Dance by Neil Greenberg: (like a vase)

Photo: Yi-Chun Wu

A friend recently said something about minimalism that stuck: “rules and limitations give us freedom.”  Neil Greenberg’s emphasis on the rules and limitations seems tantamount to his creative process – he videotapes himself and his dancers in improvisations, and then they learn the best parts back from the tape.   He then manipulates the phrases, making canons and various groupings, most of the time to wonderfully dynamic music by Zeena Parkins, performed live onstage.  His vocabulary is remarkable in its specificity, splayed fingers and flexed wrists, strange and odd and yet so precise.  And though the strength is in these details, the piece as a whole remains too opaque to break through.  The notion that a dance is just an object, like a vase, is an interesting one conceptually – but an object can have the power to move us, even with its simplicity.  Seeing one thing informs our view of others by comparison or negation, but if, in viewing, there is no greater experience than looking, we are unlikely to return again and again, captivated by that inexplicable inner response to structure, form and function.

As we enter the theater, we see four white columns centered on a white floor.  Classicism.  As Johnni Durango dances, Greenberg comes out and places a black vase in front of each column.  Formalism.  A funny recording (“A Class in Greek Poise”) by Ruth Draper begins “Good morning, ladies” or some such salutation, then asks each member of the class to state their name and weight for the class book.  Greenberg and Durango have a duet against this, with this, to this – “the attitude of the Greeks to the human body”; “poise is rhythm, balance”.  Figurative.  Post modern.

(like a vase) is, if anything, about art, and the ways in which we view it.  Greek columns, vases, poise – all purely classical notions.   But the piece doesn’t interest itself so much in classicism – rather in deep abstraction.  Abstraction takes its meaning from having limited reference to the world.  And here is where Greenberg’s (like a vase) loses me – abstraction in art doesn’t use as its medium the human body.  When the abstract is moved into the realm of being, which it very often is, the choreography can be abstract, but does the performance itself also need to be?  I found the dancers, all very wonderful performers, displaying a nonchalance that often spilled over into a choreographed indifference, or apathy, now mundanity – all while executing Greenberg’s signature lush, technical-with-a-twist movement style.  They are placed in close proximity to one another, or in more spatially diverse relationships, but they are never dancing together – rather, they dance at the same time.  Greenberg uses unison, or dancers doing the same phrase with different relationships to time, but we never see the performers really seeing each other, relating.  There is an introspection that reads as the self at the expense of all else.  The dancers exist in their own worlds, and we are left to experience for ourselves whether they might coalesce into a more meaningful whole.

One of the great abstractionists, Merce Cunningham, with whom Greenberg danced for many years, put his dancers in space without regard to narrative or explicit meaning, but there is a definite relationship between people that emerges, beautiful, happy, or sorrowful, or sexual.  There is no derived emotion in Greenberg’s piece.  Perhaps this is because there is never any physical contact.  In an artist’s statement, Greenberg writes: “When I’m dancing, I know I exist, and I negotiate and give utterance to my particular existence.  When I witness you dancing, I must negotiate your particular existence.”  For the duration, I remained coolly separated from these existences – a witness only.  I regard the dance as one would any object – but I miss the opportunity to feel, or receive a deeper implicit meaning – I see what there is, as it is.  And that can be the trouble when abstraction becomes abstruse – we are aware of the various parts, the construction, the materials, but we are unable to transcend them.

Dance by Neil Greenberg
(like a vase)
Dance Theater Workshop
through Saturday, November 13 – all shows at 7:30pm

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