“Newsteps” at Chen Dance Center

HT Chen has been presenting artists in his little Chinatown gem of a theater at the Chen Dance Center, formerly called Mulberry St. Theater, for almost 20 years. During his welcome to the audience on Thursday night, Chen stated that over 250 artists had been supported and presented at the theater since 1994, mostly through CDC’s Newsteps showcase. In fact, Newsteps was the first place I showed work in NYC during the program’s inaugural year and HT provided me with my first choreographic fellowship and substantial support. Chen offers a stipend and residency time in his studios as part of Newsteps. So in addition to providing newer voices with a valuable professional springboard, Newsteps serves as a laboratory for exploration, a space for younger artists to bang away at the old-school rules that dance school may have enforced. Having served on the audition panel in the relatively recent past, it was enjoyable to get back in for a fresh look at the works being presented during this round. There’s often, at least, one find on the program and those who don’t spark my personal interest still offer works that reveal an impressive level of skill in dance. This fall’s crop of artists yielded a few innovative artists (ironically, the female “solos”) I’d willingly seek out in the future and other choreographers who, while still caught in the canon show enough curiosity for me to hope they’ll push the edges further next time. Or, maybe they’ll simply continue to serve those still enamored with “purdy” dances just fine.

Chen Dance Center Theater

Effie Bowen’s duet with a droopy air mattress, sooner than already there, began with her jumping (flailing?) on a floor mat while the Annie Lennox version of Train in Vain played. She then threw herself onto the air mattress which began to rapidly deflate, she continued to lay on it while we listened to the rushing air and then dug her head further into the collapsed mattress and gathered it around her with her arms. It was a delightfully authentic moment and seemed not unfamiliar in its absurd pathos. When she shifted into ‘dance piece land,’ I found myself perfectly content watching her at length. I’ve seen Bowen in a duet with Courtney Cooke  at Dixon Place and a previous Newsteps, but within her own work the exquisite mix of awkward vulnerability within a veneer of light indifference shines.

Grace Courvoisier’s Sister Republic initially set off mini-warning bells in my head (she was singing Canadian folk trio The Wailin’ Jennys Long Time Traveller) as a potentially painful theater/dance/female/solo (you know the emotionally cathartic kind). But, the work soon revealed itself to be a highly sophisticated and deftly crafted tour-de-force for Courvoisier who managed mercurial shifts in tone and focus. Her treatment of the movement and language inter-relationship was clearly fed by some hearty exposure to Tere O’Connor who teaches (along with several other impressive faculty) at her alma mater out in Illinois. Despite carrying some heavy baggage about the state of our country, she employs a compelling range of physical and verbal play. I felt deliciously whiplashed trying to keep up with her rapidly firing, non-linear investigations, while enjoying her quieting device of smacking her lips for a “Pop” while calmly sitting and seeming to pull the idea out of her brain and crumbling it away in her fingers.

Megan Harrold & Charlie Rauh

Dancer Megan Harrold and musician Charlie Rauh employed a method that involved transposing Christiana Rauh’s poetry into movement and music through the intervals in the alphabet in there How Would I Rate The Quality of My Afternoon. The process read as rich for discovery and did provide an interesting movement vocabulary that Harrold executed with rich confidence, but it seemed to limit the scope of physical investigation by anchoring it too literally. As with the Bowen and Courvoisier’s pieces, the showcase structure worked to make these explorations that could have held my attention for longer, if part of the individual artist’s sustained exploration, seem a little long. Essentially, I’d like to see where these three artists would go with more time to both sustain and unravel their ideas.

The other works on the program included technically strong dancing, but mostly standard modern dance fare that only lightly tackled the ideas behind them. Clinton Edward Martin’s Green Light was a quartet using playground activities like hop skotch and Red Light/Green Light primarily as bookends. The work was shaped very clearly and dancers Allison Sale, Lynda Senisi, Jenni Berthelot, and Alessandra Marconi performed beautifully, handling transitions to and from the floor with fluidity but the main substance of the work seemed more focused on choreographic phrase work and less on the evolution of play ground structures. Cori Marquis performed a duet, F=Gm1m2/y2 (the formula for gravity), with Alexander Dones. The partnering was intricate and perfectly executed, but Salem’s dreamy techno cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” wrapped the work in a gloss that got tedious and lulled me away from what could have been (based on the dance’s subject) highly compelling. Alexis Convento’s a desire, but want to brought a return performance from Dones, Sale, and Senisi. Convento is the founder/producer of The Current Sessions, a work-in-progress series for choreographers in their 20s that Jeremy recently covered. Unlike his commentary about the work shown there, I’d guess that Convento is actually asking interesting questions from dance about freedom, unique movement, attack and curiosity, but this is based on her PR description and not the piece that seemed intent on upholding collegiate rules for group dance composition. I don’t fault Convento for adhering to the values championed to her, but the conservative nature of education is a topic that is starting to stew. As a mother of 2 in the NYC public school system and an educator at the other end of the line in the City University of New York, I can’t help but wonder how anyone here can develop autonomous practices or innovative work when there is so much maintenance of the status quo.

Several years ago I was on a Fresh Tracks audition panel (which I’ll be checking out tomorrow, and where I was presented a few months after Newsteps) with Tere asking “What are they teaching these people in college?” At the time, he was teaching at NYU, now he holds THE rock star deal for an artist-in-academia (and, I’ll be seeing his latest at Danspace on Thursday), and we (Hunter College, where I’m now on faculty) are actively woo-ing him for some guest-based creative brilliance. So, now that I’m in the game of teaching college students, I get the answer and, ironically, it is the opposite of what I was hinting at, probably around 10-years ago, with that pointed question. If the faculty are among the diligent majority, their students are getting comp’d. Seriously comp’d in what can seem like a dance-by-numbers way. There’s the level change, there’s the accumulation, oh a little retrograde, some counterpoint, ah don’t forget to develop your motif… Original voice? Risk taking? How about asking some really good questions of your work and yourself? But, I’m learning my lesson about academia’s deeply rooted conservatism on many levels, artistically it works to uphold and reinforce age-old, borrowed values from visual and musical arts. So many programs seem to push the notion that following traditional compositional structures equals proper choreography, not rigorous investigation, not contextual understanding. Maybe this is a conservatory versus liberal arts question. I suppose the field will eventually weed out those less intent on research and discovery, and time will cull individual voices from each crop of maturing artists, but couldn’t artistry be served from some progressive expectations within the academy? I’m not going to pull out the John Dewey and Howard Gardner references yet, but a couple years ago, I guest edited The University Project, a series of interviews and DTW Lobby Talks about the ranks of active choreographers who had taken academic posts, for Movement Research’s Critical Correspondence and I’m thinking it might be time for a follow up.

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