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IMPRESSIONS: Douglas Dunn Hosts a Garden Party

IMPRESSIONS: Douglas Dunn Hosts a Garden Party
Catherine Tharin

By Catherine Tharin
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Published on May 10, 2023
Photo by Jacob Burckhardt

Douglas Dunn + Dancers presents GARDEN PARTY
Steps: Douglas Dunn
Set and Costumes: Mimi Gross
Illumination: Lauren Parrish
Sound Design: Jacob Burckhardt
Pre-Show Live Music: Tosh Sheridan
Dancers: Alexandra Berger, Janet Charleston, Grazia Della-Terza, Douglas Dunn, Vanessa Knouse, Emily Pope,
Paul Singh, Jin Ju Song-Begin, Timothy Ward, and Christopher Williams

Venue: Douglas Dunn Studio, 541 Broadway, New York, NY
Dates: April 24 - 30, 2023

Douglas Dunn’s extraordinary and peculiar new dance, Garden Party, a pinnacle in his accomplished career, offers a poignant love letter to Grazia Della-Terza, his lifetime partner, to his company, and to the audience. The superb performers, Alexandra Berger, Janet Charleston, Grazia Della-Terza,  Vanessa Knouse, Emily Pope, Paul Singh, Jin Ju Song-Begin, Timothy Ward, Christopher Williams, and Dunn, and set designer, Mimi Gross, longstanding members of Douglas Dunn + Dancers, are deeply aligned with the choreographer’s aesthetic. As a result, for 65 minutes the elements seamlessly come to fruition in a Gesamtkunstwerk.

White-haired white man with arms uplifted and face to ceiling bathed in purple light in front of an exuberantly painted mirror in the background
Douglas Dunn with Alexandra Knouse and Janet Charleston; photo by Jacob Burckha

Dunn's loft space quivers with fecundity, tranformed by Gross into a psychedelic world of painted flowers. The mirror, extending along the upstage wall, is painted with a cosmic Fauve-flavored landscape. The shifting and evocative "illumination" (program byline) by Lauren Parrish causes fluorescent areas to pop, along with aspects of the landscape, and the outlines of the costumes. These moments make the senses tingle. The side areas of the stage, one side mimicking a hedgerow ramp, are painted with an abundance of flowers to create a magical opera-like surround-set.

The dancers shimmer in beautifully distinctive costumes, also by Gross. Expressing the personality of each dancer, they range from sleek, muted leotards and body-hugging two-pieces, to bright unitards and velvet capes, sheer wraps, see-through tutus, and Fortuny skirts in different lengths and styles. As the dancers cavort through the garden they layer and remove costumes.

Five dancers - three (two men and a woman) facing upstage in a deep horizontal lunge with right arm extended while two woman dancers stand between them left leg tucked behind. All are costumed in exuberant colors and styles - little mesh tutu, longer sheer skirt, zigzag bottomed skirt, a wrap skirt. The tops are body hugging and outlined in fluorescent green. The back drop is filled with painted flowers and trees.
(L-R) Paul Singh, Janet Charleston, Christopher Williams, Vanessa Knouse, Emily Pope and Jin Ju Song-Begin; photo by Jacob Burckhardt
Finely developed dance phrases, and looser movements run nonstop. The dance is structured around a series of 19 vignettes that feature recorded music and poetry. Chinese love poems from the 4th century and Anne Waldman's poetry expressing woman power intertwine and overlap with the music, which ranges from love songs by Mark Knopler and Emmylou Harris to Baroque compositions, providing the backdrop for numerous dance configurations. A kaleidoscopic adventure, this Garden of Eden is not all levity, though, as Dunn, a yet vital 80 years old, quietly considers death, too.

Dunn takes his place upstage, behind a pulpit-like construction covered in painted rhododendrons. Dressed in a lime green top with multiple attached flapping leaves, and a multi-colored beanie, Dunn, the maestro, the clergy, attentively watches, listens, and periodically comments on the movement. At intervals, he steps from behind his pulpit to execute a series of bouncing, small leg crosses, backward jigs, and shifts of weight.

A dancer with Merce Cunningham in the early 1970s, Dunn bases his movement vocabulary primarily on Cunningham's rigorous, precise, and spatial technique. A soupçon of Baroque dance is evident, too. Dunn was also a member of The Grand Union, an improvisational, subversive, watershed dance group. Comfortable in divergent worlds, Dunn develops strictly defined choreography (perhaps, at times too measured), underpinned by play and sly whimsy.

Gray haired woman dressed in a long flowing light colored dress standing in front of a white garden bench that's situated next to the brightly colored painted mirror.
Grazia Della-Terza; photo by Jacob Burckhardt

An opening solo danced by Ward, that includes a slow arabesque promendade into a quick slice of the leg behind the knee is accompanied by Ibn Hazm's verses, "Is there no way I might/Open my heart with a knife/I could slip you in/And close the cut again." Enter Song-Begin, Pope, Berger, and Knouse. Evenly spaced in a line downstage, they lower themselves to the floor, and sit with bent legs, their backs to the audience, arms extended upward, and spines curved sideways. Singh, Charleston, and Williams process slowly in a line upstage. They pause in front attitude looking out at the audience. Feet flick before they lunge forward. The downstage and upstage lines cross. A rhythmic 1,2,3 phrase contrasts with turns in attitude.

Dancers are often paired. Four duets, dancers facing one another, formally bend, rise, and sustain movement. They change places and turn on relève, a leg extending. Charleston and Berger, in unison, execute little gallops to a kneeling position.

Della-Terza, a gracious, gray-haired dancer in a light dotted dress, sways assuredly to a recording of her own trembling voice reciting Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies poem: "However mysterious death is, life is all the more so." Appearing periodically throughout the dance, Della-Terza acts as a benevolent guardian.

Pink-haired dancer wearing a fur stole, with four dancers costumed in multi-colored leotards and tutus
(L-R) Emily Pope (costumed as an owl),  Vanessa Knouse, Janet Charleston, Alexandra Berger and Christopher Williams; photo by Jacob Burckhardt

Images of birds abound in poetry, sound, and movement: a nightingale, a dove, an owl, an eagle. John Milton's verses, "O Nightingale, that on yon bloomy Spray...Portend success in love...that amorous power to thy soft lay," read by Dunn, accompanies his mincing traverse of the mirror to a white garden bench. At one hilarious and unexpected moment, Dunn, who is seated behind his pulpit, slowly lifts a giant, stuffed, surprise-eyed bluebird that seems to perch and sing.

Four dancers are dressed in long, white Fortuny skirts. Two women are tying the strings of the skirts. Two men costumed in Fortuny skirts looking on.
(L-R) Jin Ju Song-Begin, Vanessa Knouse, Paul Singh and Christopher Williams with green barre; photo by Jacob Burckhardt

In a nod to Merce, a portable barre painted green is carried onto the stage. Williams and Singh remove their white Fortuny skirts, fold them, and then curiously hang out at the barre bare-bottomed until they dress again, and exit. Toward the end of the dance, Dunn and Dell-Terza agreeably sit on the bench to tend to their flock. Together, they get up and dance in front of the bench to the lyrics, "You think I don't love you, oh, but I do...I know that it's you I love," from The Time, the Place, and the Girl, a 1946 film. Finally, accompanied by Bach's St John Passion, with Della-Terza observing, Dunn, on the floor facing downward, a long leg behind, awaits the dancers, who, balancing upside down, fold to the floor to join him. As they rise, the lights fade. With this rise we know Dunn, the dance poet, will continue to delight.

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