Camille A. Brown & Andrea Miller at the Joyce Theatre

Gallim Dance's "Wonderland." Photo by Christopher Duggan.

At the end of the world premiere of Gallim Dance‘s Wonderland—the first half of last night’s split bill at the Joyce Theatre, along with work by Camille A. Brown—the audience responded with an enthusiastic round of applause that didn’t quite translate into a standing ovation. That’s a pretty good summation of my response to the work. While it certainly had its moments, demonstrating choreographer Andrea Miller’s considerable talents, overall the roughly hour-long piece didn’t quite add up to something bigger than its parts.

Miller, the artistic director and founder of Gallim Dance, has had a lot of attention for a choreographer only six years out of Julliard. Her work is intensely physical, which Wonderland made clear from the get-go, as several members of company enterin the dark and start  jumping up and stomping down hard on the stage, adding a strong live percussive element to the sound score recording of hoofbeats.

But what follows meanders a bit. Miller has a great gift for adopting styles, incorporating ballet, modern, cabaret, and even cheerleading poses and movements, often contrasting them visually, as with Arika Yamada’s cheeky balletic solo performed while the rest of the company clambers into a human pyramid that collapses ignominiously on itself. It’s clever and witty, and Miller definitely brings a lot of personality to her choreography.

Still, the most genuine moments in the Wonderland were the ones that were the most raw, such as  when a dancer devolved into an ever more erratic series of arm thrashes before shifting back into a more controlled mode. Otherwise, many of the sequences—like the acrobatic ones towards the end, featuring soloists cradled or suspended by other company members—come off as artfully charming but sort of precious, letting the image stand in for a deeper emotional resonance that the movement isn’t achieving. And overall, I didn’t have the feeling that the piece gelled into something bigger than its parts. The press notes mention that Miller takes inspiration from Cai Guo-Qiang’s Head On, an installation that features a charging pack of wolves, and the idea of the tension between the pack mentality and individualism in society. But I have to admit, that wasn’t something I saw in a lot of Wonderland.

Camille A. Brown in "Good & Grown." Photo by Christopher Duggan.

So when Camille A. Brown‘s New Second Line kicked in the second half of the evening, I was pleased to be given a dose of something so straight-foward and ecstatic. Brown presented five shorter works covering the last couple years of her work, and it seemed like a welcome counterpoint. New Second Line is an exuberant response to New Orleanian brass band jazz, Brown’s dancers sashaying joyously across the stage. But by the time the third work rolled around, the uninspired Girls Verse 1 (one lead with four back-ups performing in unison, starting on the floor and then back down for the tone-shift, with soloists entering halfway through), I was starting to see a disappointing pattern in Brown’s choreography: a over-reliance on music and an inability to move too far beyond the comfort zone of jazz vocabulary.

I been debating since last night whether or not that’s a fair criticism of Brown’s work, suggesting that she’s too reliant on the jazz form she’s clearly trained in and prefers working with. Girls Verse 1 certainly fails to do anything interesting, but it is a short three-minute bit put in to facilitate Brown’s costume change between her solo Good & Grown, which I’ll get to in a moment, and her duet Been There, Done That, which is a comic romp through a rocky relationship that owes plenty to the post-Vaudeville mugging style of an earlier era of Broadway. But after reflecting on Good & Grown, I came around to the conclusion that it was, in fact, fair.

A solo performed by the choreographer herself should give you a nice perspective on where she is as an artist, and indeed, at first Good & Grown stands out from the other four pieces in terms of the richness and expressiveness of the vocabulary Brown develops. Instead of flowing with the music, Brown switches it up, offering strong counterpoints and rhythmic contrasts that make the work surprising and engaging. But part way through, when the score switches from Wes Montgomery’s free-flowing instrumental jazz to a song sung by Saycon Sengbloh,  the shift in Brown’s choreography is palpable. The movement becomes dependent on the score, less evocative in its own right and both more interpretive of the music as well as reliant on the lyrical content to express the ideas Brown’s working with. In short, you can see Brown shift from a riskier (but definitely more rewarding) place for her to a more comfortable mode very quickly, and for me, it’s disappointing to watch an artist willingly give up her distinctive voice to a song.

Finally, Brown’s new piece, City of Rain, which closed the evening, did suggest an ambitious turn for her movign forward. Compared to the four previous pieces, it was a strong shift in tone, and the choreography she sets for her company of ten moves in a decidedly more expressionistic direction. City of Rain also demonstrated a stronger grasp of the geometry of the stage, with action happening along verticals as well as parallel to the audience, which added a certain visual dynamism to the work that the earlier ones lacked. But ultimately, Brown didn’t seem as capable of drawing out distinctive performances from her dancers in the same way Miller had (I can’t deny that Miller found ways to let her talented company shine).

If the evening was a mixed bag, it’s nevertheless the case that both Miller and Brown are talented young choreographers. Brown I think needs to give herself more room to have a voice, and let herself put a distinctive stamp on the traditions she’s working with. As for Miller, even if Wonderland wasn’t quite all that in the end, it still had so many wonderful bits that she’s left me intrigued to see more of her work, and sad that I missed Blush, her piece that earned a fair bit of praise at the Joyce Soho in 2009.

The evening of work by Andrea Miller/Gallim Dance and Camille A. Brown plays the Joyce Theatre Wednesday, Aug. 11 and Friday, August 13, in an alternating repertory with Kate Weare and Monica Bill Barnes. On Saturday, Aug. 14, there is a “family friendly” matinee of selections from all four choreographers. For tickets, see here.

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