Men at Work: Adam Barruch, Philippe Saire, and Wally Cardona

by Rachel Straus

Sometimes it helps to be overtly theatrical. Take Adam Barruch. At Dance Theater Workshop (January 5 and 6), the choreographer-performer opened the Emerging Artists showcase as though he were hit by lightening. Barruch’s ferociously physical attack belies his boyish, slight-of-hip appearance. Under a pool of light, he slammed his fist like a meat cleaver into a table, channeling the voice of Mrs. Lovett (Angela Lansbury) in the 1979 Broadway hit “Sweeney Todd.” Barruch’s 2008 solo, named after Stephen Sondheim’s tune “The Worst Pies in London,” was the highlight of the evening. His whirling dervish arms, maniacal facial expressions, and dead-stop gestures drilled down to the essence of Sondheim’s hunger-leading-to-violence lyrics. While Lansbury blurts out words like squirting blood, Barruch’s fast-firing synapses camped a famous tune with the finesse of an old-time Broadway hand.

Barruch’s “Worst Pies” signals that he is a chef to watch. In contrast, the two other choreographers, on the Gotham Arts Exchange presented program, demonstrated how difficult it is to concoct imaginative movement and collaborate effectively with music. With respect to their emerging choreographer status, it’s best not to dwell on their shortcomings.

Gillis in “Chalice.” Photo: Virginia Rollison

Barruch’s second offering of the evening—to Bach’s aria “Erbarme Dich” from “St Matthew Passion, BWV 244″—possessed a jewel-like focus. Called “Chalice,” the solo physicalizes the lyrics of Bach’s aria, regarding betrayal and its subsequent feelings of guilt. In a blood-red dress, veteran performer Margie Gillis reaches and recoils from an alcohol-filled chalice. Her unbound, hip-length hair weeps over the drink—her undoing. Like Martha Graham’s solo “Lamentation” (1930), “Chalice” never feels saccharin. Like a painting, it captures a moment in time. It’s consistently intense. But the third piece by Barruch failed to harness the previous solos’ succinctness. In the world premiere of “Wane,” narrative elements surfaced and dissolved; seven dancers came and went in lush, spiraling phrases; black cargo pants and aggressive partnering hinted at a warring world.


Warring (or wrestling) was the featured movement motif in Cie. Philippe Saire’s “Lonesome Cowboy,” which held its U.S. premiere at the Joyce Theater (Jan 6-9). In the Swiss-Algerian choreographer’s universe, comprised of five men in a gravel pit, aggression became the departure point for displaying how the male species becomes defined by their life’s station (whether it’s in the military, on Wall Street, or on a stoop guzzling beer in a kilt sans underwear).

This narrow self-definition renders these guys—surprise, surprise—lost, dazed, and confused. At the end of the 80-minute production to Christopher Bollondi’s alternatively heavy hitting and soporific sound score, the five performers took a bow like they didn’t know what hit them.

Their antics during the performance reminded me of the blockbuster film “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (1989), where two time-traveling teenagers survive Napoleon and Genghis Khan’s violence because they are ignorant, daring dudes. In “Lonesome Cowboy,” the men nail each other’s faces to the floor with their heels, suck face, and drag each other around to no lasting positive or negative effect. They are pawns in Saire’s clichéd psychodrama, divorced from any movement material that would identify them as individuals.


“A Slow Week in the Dance Studio with Strangers” would be my suggestion as the working title for Wally Cardona’s latest dance, presented January 8 at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. Titled “Intervention #4: Robert Sember,” the hour-long piece was “Slow” because the performers (Cardona, Sember, and Francis A. Stansky) moved about as I do in my apartment: They sat, stood, and lied prone. The work involved a “Week” because on Monday, January 3, the sound artist and social activist Robert Sember met the choreographer Wally Cardona; by Saturday they had to create something for the ever-critical New York crowd. Cardona and Sember’s experience occurred in a “Dance Studio,” in this case room 6A of the BAC. And, yes, the artists were initially “Strangers” to each other. Like my working title, the overall piece felt strung together.

If creating a dance for consumption in five days sounds like a doleful plan, you’re correct. Nonetheless, my hopes for “Intervention” ran high for four reasons: One, in tough economic times it’s best to be honest with your audiences. If there is only enough money to make a work in a week, why not advertise it as just that? Two, Cardona’s “Intervention” concept—an artist intervenes and catapults him in new directions—is an intriguing idea. Three, Cardona is on the fourth of seven “Intervention” series; he may be getting the hang of this format. Four, the couple seated to my left really liked “Intervention #3: Karina Lyons,” which premiered in December at the Joyce Soho. In that work, the intervener was a sommelier and wine consultant who lubricated the audience with wine while Cardona, a fascinatingly quirky mover, danced.

Sound artist Sember, however, is no Merlot wine. He is tall and serious; he’s not particularly nimble. Did he create a pall over Cardona’s creativity? Only Cardona can say.

Cardona is prone to exploring multiple layers of meaning. With Sember at his side, Cardona created a concept that read better on paper than on stage. At the 40-minute mark, I believe I got its gist: How do three people interpret the same verbal directions?

“Intervention #4” began with Cardona, standing stock still in square space, flanked by the audience seated around him. Cardona walked purposefully, closed his eyes, and covered his ears. A timer rang; he left. Then Sember entered. He accomplished similar movements, but this time a voiceover (via overhead speakers) directed his actions, as though a mild-mannered choreographer was in his head. Later, a duet with Sember and Stansky unfolded where two voices directed their tasks: “turn your head to the left,” “sit on your left side.” The work’s climax came when all three men took the same verbal cues from the same voice. Each performer interpreted the same words—“twist,” “reach,” “fall”—in different ways.

“Intervention #4” called to mind Roland Barthes’s S/Z (1970). The French semiotician argued that a text has no fixed meaning. There are only interpretations. This is a founding principle of post-modern dance. If it sounds doleful, you are correct.


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