IMPRESSIONS: Opening Night of the Dance Now Festival at Joe's Pub
Produced and directed by Robin Staff and Tamara Greenfield
Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater
September 4, 2019
For more information and tickets to the encore performance, please call (212) 967-7555 or visit joespub.com
TruDee, aka Deborah Lohse, the bespangled hostess of the Dance Now Festival, says she just wants her audience to have fun. Sprawled among the café tables at Joe’s Pub, where this showcase for “downtown” types opens the fall dance season each year, the public certainly looks game. Cocktail glasses clink discreetly as ten wildly diverse acts follow one after another rapid-fire, dazzling the crowd with what must be New York’s most ingenious variety show.
Each night boasts a different line-up, and before the festival is over, 40 artists from newbies to old stalwarts will have had a chance to shine.
Not all the performers on opening night have come purely to entertain—some have politics on their minds. But, on this Wednesday at least, the laurels go to those who have mastered their craft, enabling them to make adroit use of the Pub’s miniscule stage. How small is the stage? Suffice it to say that when a gangly fellow like Kenneth Olguin plops himself down in the center with only one of his long legs fully extended, there isn’t much room left. No, this odd corner platform isn’t an ideal space for dance. Yet these artists are so inventive that raucous duets and intricate ensembles come to gladden it.
Even the wheelchair dancer, Alice Sheppard, performs amazing stunts here. And after she has finished tumbling head-over-wheels, balancing on her shoulders, and exploring every inch of available space with a pair of crutches that extend her lines, no one else dare complain about the stage’s limitations. Sheppard’s piece is called Where Good Souls Fear, and while it is arguably too focused on the dancer’s technique, she deserves our unstinting admiration.
Dmitri Peskov is a traditional sort of theater artist, using props, hollow-eyed masks and recurring blackouts to frame a series of quasi-religious skits. His solo Fall from Grace suggests the aftermath of martyrdom, in which a bemused saint translated to heaven extracts the arrows from his body, scatters rose-petals, and raises his hands in blessing. Removing all his paraphernalia, Peskov turns his naked back on us, reaching upward with a spasmodic gesture that suggests how hard his salvation has been won.
Loni Landon slithers through her solo Seeker, ducking and dodging, grabbing invisible objects, and tickling the keys of an invisible piano. What is she seeking? Or, what avoiding? At times the movement stalls, and Landon seems trapped. A gulf seems to yawn between this woman and her goal, keeping the lyricism of her Vivaldi score beyond reach.
In an excerpt from a piece called Pinot Noir, Laja Field and Martin Durov slump side-by-side as if sharing a sofa. Durov seems annoyed when Field opts to leave before they watch a movie together. Better than any Hollywood eyewash, however, is the dream that overtakes Durov when he turns off the TV to nap. In this fantasy, Field returns and with a saucy swish of her hips invites him to join her in an old-fashioned gypsy dance. We must be cautious about romanticizing the past, and yet how can anyone resist these infectious rhythms, and the joys of stomping, clapping, and twisting one foot in the air while caught up in a whirl of sensual abandon? Long before there was a “Love Yourself” and a "Perfect Bitch,” there was the Csárdás.
An excerpt from Tiffany Mills’ Blue Room supplies a thoroughly modern variation on the Saturday-night theme, this one involving two men and set to music by Depeche Mode. Olguin sits on the floor with one arm draped casually around his raised knee, just hanging out and not necessarily waiting for anyone, but when Nikolas Owens shows up Olguin’s pelvis begins to twitch excitedly. Thus begins a charming duet in which the partners often fit so close together that space is not an issue, jiggling, bouncing and dare I say humping, yet somehow managing to stay cool amid their frantic exercises. Wonderful!
And then there are the ensemble numbers. The Bang Group is at its best in an excerpt from ShowDown, an insouciant number choreographed by David Parker and suggesting a gay fable. Here we encounter Tommy Seibold, alone on stage and fumbling as he attempts to strike a ballet pose, when first one and then a host of men wearing blue jeans and checked-shirts flood the space and take it upon themselves to show Seibold how it’s done. Rapidly switching partners, exiting and entering and meshing in heroic tableaux, this friendly bunch is the very model of a supportive community; and they get the audience to cheer when, in a particularly slick move, Jeffrey Kazin spirals down Seibold’s body.
Amber Sloan, an associate of The Bang Group, has created On the Edge of Normal, in which four dancers line up side-by-side, leaning against one another and gradually increasing the pressure until a woman squeezed in the center begins to curl inward and the whole structure folds. Thereafter the dancers pull apart and jam together, in duos or as a group, framing body parts and circulating. How much support is too much? These performers kick and flail when caught up in a lift where they may not feel secure.
Less successful were a couple of solos built around the performers’ identities—self-affirmation is commendable but not enough, by itself, to hold a viewer’s attention—and the concluding number by Brendan Drake. In This Is Desire Part III: DRAG, Drake alternates between dance routines weakly inspired by Madonna and political rants. The news is truly appalling, and it’s past time that everyone became woke to the danger we’re all in. If you’re an artist, however, screaming doesn’t cut it without skills.
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