The Beauty of Buglisi

Note: This review marks the continuation of a series dedicated to showcasing the best student writing from the Dance History course I teach at The Juilliard School.

By Zoë McNeil

Although it’s been 22 years since Martha Graham’s passing, the Buglisi Dance Theatre continues to perpetuate her legacy. The company, seen February 9 at The Joyce Theater, was founded by a handful of former influential members of the Graham Company. Jacqulyn Buglisi and Donlin Foreman, its founding choreographers, seek to reflect Graham’s dramatic aesthetic in which emotions, characters, and movements are boldly etched.

Buglisi and Foreman’s work features Graham’s signature gestural and movement vocabulary, such as cupped hands, contractions (in which the spine forms a concave shape) and split falls (in which a dancer executes a split and a contraction as she sinks to the floor). Today Buglisi, the company’s sole artistic director, reinvents Graham’s ideas through her distinctly romantic voice.

Of the six pieces presented, the highlight of the program was Buglisi’s 2001 work Requiem. Originally inspired by the Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi’s portraits, Buglisi shifted the work’s focus after the 9/11 New York terrorist attack.

"Requiem" by Jacqulyn Buglisi

Breathtaking from the start, Requiem features chiaroscuro light by Clifton Taylor that cascades onto the stage as if from the windows of a cathedral. The five illuminated dancers rest atop five black boxes, positioned in a V formation. The stirring chorale music of Gabriel Fauré permeates the space. Despite the subtle and nearly statuesque nature of the movement, the dancers’ cohesive energy and emotional intensity makes Requiem appear kinetic. Each movement and gesture initiates from the core of each female dancer. When the dancers slowly descend from the boxes to the floor, their richly hued asymmetrical draped dresses, designed by Jacqulyn Buglisi and A. Christina Giannini, appear to grow larger, like a painter expanding color across her canvas.

Terese Capucilli in "Requiem"

Terese Capucilli, a member of the original cast of Requiem, navigated Buglisi’s choreography with elegance and passion. Her dancing is captivating for its deeply human approach. Capucilli doesn’t look like she is acting. Her aura of tragedy feels real.

Another impressive piece was Prelude, performed by Ari Mayzick and choreographed by Donlin Foreman. This 1997 solo epitomizes the essence of male vigor and power. Mayzick’s impeccably sculpted body is used to demonstrate his complete, physical control. In the face of Foreman’s physically demanding choreography and specific theme (overcoming struggle), Mayzick didn’t resort to dramatics; his dynamic dancing did all the talking. In a series of spirals that descended to the floor, Mayzick transcended gravity with some remarkable suspended, standing balances on one leg.

In Rain (2004), the first work on the program, Buglisi’s environmental activist voice is expressed. Inspired by her trip to the Venezuelan rainforest, Rain is a commentary on the magnificence and vulnerability of nature. The entirety of the dance takes place behind a scrim, designed by Jacobo Borges, that projects images of nature’s elements, such as waterfalls, oceans, rocks and trees. The performers appear to float in this environment, becoming visible and then shrouded by the scrim. The music, composed by Glen Velez, Villa-Lobos, and Mahler, alternates between the percussive energy of drums—as if one was enveloped in the beating heart of the jungle—to the softer quality of the piano. Overall, the dancers give the impression of being in the rain, of embodying the ever-changing nature of water through sections that alternate between solo, duet, and ensemble performing. Though the scrim creates a boundary between the nine dancers and the audience, the performers’ energy and strong technique transcend it.

"Rain" by Jacquilyn Buglisi

It’s no surprise that Buglisi Dance Theatre has survived twenty years. The company’s works possess theatrical range. The dancers are top notch, and Graham’s important legacy continues through the voices and spirit of her progeny.

Zoë McNeil is a first year dance division student at The Juilliard School. She is studying the Graham technique with Terese Capucilli.

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