’Tis the season when they’re cracking nuts at City Ballet and dispensing Revelations at Alvin Ailey, but let’s take a look at some other stuff that’s been going on around town, all of it “modern,” or “postmodern,” or something. The liberating shake-up that the Judson Dance Theater administered in the 1960s in the wake of the Merce Cunningham revolution is still reverberating—in some cases, with the same people! The choreographer Deborah Hay, for instance, was on the first Judson program in 1962, and half a century later, she’s among us again with a work called As Holy Sites Go/duet at the holy site of St. Mark’s Church.
Jeanine Durning and Ros Warby, identified as “guest dancers/choreographers,” are the performers—vastly different in look (Durning short and somewhat squat, with a ton of disordered dark hair; Warby tall, lanky, hair neatly bobbed, with endless arms and legs), but equally strong and experienced. Durning’s movement is more emphatic, assertive; Warby is more of a severe rag doll. They both frequently sink to the ground, Durning as if it’s where she really lives, Warby as if she’s politely dropping in. Sometimes they’re dancing close to each other, even with each other, but much of the time they’re roaming the large beautiful space of the church as if they’re unaware of each other’s existence. Midway through the hour-plus program they break into a cappella singing—something liturgical. There are long silences and stillnesses—the dancers stop, and we wait; they’ve gone from slo-mo to no-mo.
What’s it all about? You can sense an idea at work, a concept, or perhaps a methodology—this isn’t narcissism but rather the result of serious consideration. To what end, though? Isolated moments are interesting, because the dancers are interesting, but As Holy Sites Go doesn’t go anywhere; it just keeps going.
AT FIRST, THAT ALSO seemed to be the case with the two pieces that Tere O’Connor showed us at New York Live Arts. The first, called Secret Mary (why?), again presents strong and committed dancers, four of them, in assorted sizes and shapes, including ex-City Ballet corps member Ryan Kelly and small transgender (or cross-dressing?) and lower-case choreographer devynn emory. Their movement, too, is a throwback to Judson style—studiously informal; I found the casualness mannered. O’Connor can be austere and close to cute at the same time, but like Hay, he always knows what he’s doing. You just don’t always know why he’s doing it. Secret Mary seems to me an extended exercise by a very talented pro.
When it morphs into poem, though, something larger begins to happen. There are five new dancers now, all completely capable (the world has an unending supply of real dance talent). Best known is the virtuoso Silas Riener, who made such a huge impression in the final days of the Cunningham company, and who has star quality on top of his startling abilities. In poem, however, he’s on more or less equal terms with his four colleagues—a more striking presence, perhaps, his back more flexible, his energy more dynamic, his hair more determined, but his role is not more central.
In this piece, O’Connor goes beyond demonstrating his intelligence and his dancers’ gifts: He acknowledges his audience’s expectations. For instance, he doesn’t suppress his wit, as when the three men are on their backs on the floor, their legs pointing into the middle of their group and exploding upward into clever patterns like snowflakes in a kaleidoscope. And he gives us a series of related moments when one man holds another upside down, almost cradling him, which build into a final moving tableau, with Riener on the floor, looking up with feeling into the eyes of the estimable Michael Ingle. poem becomes a work, not simply a series of interesting impressions.
LUCY GUERIN, who presented Untrained (at the new Fishman Space at BAM), has danced for Tere O’Connor and has worked with Deborah Hay’s Warby—everything connects. Guerin is Australian, as is her cast, and she’s brought us from Australia an amusing one-off: Two untrained guys shadow two professionals, trying to mimic their movements, and revealing the immense chasm between the trained and the untrained. The audience laughs at the clumsiness of the regular guys, but it’s good-natured and appreciative laughter: No one’s feelings are hurt, and you enjoy the collegiality and generosity on display. Here there’s no sense of faux-naïveté—the amateurs are patently amateurish, even if once in a while they may exaggerate their hopelessness. They bravely try to follow the steps, but they never pretend to be dancers.
The disparity of accomplishment is, of course, glaring, and we quickly learn the lesson that there’s a difference in kind, not just degree, between the trained and the untrained. But then the piece opens up into something quite different—a kind of unglitzy A Chorus Line, in which the four men speak feelingly of their lives: their relationships with their fathers, what distresses them about their bodies—one with psoriasis, one overweight, etc. It sounds corny, but it isn’t; these are all decent guys, self-aware, feeling. They’re equally funny or touching when they turn into cats or when they eat a cookie or when one by one they demonstrate—a high point—how they pull off a T-shirt and pull it back on.
The four men are equally hard-working. They’re equally appealing. It’s just that two of them are dancers and two are not.