Neil Greenberg’s “This” at New York Live Arts

photo by Frank Mullaney

Neil Greenberg’s latest work, This, is a carefully rendered study of presence and personality existing somewhere in the interstices between abandon and control. The piece, which recently premiered at New York Live Arts, was stripped of artifice and presented its performers as themselves, stewards of an exquisite sensory experience that unfolded over the course of an hour on a nearly bare stage. Though at times frustratingly self-conscious of its “anti-interpretive” orientation, an idea Greenberg has discussed often of late, the work succeeded in creating an autonomous—at times even magical—world unto itself.

Upon entering the lobby of the Chelsea theater, I was greeted by several television monitors, not the sleek flat screens of our current moment, but chunky behemoths from another decade. On their screens played videos by Steve Roden, who also composed the piece’s score. The footage showed disembodied hands coiling and uncoiling red and white ropes, affixing paper clips to raised wires, and hanging wishbone-shaped pipe cleaners on clear plastic tacks. The movements were steady and purposeful, yet their utility was unclear. In a discussion several days before the premiere, Greenberg told me that he wanted the videos to influence the reading of the piece, but that of course, following his original choreographic premise, they had no “meaning” in themselves.

Before the performance began, a program insert informed me that Greenberg had decided to omit his own solo, originally designed to preface the group work. His generosity, illustrated by this decision to abdicate his own role, would prove a recurring theme throughout the work, doled out in equal measure to his dancers and his audience. This, a quartet skillfully danced by Molly Lieber, Omagbitse Omagbemi, Connor Voss, and Mina Nishimura, took shape as a rolling fugue of solos and duets, synchronized one moment and syncopated the next. In one sequence toward the beginning of the piece, the dancers lunged, slid on their stomachs, and clapped several times behind their backs, rocking back and forth with the effort. Later on, they stood in a back attitude, pitched over laterally toward an outstretched hand as if contortedly reading a book. They were virtuosic and poised one moment and distinctly pedestrian the next, yet all the while they maintained a composure obviously born of many hours of cultivation and reflection.

Although the performers were often tasked with the same movement, each approached his or her assignment differently. Omagbemi was regal and erect, and together with Lieber, whose pliant limbs and dynamic gait were especially remarkable, comprised the backbone of the work. Voss was feline and tightly wound, his coolness offset by spritely Nishimura, who performed more often than not with a slight smile on her face. Much of the piece transpired in silence, so it was particularly moving when passages of Roden’s delicate, twinkling score joined the simple equation of bodies plus space. Three sets of costumes, designed by James Kidd Studio, played an important role in the work as well. As the dancers changed from coarse blue athletic outfits into silky turquoise pajamas and finally ribbed peachy-tan ensembles, the topography of their clothing directed my attention to the tactile nature of their gestures.

The work’s austerity was reinforced by the bare stage’s only adornment: Joe Levasseur’s two giant lighting towers, which stood tall and skeletal like trees whose leaves had blown off in the wind. This association struck me as particularly apt since Greenberg has discussed his treatment of movement pairings as “weather systems,” situations that “induce excitement or pleasure or irritation,” but “can’t be named” or interpreted. This idea resonated with me as I watched the piece progress; each dancer acted as a discrete unit in a larger tableau, a storm unto him or herself swirling across a meteorologist’s Technicolor map. At times, I felt unsatisfied with the work’s disjointed quality and its lack of choreographic arc, but as soon as I relinquished my desire to make sense of it, I began to take pleasure in its unabashed embrace of the ephemeral.

Greenberg has been quite vocal about his concern with eschewing meaning as crucial to live performance, citing Susan Sontag’s seminal essay “Against Interpretation” as one particular inspiration. His considerations of this question involved the verbatim reproduction of improvisations that he videotaped throughout the rehearsal process. Whereas in past projects Greenberg culled material from his own improvisations, the bulk of the movement for This originated with his four performers. And you could tell. When Omagbemi relaxed into a paddle turn, spinning interminably in on herself, it was clear that she was the author of that phrase. And when Nishimura skittered across the stage like an excitable child, it struck me as a kinetic manifestation of her own nature. While the work was tightly scored and carefully designed, the phrasing managed to maintain the delightfully idiosyncratic quality of improvisation throughout.

Yet while the piece was resolutely not “about” anything, it was anything but random. Greenberg’s process was meticulous and exacting, involving hours upon hours of learning, refining, editing, and sequencing. The resulting dance, though authored in large part by its performers, betrays the hand of its maker. Greenberg’s sensibility tends toward tasteful restraint punctuated by occasional touches of zeal, and, like Merce Cunningham’s work, manages to derive robust content from bodies moving in space without pointing to an external narrative. Yet unlike Cunningham, for whom he danced for seven years, Greenberg gives This a distinctly human texture.

As I watched the dancers move about the space, I recalled the fuzz of the pipe cleaners and the tight coil of rope from the installation in the lobby. The performers’ movements were rich and textural, evoking the material properties of their own bodies, the costumes that clothed them, and the objects in the videos that had preceded their dance. Toward the end of the work, Omagbemi leaned over to reveal an electric-blue undergarment beneath her peach pullover. In that moment, as she stooped painstakingly and retracted her torso, I glimpsed her past self of twenty minutes before, running around the room triumphantly, waving her turquoise shirt overhead like a flag. And although I resisted applying meaning to this particular layering of temporally distanced images, it managed to stand alone. For me, it was a compelling musing on the primary concern of dance, a notion so simple that it is often overlooked: the singularity of the body.

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