Juliana F. May & Natalie Green at DTW
Heading into Dance Theater Workshop last week for a shared evening of new work from Juliana F. May/MAYDANCE and Natalie Green, I did a sort of mental preparation. Only a couple weeks before I’d been at DTW for another shared bill of GALLIM Dance and Sidra Bell, and my review was basically anything but flattering, for which I caught a bit of flak in these digital pages. Not that I don’t stand by it (and I wasn’t the only one), but it did get me thinking. One of the things I generally believe about reviewing is that it shouldn’t be a reductive thumbs-up/thumbs-down thing that treats the work like a cheap movie. I want to be engaged and my writing to be part of a larger discourse about the art.
In a response to a different story here, Eva Yaa Asantewaa of the dance blog Infinite Body even referenced a thought she had recently that criticism should be viewed less as a job than as a practice, an act that’s as engaged in the form in its own way as the artists themselves are–something I totally agree with (even if I’m not remotely presumptuous enough to put myself or my work anywhere near the level of the artists whose work I’m lucky enough to experience). And another friend of mine had also written something cautioning viewers (and not just the ones who scribble about it afterward) to keep in mind that art is also a matter of gift exchange between the artist and the viewer, and that audiences of whatever stripe stand to benefit from at least occasionally opening themselves up to the experience, taking off their critical, nitpicking hats, and not looking the gift horse of art in the mouth.
All of which is awesome, and all of which I tried to internalize going in to the theater. Keep an on open mind, I told myself. Engage what you see. Don’t start from a judgmental perspective. Try to inhabit the world the artist is creating.
And then I saw the show, which reminded me of something else: One of the reasons we sometimes fail to accept the gift is that there isn’t much of one, and one of the reasons critical perspective is important is because some artists are more deserving of note than others.
In this case, Green’s nerves like tombs, nerves like nettles was so much more thoughtful and engaging than May’s Gutter Gate that it frankly made the latter look that much worse. I can’t speak to all the details, but as DTW’s own notes make clear, these are two young choreographers of roughly the same age and background, working with what I assume are similar resources (though I may be wrong on that count), but Green worked wonders in her witty, stylish, and thoughtful exploration of the psyche, while May’s piece drags with little discernible content through 30 minutes of what looks like touch-improv based choreography deconstructing itself before finally, in the last five minutes, offering us a beautiful piece of movement it seems hell-bent on making us distrust.
For May’s piece, the audience was seated in a horseshoe formation on stage with the performance occurring in the middle. Four women and one man costumed in the current dance vogue–their workout outfits–come out and begin to perform. The vocabulary is often drawn from natural movement; shaking fists or hands comes up throughout. Most phrases, though, are initiated by one dancer pushing or shoving another, initiating a short phrase of maybe only three or four distinct movements before reaching a static moment, at which the dancers drop it and return to a neutral stance, often repeating the same phrase several times at different places on stage.
What struck me as odd about it, and why I think it was off-putting to me, was that for most of the show, the dancers’ primary duty seemed to be pushing or initiating someone else’s movement, shifting the focus from the movements themselves. And I never had the sense that there was any motivation to what the initiator was doing. It simply caused a reaction in someone else, who, in turn, didn’t seem to have much motivation (other than being shoved) for why they were moving. Most of it came off as purely abstract, reinforced by the position the dancers were frequently called upon to hold their hands in: stiff, fingers extended and pressed together, like paddles, which usually cements the sense that this purely formal, gestural work, as it disconnects the hand from the flow of the arm and even the rest of the body. Fluidity is lost along with any logical completion; an arm is just an arm, the dancer a pose-able object, dehumanized. We’re left examining a gesture in the abstract.
Additionally troublesome to me was some of the imagery May used. Dancers frequently removed either their tops or their bottoms (though rarely both), the point of which seemed to be to allow for gravity to do its work on body parts while in motion. The male dancer Ben Asriel performed a stuttery, jumpy bit that left his male bits jiggling, and I believe all four women took turns on all fours while topless, breasts dangling, which really put me to mind of certain barnyard imagery that I can’t imaging was the intended purpose (and not exactly politically correct to boot).
Or maybe in a sense, that was the point. A dangling breast is a dangling breast, and breasts also have a quotidian purpose, which perhaps comes to the fore through a rigorous de-eroticization, which was certainly the effect. As I mentioned, the final sequence–three nude female dancers, the feminine form returned to a whole, and liberated from touch-intitiation to pursue long, fluid phrases with the occasional thoughtful pairings occurring, complemented by predictable but nevertheless dramatic sideways lighting–was quite compelling and a stark contrast to the rest of the piece. From the costuming to the devices that focused attention on the specific details of the movement and body, to the lighting (pretty much work-light level illumination) and seating arrangement that made the audience cognizant of being an audience, down to the rehearsal dance clothes…in comparison to the end, most of the piece felt a like it was watching a rehearsal-style process.
And I suspect that was the point. For thirty-some minutes, May asks us to look at the process, to see the nuts and bolts, to disconnect concrete choices from the final product, in order to see how the piece is made.
And on one level, I certainly respect that. Self-interrogation is one of the most important things artists can do, as it lays the basis for development of form and style. It’s the bedrock of innovation. But as a finished piece, Gutter Gate is oddly passive towards its audience; rather than using that approach to ask provocative questions or placing demands on the audience (aside from the requirement we engage or succumb to boredom), it merely asks us to look at the pieces and see how they become a whole, which ironically fuels a deep skepticism (at least on my part) of the artistic enterprise. Devoid of content, the emotional resonances we experience at the end are reduced to mere tricks of the trade, employed for no other purpose than to manipulate and titillate an audience, the choreographic equivalent of a swelling film score at a dramatic moment in a movie, or sensual lighting to eroticize a woman’s face. Which is fine, I suppose, to have pointed out, but the vision of dance the end offers is remarkably conservative, a combination of traditional dance lighting and a focus on both graceful movement and the feminine form. That’s not even a particularly big target to deconstruct, far less dynamic than even moderately thoughtful contemporary choreographers regularly put up.
Still, it did give me pause for a moment with Natalie Green’s phantasmagoria nerves like tombs, nerves like nettles, before I decided to put May’s skepticism aside and take my friend’s advice to experience the piece like a gift and just give myself over to it, to let Green, in other words, seduce me into the world she conjures onstage. Which isn’t a half-bad thing to indulge. One of the things I love to see in choreography is for the personality of the choreographer to come through, for the movement onstage to reveal a sense of its creator. That is, I think, a sign of success on the artist’s part, bending a language to her own ends. And by that count, Green does a pretty fine job, the 40-minute or so piece rife with quirky tidbits, thoughtful images, a bit of humor, and even a touch of raunch.
Four female dancers enter in near-darkness, wearing identical hooded white capes. The piece begins with their backs to the audience, the complexity of the movement developing gradually as the dancers shuffle around the stage, lines forming and then breaking, movement synchronizing then dissembling. Conjuring up what I can only assume is a fragmentary psyche, Green draws strong distinctions as we move through the piece, by delineating area on the stage (achieved with functional subtlety by lighting designer Chloe Z. Brown, who also designed for Gutter Gate) and off, in fact, as well as shifting the style and tone of the movement, which moved from stuttery shuffling to balletic to simple natural movement.
I also found myself far more engaged with the dancers, including Anna Carapetyan, who did double-duty in both pieces being presented and was thankfully given room to shine by Green, who also performed in the piece herself.
To quibble with it, I’d say that thematically an exploration of the psyche isn’t particularly risky or original territory (and the bunny cradled by the man who leaves the audience to wander the wings was too Freudian–though I probably wouldn’t say that if it had been real), and by the end, I was really wishing Green had pushed her crew harder in several directions. Pacing was largely constant throughout, which left me wishing for a little diversity, and the physicality never really pushed the dancers too hard, I don’t think (mid-tempo phrases that just end with the dancers dropping posture to rearrange themselves abound). Not that that’s necessary for a good piece, of course, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that Green left me wanting to see more of what she could do, go in even more diverse directions, and fascinated by the prospect of what she’s capable of beyond what I’d seen. She’s definitely a choreographer whose work I’ll check out again, and a high point of a pair of otherwise disappointing evenings at DTW in January.