Douglas Dunn’s “Cassations” at Danspace Project
Douglas Dunn’s Cassations, which ran last weekend at Danspace Project, opens with seven multi-colored flower sculptures scattered throughout St. Mark’s sanctuary, which are carried offstage by dancers in yellow ponchos while opening announcements are made. Onto the empty stage arrive Dunn’s twelve dancers, divided by gender and dressed in clashing neon athletic separates, one man and one woman wearing filmy skirts. They perform what appears to be a formal court dance with mincing allegro footwork: steps are measured, facings precise and extensions high. For 15 short episodes (each accompanied by an operatic aria) the vocabulary is largely balletic and familiar (straight spines, turned out legs and arched feet, arms curved and held behind the body), occasionally broken by idiosyncratic gestures and ticks. Sometimes the erect torsos and placed limbs slump and soften into ripples, though there is a sense of formality even in these looser, more naturalistic sequences.
Dunn employs numerous types of relationships between bodies. Large unison phrases grouped by gender feature heavily, but classic pas-de-deux, contact improv-influenced partnering, and stage combat come up as well. The most prominent structure is a circular one, with groups of dancers forming concentric, revolving circles, one gender circling the other. These organized formations often break into irregular ones. Early on, four women dance four different phrases, each including a collection of strange gestures: wrists folded and tucked under the chin, fifth position ballet arms with vibrating hands, half-hearted sleazy hip shimmying. The pattern of dancers locking into formations that disintegrate and synch up again is a chronic one.
Cassations is very devoted to music: each episode closely follows the emotional arc of the accompanying song and stays on rhythm at all times. To me, this strictness begins to feel almost slavish as the piece wears on, which is why I find more seasoned dancers Grazia Della Terza, Gwyneth Jones and Dunn himself to be a relief to watch: they move with a slight casualness and a bit more ease than their younger colleagues, and seem to take more pleasure in the experience. The younger generation is obviously capable and committed, but their solemnity becomes a bit arduous. They really use all of their training here, spending a lot of time on releve, in demanding extensions and postures, and executing high jumps and kicks. There is a sense of skimming the floor as opposed to groundedness, which lends their performance a feeling of fantasy that (I can’t help but feel) sometimes veers into fakery. The most memorable of the episodes is a duet between Dunn and Christopher Williams. A nearly-nude Williams wears a swiveling belt attached to a cord held by a green cellophane dress-wearing Dunn. He springs, tilts and spins madly around the space while Dunn holds his leash taut and occasionally whips him. It is equal parts sadistic and silly, virtuosic and tongue-in-cheek.
The program helpfully informs us that “cassation” (musical form of the 18th century and the ability of one court to nullify the decision of another) is from the French “casser, to break, crack, or snap.” Though Cassations offers elegant dancing and occasionally provocative renderings of cruelty and tenderness, I did not come away feeling like I had had a rich experience or witnessed a break with tradition. I am impressed by but unconvinced of the necessity of the work’s reliance on virtuosity and musicality, and I found myself hung up on the ‘why;’ Why so presentational? Why so many high legs? With the exception of the Williams/Dunn episode, for me Cassations was less challenging and less rewarding than expected.