18 Musicians . Maybe all that was needed to take the trash out of Eurotrash was a choreographer responding intelligently and faithfully to a strong, danceable score.

At the start, the 10 dancers (seven women, three men) seem more or less equal as they walk, jog, run, fall to the ground-hallmark movements of so much postmodern dance. In always-splintering groups of three or four or more, or on their own, they tilt to one side, straighten, then regroup, rushing to the front of the stage and back. Fumiyo Ikeda, the senior member of Rosas, seems for a while to be the One, but quickly she’s one among many again; she’s always distinguished, though, by a womanly lyric quality that stands out among the more hard-edged style of the others. Throughout the earlier segments of the dance, there’s little bodily contact between dancers-they’re inhabiting their own worlds even when they act in unison; they’re like happy molecules bouncing around without colliding. Sometimes the boy molecules are on their own, the females watching from the sides; sometimes it’s the boys who watch. Most of all, everyone moves -they leap, they fling themselves to the floor, they tumble, they jackknife, they dash offstage and back again. Rain is a triumph of the kinetic impulse.

Slowly, the lovely pink-gold lighting darkens; as the dancers go off, some of them return having exchanged their brown, beige, gray costumes for pink, cerise, rose. And the language of the choreography modifies from horseplay to more serious encounters-moments of anger, heads butting chests; mating moments. Now there are passages of chanting from singers behind the curtain, and outbursts of sound from the dancers. The dancers go behind the gold-rope curtain and burst through it toward the audience, then hurtle back. The lifts get more daring and dramatic, all in response to the darkening music. Finally, inevitably, the storm passes, the dancers resume their original costumes, the movement subsides in intensity and at last comes to a halt. It’s been a 70-minute outpouring of exhilaration.

There’s some kind of back story to Rain , we’re told-it was inspired in part by an atmospheric novel by the New Zealand writer Kirsty Gunn. And De Keersmaeker has a good deal to say about Reich’s music, about “the rival forces of Yin and Yang,” about “dig[ging] deeper into duality: activity and non-activity, inspiration and expiration.” Luckily, we can forget all that. Rain works wonderfully as pure choreography, like two other famous group works, Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering (also 10 dancers) and Mark Morris’ L’Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato . It may have a story to tell, but that story is dance.

A more modest but highly interesting event took place at the Joyce recently: George Piper Dances, so-called for the middle names of its two founders and directors, Michael (George) Nunn and William (Piper) Trevitt, both previously leading dancers with England’s Royal Ballet. They presented three contemporary works, all very, very serious, alternating with jokey home movies of the two of them horsing around in L.A., London, New York-in hotel bathrooms, on buses, in the street. As Trevitt said in a Time Out interview, “People … could get the impression that we’re always pissing about, but an actual fact is that the one thing we do take seriously is our craft. Our ultimate dedication is to dance. It’s the rest of the time that we’re stupid.”

The company is small-five dancers, two of whom are women-and strong. They opened with William Forsythe’s 1984 Steptext , in which, alas, a Bach chaconne for solo violin is abruptly and repeatedly interrupted by blasts of silence, so that it seems to be barking at you. Forsythe is ingenious, and presumably he could explain why he treats the music this way, but he’s just not as interesting as Bach; his fragments of effective partnering and of macho contest aren’t strong enough to justify this kind of manhandling of great music.

Mesmerics gave us the New York premiere of a Christopher Wheeldon ballet (to Philip Glass) that he’s expanded from an earlier version seen in England. He’s expanded it too far: This is a case in which a good deal less would have been a good deal more. Like his brilliant pieces to Ligeti for City Ballet and San Francisco, Mesmerics takes place in semi-darkness, much of it in slow, underwater motion, the dancers lying on the floor. Wheeldon’s capacity for invention is large, and it doesn’t fail him here-your attention is held. But you don’t necessarily want dance to mesmerize you, at least not for an extended period of time, and when you begin with Philip Glass, you have no choice: It’s hypnosis or nothing.

The most engaging part of the program was the New York premiere of Russell Maliphant’s Torsion , an extended duet for Nunn and Trevor. ( Torsion was commissioned by The Place in London, and was sponsored by Luscious Chocolate.) We’re back in the dark, with two big squares of light revealing the larger Trevitt and the smaller Nunn. Essentially, this is an exercise in males partnering each other, but without the slightest erotic content-these guys are interested in how it works, not in each other. There’s a lot of arms swinging in their sockets, men twisting under each other’s arms, lifting each other, holding each other upside down. It’s consistently intelligent, honest and admirable, but after so much high-mindedness in the dark, I wouldn’t have objected to a quick shot of, say, Gaîté Parisienne .

Instead, at the new, capacious and handsome Skirball Center at N.Y.U., we got a shot of Ballet Hispanico, which no one could call high-minded or unerotic. NightClub is a work in three parts-a tango section, set in a dance hall/brothel in Buenos Aires in the 1920′s; a mambo-ish section, set in a Spanish Harlem social club in the 50′s; and a hip-hop section, set in a contemporary club here in the city. There are three choreographers, but even though the tango part was made 15 years ago, the basic approach to dance is consistent: lots of projection, lots of color, and lifts, lifts, lifts.

In Buenos Aires, apparently, the first rule is that everyone smokes-by the end of Part I, the stage is carpeted with butts. The guys are in black and they’re very macho and mano a mano . The whores wiggle their hips and strut. Eventually, couples pair off and retreat into the wings to complete their business arrangements, leaving the two leading men to tough it out over a blonde bombshell (the magnetic Sara Skogland), who manages to extract some tenderness from them. But then they go off, more interested in their male bonding than in her.

Life is hard in a Buenos Aires brothel-these gauchos are always pulling knives, cracking whips and treating the girls brutally, yanking them around by the hair, even sitting on them. The music is by Astor Piazzolla, played on the thrilling bandoneon . (Piazzolla hit New York like a hurricane back in 1985, when Tango Argentino turned up out of nowhere to wild acclaim.) We’re 80 years away from the great exemplars of tango-Valentino in the movies and Carlos Gardel on records-and today this once-vibrant cultural expression comes across as stylized and cliché, in the same way that the Charleston does when it’s trotted out to express the spirit of the 20′s. Still, any tango is better than no tango.

The best part of NightClub is “Dejame Sonar,” the Puerto Rican/Cuban section. A narrator tells us about his uncle who, in the 50′s, leaves his fiancée back in the islands to come to New York and make it big. He doesn’t-but he has a great time working and playing in a social club and dancing up a happy storm. Sara Skogland is back, as the “Sophisticate” who lures him away from the fiancée. What’s appealing about this scene, though, isn’t the story, but the wholesome, vigorous joy with which these boys and girls throw themselves into their sexy dancing, to the music of Tito Puente et al. You’re caught up in their innocent pleasure.

If NightClub is, as it suggests, a history of recent Hispanic life through dance, it’s a complicated progression-from the self-reflecting severity of the life of tango, through the uninhibited, good-natured life of the mid-century immigrants, to the narcissistic self-indulgences of today. An uptight stranger wanders into a club after hours and is stripped of his inhibitions as things go from merely sexy to orgiastic. (Boys kiss!) I wish the dance vocabulary were more drawn from today’s club life, but there’s less hip-hop here than conventional lounge dancing. Everyone goes for broke, though, starting with the manic D.J. (Rodney Hamilton). Pedro Ruiz is the Stranger, just as he’s the central character in the first two scenes, and he has the stage presence to carry all three roles.

Ballet Hispanico is a mixture of ethnic, ballet, social, jazz-you name it, it’s doing it. The company has been going strong for more than 20 years, and you can see why: It may not be refined, but it’s full of beans.