Valentine Dances

By Rachel Straus

When the pressure is on to be romantic, delivering the goods is a challenge. The week before Valentine’s Day, four dance events intentionally (and unintentionally) dabbled in matters of the heart.  Merce Cunningham’s 1998 Pond Way—as filmed by Charles Atlas—was surprisingly the most romantic. (It was screened at the Baryshnikov Arts Center on February 7 as part of “BAC Flicks: Mondays with Merce.”)

Dressed in Scheherazade-meets-minimalist costumes (by Suzanne Gallo), the dancers circumnavigated each other with the aplomb and gentleness of amphibious courtiers. Roy Lichtenstein’s pointillist Landscape with a Boat served as the backdrop and Brian Eno’s New Ikebukkuro (For 3 CD Players) proved subtle and serene. As Banu Ogan traversed the length of the downstage space, a male dancer gently stopped her. Cunningham’s reference to The Rose Adagio in Sleeping Beauty is unmistakable. But instead of being given a flower and striking a virtuoso balance on pointe (as is the case in Beauty), Ogan was neither held nor presented. One by one, a male dancer appeared, placed his palm on a different part of her body, and then evaporated into the wings. Each touch was delicate, almost unobtrusive, like a soft breeze that comes out of nowhere and gives one pause.


Mark Morris is not known for his high-flown treatment of heterosexual love. His 2007 Romeo and Juliet (to Prokofiev’s original score with a happy ending) lacked romantic fire. In his choreography for John Adams’ Nixon in China (1987), which is making its Metropolitan Opera House debut (and which I saw on February 12), Morris reinterpreted the propagandist Chinese ballet The Red Detachment of Women (1964). Under Peter Sellers’ direction, Morris choreographed a ballet within a ballet in which President Nixon (James Maddalena) and Mrs. Nixon (Janis Kelly) leave their opera house seats and become involved in the ballet’s action: A peasant girl (Haruno Yamazaki) is whipped to a pulp, then given the Little Red Book. She becomes a rifle-wielding revolutionary comrade. In Act III, she dances with a soldier (Kanji Segawa), once a “decadent” in a European white suit.

Their final pas de deux occurs behind the Nixons (Pat and Richard) and the Tse-Tungs (Mr. and Mrs. Mao), as performed by Robert Brubaker and Kathleen Kim. The singers describe their early years in which sex and love played a greater part in their lives. The fact that Peter Sellers obstructs Morris’ choreography—placing the formidable dancers behind six beds and five singers—says a lot about Sellers’ opinion of Morris’s duet, which does little to support the lyrics about love and loss.


Martha Graham wasn’t exactly a romantic, but she sure knew how to choreograph sex. In preparation for the Martha Graham Dance Company’s 85th season at New York’s Rose Theater (March 15-20), the troupe presented their second informal showing on February 9 at DANY Studios. Graham dancers excel in staring each other down with an intensity of gaze only a bull could countenance. When Tadej Brdnik and Xiaochuan Xie locked eyes during an excerpt from Robert Wilson’s Snow on the Mesa (1995), it became clear that their relationship was not the PG variety. That said neither Mesa nor these dancers’ interpretations were overwrought. Brdnik and Xie’s physical beauty and technical command will make this Wilson ballet worth seeing. The other excerpts presented included Graham’s Appalachian Spring (1944), Cave of the Heart (1947), and Deaths and Entrances (1943)—as well as Bulareyang Pagarlava’s work in progress, based on Deaths. It is neither sexy nor romantic. It seems to poke fun at Graham’s seriousness.


Seriousness and silliness shared equal billing at Joe’s Pub on February 11, with the kickoff of Dancemopolitan’s 2011 season. Called  “Kyle Abraham and Friends: Heartbreaks and Homies,” the cabaret-style event  (produced by DanceNOW [NYC]) featured seven works by Kyle Abraham and one by three guest choreographers: David Dorfman, Faye Driscoll, and Alex Escalante. On the Pub’s kitchen-size stage, the costuming placed the dances squarely in the retro past. Hot pants prevailed. Afros and beards were in the house. However, when Abraham began short-circuiting his body to the music of Love Me by Sam Cooke—a pioneer of soul music who was shot dead at the height of his career—the evening lost its playful tone.

Like an electric switch, Abraham altered his mood. This fast-firing, dancer-actor expressed heartbreak, rage, innocence, bawdiness in moment-to-moment slices of bodily action. Abraham also shape shifted into a lover because “Heartbreak and Homies” was made with Valentine’s Day in mind. Abraham intermittently mingled among the audience (and in his last solo he curled up in some of their laps). Upon returning to the stage, Abraham flicked his emotional switch down to a dark place: He silently wailed. His body sputtered. It was shocking, its pathos mesmerizing.

Less shocking but equal absorbing was Alex Escalante’s solo about getting dumped via cell phone. As the dancer repeatedly mouthed his disappointment into a microphone, his words looped back into the sound system. An echo chamber of voices chaotically intermingled, in which  Escalante’s laments, his conversation with his lover, and the crooning lyrics of Kiss and Say Goodbye by the Manhattans developed a three-way conversation. At the work’s beginning, Escalante asked the audience: Have you ever been in a relationship that had a total communication breakdown?

Broken down by too many voices, Escalante eventually staggered away from the microphone. His gait resembled a boozer’s drawl. He never fell down. Any amateur who loosened their limbs like Escalante’s would be on the floor, nursing his knees, crying for help.





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