3 New Contributors on 3 New Dances

Brand new dance contributors Meg Weeks, Hannah Cullen, and Emie Hughes respond to three shows from the fall 2014 season. Their thoughts, below!

Netta Yerushalmy‘s Helga And The Three Sailors at Danspace

Image by Netta Yerushalmy

Choreographer Netta Yerushalmy isn’t interested in subtlety. Or so it seemed for the first forty or so minutes of her latest work, Helga And The Three Sailors, which recently premiered at Danspace Project. She and her three dancers were explosive bodies in the white expanse of St. Mark’s Church, their commitment to the rigor of their task unceasing over the course of the evening-length piece. Robust and eccentric, the dance was unapologetic in its content and full-bodied in its execution.

Yerushalmy began the piece with a solo, during which home videos of her dancing as a child played on a white screen behind her. Supported by the bold sounds of composer Judith Berkson’s original score, she mechanically cycled through various jumps, wiggles, and turns, maintaining near-perfect unison with the grainy footage. In an appealing interplay with the exuberant yet awkward movements of her past self, Yersushalmy’s dancing was refined and specific, the result of many years spent honing her craft. Yet at times she broke from her careful delivery of the steps and moved about the space haphazardly, wild and unencumbered by the dictates of her training.

The conceptual link between Yerushalmy’s personally inflected solo and the highly formal trio that followed was a tenuous one. Visually, however, the episodic quality of the piece was effective and exciting. Yerushalmy wove the two sections of the work together skillfully, and the young dancers that comprised the trio—Marc Crousillat, Amanda Kmett’Pendry, and Sarah Lifson—complemented her quirky physicality with idiosyncrasies of their own. Inspired lighting by veteran designer Carol Mullins and richly colored monochromatic costumes by Magdalena Jarkowiec streamlined the progression of the work and contributed to its overall polish.

The trio, during which Yerushalmy remained largely motionless, facing upstage, was a jumble of intricate phrasing and comical repetitions of small gestures, including darting eyes and exaggerated grimaces. Inspired by the sharp edges and dark tangle of cubist painting, the movement was spiky and raw, defying any familiar choreographic through-line. Yet out of the seemingly disjointed material, patterns began to emerge. When the three dancers repeated a choppy partnering sequence towards the end of the second section, I felt sated by their return to the familiar after being so thoroughly disoriented. Their gestures, at first strongly abstract, began to take shape in my mind; Lifson shaking her head as if trying to extract water from her ear, Kmett’Pendry’s fists rotating near her face in a doll-like pantomime of drying tears, Crousillat preening and pecking like a bird.

Toward the end of the trio, its creator came back to life, moving from center stage to the sidelines. After sitting casually and watching her sailors’ antics for a time, Yerushalmy tipped back and spilled onto the floor, leaving only the soles of her feet visible behind the risers that framed the stage. In ceding the space to her very capable counterparts, Yerushalmy disoriented the authorship of the work, allowing her crew to shift from foil to protagonist in the bizarre story that was Helga And The Three Sailors.

The tone of the piece changed as it reached its end. Each with his or her own flair, the dancers exited one at a time, leaving Lifson patiently skittering around the perimeter of the space in a sort of insect-like bourrée, legs turned out and knees bent. When she finally lay down behind the risers herself, the energy-saturated air took a moment to dissipate. In the long seconds before it finally did, the attention of the audience was palpable. It was a quiet ending for Helga and her three sailors, a touch of subtlety in their otherwise clamorous world.

Meg Weeks is a dancer, choreographer, and writer based in New York. She is originally from New Hampshire and holds a BA in history from Brown University. She has performed with Shen Wei Dance Arts and The Metropolitan Opera Ballet, and currently works with Sumi Clements, Helen Simoneau, and Beth Gill. She has presented her work at Triskelion Arts, SHOW ROOM Gowanus, Dixon Place, and most recently as a guest artist at Brown University. 

[image by Netta Yerushalmy]

Julian Barnett‘s Bluemarble at Danspace

Image by Julian Barnett

Circles of thought, ideas, feelings, and meaning comprise my experience of Julian Barnett’s piece Bluemarble. The audience sits in the round, a common choice I’ve seen for shows presented at Danspace, although what’s different in this piece is that the chairs create an intimate circle around the edge of the performance space, making the world we’re viewing feel microcosmic and specific. As a part of this nuclear audience, you are forced to acknowledge (even if that means with an awkward, avoidant gaze) the members sitting across from you throughout the piece. The lights take the whole first section to contract inward from our outer circle, and still we are not set free of their exposure once they focus on the dancers.

The piece begins with the entrance of an electronic soundscape, which creates an otherworldly feel. Shortly after the sound becomes noticeable, Barnett and his collaborator Jocelyn Tobias enter the space and begin engaging in what I want to describe as infantile actions. They explore movement patterns curiously and fully before forgetting them just as suddenly as they began. Barnett’s stage presence is demanding, making these fits of movement, some of them subtle and some of them tantrum-like, mesmerizing and unpredictable. This section happens for slightly longer than you want it to – pushing you to the edge of discomfort as you watch their random yet related patterns, never once falling into movement synchronicity.

Once these fits subside, the duo ends in subdued walking that finally brings them together in unison – they take this walk in a small circle exploring the space around them, looking outward while remaining internally focused. Before you’re fully calibrated to this new energy level, another explosion occurs. Julian’s face, up until now contained and focused, contorts as sounds escape from his mouth. It would be called word-vomit if he was forming full words, but this is more like a release after a build up of minor agitations are finally unable to stay contained in the body. As Barnett assumes this bordering-on-barbaric self, he storms through the space to a box full of beach balls and flings them toward his calm counterpart who is dutifully putting up her hair.

Once this fit subsides, Barnett and Tobias walk around in silence, nudging or kicking the balls, clearing a space for them to begin a circular dance opposite each other. They begin with an abstract gestural arm dance, maintaining eye contact throughout. It feels random at first but gains meaning as they land on a hand gesture resembling a gun. This gesture then morphs into one of blowing up a ball (like the beach balls around them), until they finally translate to the sound of blowing air out into tones, then words. I appreciate being taken on a ride like this, where I suddenly land on meaning and understanding without fully realizing how I got there. Because the piece develops unpredictably, the places it moves through can sometimes feel confusing and esoteric. It lands on an idea that connects but the journey to that place sometimes leaves me detached. I also found myself wavering between feeling surprised by some of the outcomes and slightly disenchanted with the connections being made. As I felt the concept coming to fruition, I felt enlightened, but in a different way than expected.

I was most taken with the way associations of words and movement were made between the dancers. The way they interacted and how they used each other as inspiration for developing thought and sense, even if it ended up taking them in a circle. There was a constant sense of coming back, circling back to where you came from. The work ends with Barnett and Tobias turning, the circles finally coming to the most central place: inside themselves. As they turned, they spoke, or sung, words back and forth relating to the earth and nature—storm, desert, night, day. As these words became more and more drawn out, more abstracted sounds, the lights faded so slowly it was hard to tell when it became completely black. And as the lights did finally fade, they continued to sing these words. Within all of these circles, the piece moved again to a different place, from one of exposure and stimulation to serenity and intimacy. Where the piece ended was so opposite of where it began yet clearly related… like night and day.

Hannah Cullen is a New York-based dancer, choreographer, and writer and will be graduating in 2015 with a BFA in Dance from NYU Tisch School of The Arts. She was a founding member of the collaborative company Young Dance Collective and continues to work with and teach YDC’s second generation. Hannah is interested in making socially engaged, activist work that uses poetry and movement to incite thinking and connect with communities.

[Image by Julian Barnett]

An Abstraction of an Abstraction: Big Dance Theater’s Alan Smithee Directed This Play at BAM

It’s approached with the principals of time, space, energy.

it begins

all in line

movement partners

shimmying, old triumphant music, slow circling, and clapping

T faces audience, striking presence

group walking

When I moved to NY, I didn’t know many people. I came straight away after graduating from the University of St. Louis and I moved to NY on December 27th… 20 something years ago.

they put set together together, put coats on

table, briefcase, chair, closes suitcase, sound shift

It’s about action, getting the thing on its feet.

“poem”- man and woman

circling downward, rhyming, apart

“I love you” dramatic music, trios of mvt, gestural mvt unravels

It’s kind of like movement happens, and then later, with the maturity and the relationship of the structure, the emotional approach gets layered in. But emotional state and how you feel in the room, like the exchange with the audience, how big, how broad. That stuff is very much alive, and individual.

T takes gun

divided men and women, cigarette alone, hear breathing, touches neck, takes gun and talks to it as if a baby,

we don’t see all of it

fur themes, martini glasses, waltzing

I don’t know, like, themes of loss or family, I mean there’s a lot of stuff in there about kids, and big things happening around innocent kids. It’s really hard to talk about.

beach chairs

slowed, a record

braid hair, tie cloth around neck, tie coat, hands, “Bolsheviks may win”

jumpsuit, astronaut

Aurora, phones

gasps, shots, let her go

 I think we actually experience life as more like this piece than we know. We want to have story; we want to say,‘My life starts here and I’m going to be married. And then I’m going to retire in the country, and then I’m going to die.’ We want to act like life happens like that… plays happen like that, stories happen like that in film. But life actually isn’t like that. It kind of is more like this fragmented abstract relations and things happen out of nowhere. You can’t ever be prepared. So I feel like as an audience member and as a performer that’s something I learned with this…letting go of knowing point A to point Z…we just don’t know.

Bolsheviks, things will be different after the revolution

accent goes away during speech

mirroring cigarette on phone

bits are accessible, present day- glimpses, phone calls with mom, ask for money

fur, phones, briefcase, funny printed pants and shoes

film and dances, frozen edited parts

throw objects, catch, reverse, rewind, and sound encompasses

But at the foundation, I am really just a performer.

Things happen out of the blue.

all in line,

a capella, keeps going,

don’t leave

Which is really how I just approach Big Dance. It’s like, ‘you go and pick the sticks up, you go over here, you walk around there, you pick up the thing, you pick up the bucket, you hold the cigarette,’ like, task-based things. And I guess for me especially in this process, because the characters were so wild and there was no through-line, it was especially hard to remember, especially with the shifting things, which shift so quickly.  Like, ‘do this scene here and take that out…. OK GO.’

“we don’t go upstairs because we have never been there,

we don’t know where the coffee maker is”

all feeling same thing even if not the one talking

Dr. Zhivago and twigs and twig maids, sound of whipping

astronaut again, sky, American narratives, American dream, storytelling

Strelnikov has a physical solo: gestural, hand gobbling space, slicing

narrative line of revolution

specific mvt for each word

Margaret Thatcher speech

oh gosh. here it comes again.

talking about leaving or staying, fleeing to safety

table, off vocabulary while conversing

audience sound, regarding us as audience

We incorporated movements from British Parliament, Margaret Thatcher movements, and politicians arguing their points. We learned a physical score of that. And then we layered it on to this pretty, long, heady monologue, and then had to incorporate the two. The thing works the best when the movement doesn’t necessarily match what you’re saying. So learning the movement score and then knowing the words and then doing them in a present and real but disjointed way is incredibly challenging. Trying to make sense of what you’re saying, and having no relationship with how you’re saying it is really, really hard.

line dance and clapping

clapping, martinis and phone background

first time we see T dance background

Everybody’s in the room. Like the sound designer, often the lighting designer, video designer. We’re usually all there. And in this process, we were mostly all there, even the costume designer. We’re kind of in the room from the get-go. The whole thing is being made at the same time.

who are these people?

Oh my God, those other performers are so good… I admire each of them.

Yes let’s try that, yes let’s figure that out.

agency, theater, dance- it is all one language, doesn’t matter

You bring yourself, you make the movement that you do.

surprising when grand-jete comes right next to monologue with mini mvt

video with guy, same time

How this idea of the Cold War, or Russian US relations, how we understand or are in the world, through film, through time period, so we are trying all together to figure out how things relate.

Nebraska narrative, wedding, pregnancy, getting married, men leaving

symbols repeat

rape scene next to love making scene, calling on telephone, projections on screen

time eras switch back and forth

all men leave, women coat dance

She pulled me into her office and let me in on the news that I would never be a ballet dancer- she filled me in, which was a really painful thing to hear. She suggested that I might want to think about modern dance, which was the most disgusting idea to me at the time, and insulting.

hair and fur, slow motion

all same woman


It’s all approached choreographically. Even the way you talk or the way scenes happen, it really is dance.

i feel left out, speaking in poetry- what are they talking about

and part of our brain understands it, listens to another language, T dream sequence

I was in a very weird mood that day, and it was like memories of what I do, like the task-based material.

monologue, one-sided conversation

dream glimpses

like when children explain things

and the sound comes from performers

a guitar song

diagonal light and they bid farewell to each other

and we wait

house lights up


This response was created with excerpts from a post-performance interview with Tymberly Canale (in italics) and the author’s poem / notes taken while watching the work.

Emie Hughes is a dance-maker, performer, and visual artist in Brooklyn. She also works in arts administration and production.


[image from bigdancetheater.org/shows/alan-smithee-directed-this-play-2014]

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