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Articles by

<Audrey Lane Ellis>

10/12/12 12:20pm

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A tale told in mirages, the dance-theater piece Political Mother is accompanied by live rock musicians and military drums. Props—a monster mask, a gun and a sword—are lined up like a series of gritty punctuations within a flip book of tableaux. This melodrama, by UK-based choreographer Hofesh Schecter (making its New York premiere at BAM), bravely outlines a journey of radical individualism in the face of belonging. Iconic-seeming images of a lead singer and a speechifying politician hang fervent alongside a choir of dancers falling in and out of unison. As these images begin to overlap and retract, a pattern of rage, rock and recover seems to drive the work, building to an ending you won’t forget—and, in fact, already know.

The theater is suspended in fog as the piece opens; distant music is followed by a sort of title page. The words “Political Mother” appear, as does a single warrior who unsheathes his sword. As quickly as we are ushered into this tall tale, the tableau is interrupted by a rock bomb, musicians in their own spotlights, alone with their electric guitar or drum. These scenes flash against a few duets and solos, but mostly group dance-work in which a repeated vocabulary of movement is established. Dancers brilliantly flock in and out of dance-language that both stings and sings; a large emotional range is accomplished within a small, specific framework.

The dancing acts as a workload of full-bodied gesture, both being carried and carrying the movers throughout the piece. Folk dance teems on the edge of full-fledged rock spasms, the rhythmic steps accelerating. At times scampering and dumb, the dancers move with hunched backs and shuffling feet, and yet seamlessly turn these possessed and almost comical twitches of the body into more virtuosic articulations. They become dancing flames, rippling from their cores to full surrender, arms suspended in the air. The group arranges in patterns across the stage, mapping a road which all veer from but are ultimately assigned to. As the work nears an end you fear the resolution, you fear no resolution; however, several surprise elements leave you with a strange acceptance.

These dialed-up theatrics—loud music, fervent dancing and epic lighting—create a sensationalism that is both silly and sincere. The dancers become both worshipers and warriors, acting against and as part of a theater of politics. Israeli-born and UK-based, Schecter first began his dance career with Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv and began his showing his own work in the UK by 2003. As a former rocker himself, he also contributed to the score. The strong rhythms that pulse through the work challenge us to hear music through noise, to see people through bodies, to survive some sort of necessary violence. Schecter succeeds in depicting this brutality in belonging.

The Hofesh Schecter Company performs Political Mother tonight and tomorrow at BAM. More info here.

Full disclosure: The L Magazine publishes the programs for BAM.

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04/20/12 2:53pm

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The limitless and ever prolific Bill T. Jones will be at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Monday night, discussing three decades of performance work as a choreographer, dancer, theater director and writer. He is a force in person: not only engaging in conversations critically, he seems to actively think through questions in a way that feels quite generous. The level of engagement is high, as is the and the energy level.

As a guest of the BAM Iconic Artist Talk series, Jones will specifically reference the work he has presented at BAM. During the discussion, projections will be used to note specific works. These talks at BAM provide a rare, intimate setting, giving the audience a chance to ask questions formally but also creating an environment where the group as a whole continues to engage and mingle long after the event has ended. It is one of the few, true, Brooklyn salons.

Oftentimes BAM will provide free (for same-day ticket holders) post-show Artist Talks, using the performance experience as the discussion’s springboard. Great for a recap and a few questions, the talk usually takes place right on stage, still maintaining a bit of the performer/audience divide and, oftentimes, showing some post-show fatigue. These talks are meant to be relatively cursory; many venues hold these types of moderated discussions with performers after a show. However, few venues treat the discussion with an artist as an event itself, giving full credit, time and attention to an artist reflecting on his work. The BAM talk series is just that, creating an atmosphere of philosophical engagement and community thinking. A few months ago, Cornel West mingled for almost an hour after moderating a BAMcafe talk, diving into discussions and wine.

If you aren’t familiar with Bill T. Jones as a contemporary dance artist, you should know his choreography for Broadway’s Fela! and Spring Awakening, and most recently, his takeover of the Chelsea arts organization New York Live Arts. Jones merged his own company with the former Dance Theater Workshop, hopefully providing a strong foundation for his continued work producing and presenting dance and movement-based artists around the country. Jones is a master of honoring the past, as evidenced with his work on historical figures such as Fela Kuti and Abraham Lincoln, but it’s always in service of some kind of revolution, a call to activate ideas in a new way.

The talk starts at 7pm, but get there about 20 minutes early, as people line up for the best seats.

11/18/11 10:43am

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Once again a backyard Brooklyn artist goes BAM, as postmodern dance artist John Jasperse premiered his piece Canyon at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater on Wednesday. Jasperse has been producing work in the New York area for over 25 years, most recently while based out of East Williamsburg’s CPR (Center for Performance Research) at 361 Manhattan Avenue. This new work, at BAM through Saturday, orbits around several movable flag poles, a roll of heavy sheeting and a moving box on wheels, all amidst random streams of electric green tape that start in the lobby.

Extending the landscape of this event, the tape-lines follow and create cracks in the bathroom stalls, up the stairs and through the stage floor and walls. As a result the piece starts to perform for you early, slipping into your consciousness before taking your seat. The tape in the lobby serves to de-glamorize the space, but as the mapping continues to our view of the stage, a glowing intergalactic abstraction comes to life and inspires almost a comforting nostalgia, suggesting a life-sized game board or a child’s room speckled with glow-in-the-dark plastic stars.

As in Jasperse’s other work, the set and props of Canyon help the audience engage with a highly conceptual dance work outside of a highbrow context: Jasperse has a way of approaching intellectualism through a material rootedness, ripe with humor and awe. Seemingly random elements—an unmarked box on the move, flags and tape—cultivate abstraction in order to deliver on some phenomenological WOW. As a cast of six dancers, including Jasperse himself, navigate the space, bodies and flags wave and filter through a series of atmospheric forces. Swells of live music and light allow the tone to range from full-force group sequencing to sparse flickers of gesture within a quiet humming.

At times the movement phrases were strangely generic, most predominately in the opening section, with extended low lines and sweeping pointed toes. However, the piece as a whole builds to a more specifically voiced movement language, eventually bringing us a beautifully crafted female trio and male duet. Air-whipping limbs fit in and out of crevices, caverns, the canyons underneath arms, in the small of the back. The partnering work explores curves, the hooks and nooks of the body, carefully fit together but often punctuated by thudding drops. Bodies are later strewn about the space, slipping away to again signify, perhaps, the passage of time, the erosion by outside forces of bodies and tape.

At some point in the evening there comes a critical moment of stillness and light. In that pause, it is clearer than ever that the positioning of the work’s elements—music, props and light—seem to cohere into a captivating environment even when the actual dancing does not. Thoroughly smart yet light, this piece and Jasperse’s work in general should be a staple on the art calender.

05/12/11 4:15pm

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Just as potent as his work, Edward Albee the man appeared at BAMcafe’s live literary series last week for what was more of a performance than a reading. Clinging to their wine, the audience fell silent as he opened with a reading from his work Fragments, a scenario in which he asked those listening to imagine his 83-year-old self as a 16-year-old boy—a 16-year-old boy recounting a father’s sexual desire for his own young daughter.

It was a jump into cold water.

But to expect anything less from this writer of 30 plays (halfway through his 31st) would be to separate the man from the material, and if anything was clear that night, it was that Edward Albee’s persona has the same dangerous exhilaration as his work.

His reading was deeply animated with a biting sort of timing, delivering both punchlines and heartbreak in a natural cadence. This type of performance, so invested and real, was the best kind of shock; Albee knows the people he invents and the stage directions that guide their interactions. He insists on authoring every last detail, a rarity in this industry. Albee noted the pressure on playwrights to make alterations for commercial reasons, taking away all sense of “intellectual adventure.” His own uncompromising approach, he said, means “not as much money but less heartbreak.”

It’s interesting to contemplate Albee’s success in a world where social commentary is often spoon-fed, even in the theater. The intertwined themes of love and carnage in his work seem assess the various types of hysteria—sexual, religious—alongside the construction of family life. In The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia as well as in his perhaps most famous work Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, we are forced to reconsider and reconfigure the meaning of relationships, processing taboo in order to let some guttural truth ring out. Albee credited his status as an adopted child several times, maintaining that this perspective gave him a sort of objectivity about his environment. “I’ve been on to myself,” Albee said, seeming to make the point that the things he knows, he knows very well.

Speaking to this sort of loyalty to one’s own voice, the moderator, Michael Greenberg of the Times, mentioned Albee’s proclamation that “I am not an employee,” a mentality that feeds the honesty in his writing, giving his words the ability to as Greenberg says, “spill blood.” As professors of brutal truths, Albee’s characters and the scenarios they inhabit do a kind of work that has to be “played out,” or as Albee says of his plays, “letting it have its own head.”

Albee became, he said, a playwright by default, after failing at all other types of writing. And the actual writing of his plays is the very end, the final moment of his process. The ideas have lived much longer than the words and so when the words finally do come to the paper, Albee is “seeing it and hearing it when I am writing it.” No wonder, then, that when an audience member asked about his revision process he parroted back, incredulous: “Revision?!” That would make his work “safe,” he said with disdain. It was the end of the evening and I wondered what the “unsafe” question would be, and if I could ask it.

Instead, I waited in line. Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia, a play fraught with the devastation wreaked by our own animal nature, happened to be my first professional theater experience in New York. As I made my way to the front of the line and Albee signed my copy of the play, I briefly described how his work was my first art encounter in New York City. He sat for a moment and eventually said, “… Well?”

“I’m still here” was all I could think to say.

And thankfully, so is Albee. Keep an eye out for that 31st play.

10/08/10 4:53pm

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Through tomorrow at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 2010 Next Wave Festival, director Jan Lauwers and the dance collective Needcompany present the The Deer House, a compelling and completely confusing multidisciplinary work, in which text, dance, song, and environmental elements seem to prey on one another, creating a kind of anti-narrative. The work grapples towards a reconciliation with loss in a time of war, haunted equally by its brutal truths and greater unknowns.

This strangely constructed “story” is meant to investigate the mechanics of stories, the way we use personal testimony in both politics and theater. Lauwers calls upon the function of fiction to disrupt, rewind and re-route the cold hard facts: in this case, the facts concern the death of a Needcompany member’s brother as he worked as a photojournalist in Kosovo. Deer House tapestries whimsical costumes, set design and dance language with very graphic discussion of war, moving from a sickening delirium to something of a midsummer’s night’s dream in a matter of moments.

This constant teetering of mood is accomplished not only through the juxtaposition of different theatrical elements but by the performers’ various levels of undress. At the top of the show a man undresses a woman without ceremony; the two rub their fleshy behinds together while discussing a wartime photo of a dead woman and goat. A sexual charge ripples through individual and group dynamics; at one point bodies converge in what the performers refer to as a “love sculpture,” while still discussing mass graves and killings. As these contradictions unfold, they’re interrupted by dance language characterized by exploratory twists of the torso and arms, at times contemplative and sculptural. Group dance sequences, quick and steppy, often with partners hooking arms or eyes, are mockingly folksy, with presentational gestures of the hand conjuring a layer of magic over the matter-of-fact text.

What does any of this have to do with deer? They fall from the sky like confetti, as white rubbery carcasses drop down to the stage in squalls. They cloak the evening in a mystical and serene woodland fantasy, while simultaneously portending stupid, unavoidable death. They are homeless bodies this multilayered performance contemplatively inhabits.

An experience of sensory and thematic overload, The Deer House creates a dream-like world in which to process harsh realities. If you can keep your head above water, the combined hysteria does seem to compute, and the payoff is quite large: a small bit of hope.

06/18/10 5:12pm

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Artistic Director Martin Lofsnes leads 360 Degree Dance Company in presenting an evening of contemporary and classic modern dance pieces as a part of the Guest Artist series at Dance Theater Workshop this weekend. Summoning up the stark emotional purity of classic modern dance from the Martha Graham era, this evening is a rare and encouraging evening in which, keeping with the abstract expressionism of Graham, treats each movement phrase as comprehensive dramatic gesture.

However, this collection of work manages to channel more than the ghost of dances past: 360 sets forth a re-examination of fundamental modern dance principles within a contemporary landscape. With an inquisitive, challenging movement vocabulary, the basics of bones, muscles and breath are put to the test. The result puts us to the edge of our seat.

As the first dancers appear onstage a moment of adjustment is needed, as the concentrated emotional content of their performance is so different from the aloofness of current downtown dance. Backs arch and hunch, legs stretch long to contract to a stump, a hand extends with urgency; this movement is deliberate and hard-won. The majority of the performers, and most exquisitely principle dancers Erica Dankmeyer, Alessandra Prosperi and Lofsnes himself, trained and performed with the Martha Graham Dance Company extensively, giving the entire evening the punctuated, highly dramatic aesthetic that the execution of Graham technique fosters. The classic works were performed to perfection and the more recently choreographed works were able to treat the Graham-based expressionism as a pivot to view and juxtapose other dramatic elements, most successfully in Ricardo Flores’s work “Que Color Tiene El Amor” (2002).

In this duet the stark drama of classical modern technique is put into an almost cinematic world of color and texture, while allowing the movement to remain isolated as pure emotional gesture. When this dance language enters into conversation with an umbrella, romantic music, two small tables, a flashlight and a grapefruit—with sand pouring from the sky—the formalism of the movement is in service of some kind of new theatricality, where the whisper of the leg or upper torso becomes newly charged. Like a flip-book, the movement progresses but always with interruption, heightening a dramatic emotional narrative that uses its own presentational quality to denounce the emotional distance it creates.

Rather than being contained or limited by, 360 Degree Dance Company is impressively inspired by the strong Graham legacy that characterizes its performers’ training, and will hopefully be a leader in identifying the relevance of these modern dance pioneers within the contemporary community, bring us “full circle.”