Take Unusual Music, Mix Contrasting Movements, Stir Well
Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times
Published: March 1, 2011
The choreographers Donald Byrd and Pam Tanowitz presented world premieres to Zorn scores that had been assigned to them. No mysteries were solved, since this music is far from dance-friendly. But each choreographer rose to the challenge with striking intelligence, revealing a wide range of resources while almost never attempting a literal step-for-note response.
Mr. Byrd, who was based in New York until 2002, when he became artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater in Seattle, brought five dancers from his company to perform “(fay çe que vouldras)” — old French for “do what thou wilt” — an extremely intense 2005 piano solo, played live by Stephen Drury.
The music offered maximum contrasts, with clusters of wide-spaced discordant chords, notes plucked and stroked on the piano strings, and drastic use of pedals. Mr. Byrd answered with contrasts of male and female, vertical and horizontal, contemporary and historical, movement and stillness.
Four of his technically secure and theatrically assertive performers were elegantly dressed in high-necked, sleeveless dancewear that allowed them to lie on the floor. The fifth, however, added a historical note: she wore a bustle. Much of the time she walked slowly around the stage; in profile she looked like a character in Seurat’s painting “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.” Her skirts were light, however, allowing her to extend legs high to either side.
Most of the choreography was for the other four. Two women danced upright while the men lay supine; a couple covered space dramatically while the other couple waited immobile; two men made the action as the women rested. Toward the end, the bustle-wearing woman became the centerpiece of rotating patterns. It all cohered, with strokes of drama throughout.
Admittedly, I couldn’t believe in it: it looked determinedly chic and clever, a modish dance-drama machine with no particular depth. But its juxtapositions with the radical extremes of Mr. Zorn’s music certainly held the attention.
“Femina,” by Ms. Tanowitz, whose work is more often seen downtown, was longer and structurally far less tight. It was set to a recording of a 2008 Zorn score involving violin, piano, harp, cello, electronics, percussion and narration by Laurie Anderson.
Like the score, the dance covered a wide range of idioms: the eight dancers included former Merce Cunningham performers (Jean Freebury and Banu Ogan) and a ballet dancer (Ashley Tuttle, who not only danced on point but also removed a shoe to thwack it against the floor).
As dancer succeeded dancer, with many random-seeming exits and entrances, “Femina” was often diffuse and too full of tentative effects (the shoe-thwacking, for example). More than once, the mind began to wander.
Never for long, however. Ms. Tanowitz’s sense of creating dance rhythm, especially by means of footwork, kept refreshing this work. She has a rare gift for dances that feel like present-tense explorations, notably the solos for Ms. Tuttle and, above all, Ms. Ogan.
And she makes her dancers look like independent spirits with their own motivations. (Ms. Freebury has never looked younger or freer.) So in “Femina” Ms. Tanowitz gives us — better than in any of her other works I have seen — that prime dance pleasure of making gifted dancers look renewed.
The solos for Ms. Tuttle and Ms. Ogan had little in common, and this made “Femina” feel all the larger and more inclusive. Both were absorbing; Ms. Ogan’s was wonderful. The rich three-dimensionality of her movement, often addressing several planes of space at once, was riveting. In one sequence she held an elongated arabesque in profile, making a single horizontal line from toe to head, and then rotated her arms powerfully in opposition to each other, like a crawl in swimming: the contrast of those whirling arms to that cool still line is a haunting image.
If I could see “Femina” again, I would check just how this sequence matched the music for harp and percussion, but this solo’s overall atmosphere of bold, clear-headed experimentation stays powerfully with me.