Doug Elkins Returns With “Mo(or)town/Redux”

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Most recently known for his crowd-pleasing, whimsical, yet slyly subversive Fraulein Maria, choreographer Doug Elkins had a substantial career in the 1990s before folding his company in 2004 for both personal and financial reasons. With a program of new and refashioned pieces—the New York premiere of  Mo(or)town/Redux and a revised Scott, Queen of Marys (1994)—at the Baryshnikov Arts Center this past week (December 5-8), he’s fully back in the game.

Mo(or)town/Redux reworks José Limon’s The Moor’s Pavane (1949), a landmark of American modern dance that distills Shakespeare’s Othello into a dramatic quartet for Othello, Desdemona, Iago, and his wife Emilia. Elkins takes this basic structure and riffs: we get non-stop partnering that cantilevers on and off the floor, courtly bows, and social and club moves as the Motown classics pull us through an abstract, but clear narrative about relationships, desire, and jealousy. The handkerchief still plays a central role in the action, making a good case for using props more frequently in modern dance—it forces a physical clarity in the duet between Iago and Emilia that you can’t look away from.

Scott, Queen of Marys, is another reworking, this time of Elkins’ first version of the piece from 1994. An engaging, if overly long showcase for Elkins’ knack for movement that samples freely from classic modern dance, folk traditions, vogueing, and b-boy moves, Scott, Queen of Marys keeps circling back to the preternaturally skinny and super bendy Javier Ninja, who studied with the legendary Willi Ninja.

Whereas Scott, Queen of Marys loses its punch after the first third, Mo(or)town/Redux sustains itself.  On top of a winning combination of solid structure and striking movement vocabulary, Mo(or)town/Reduxis a rare example of a contemporary choreographer explicitly updating and referencing a modern dance classic.

On the scale of visual and performing arts history—compared to painting, drawing, theater, or music—modern dance has a pretty short life span. Curiously, it also doesn’t like to delve too deeply into this history. With the exception of story ballets, true to the original revivals (cue licensing arms of dance companies whose founding choreographers are gone), and an apparently endless fascination with The Rite of Spring, few dance pieces are touchstones that subsequent generations of choreographers choose to revisit. Is it because past choreography isn’t that interesting to the field’s own practitioners, because no one wants to be held up to Martha Graham or the like (pity the intrepid artist who takes on Clytemnestra), or because there’s a strong push to do “new” choreography from the funding or marketing sides of the arts world?

The Moor’s Pavane is regularly performed by the Limon Dance Company and other dance companies, and I envision a presenter leaping at the chance to put the original and Elkins’ update on a program together.