The Comeback of Narrative Dance: Visions in the Dark

When you attend a dance performance, you sit and watch other people move. They warm up; you settle down. They bask in bright light; you find yourself in the dark, literally and often metaphorically.

In the old days, you’d sit while performers acted out stories: about princes and princesses, women who turn into birds, wicked stepmothers. To a large extent, this is still the case. Narrative dance has made a comeback; this season New Yorkers will watch as beautifully trained artists perform Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (the National Ballet of Canada, at the Koch); flamenco genius Soledad Barrio enacts the ancient Greek tale of Antigone (at the Joyce); and Mark Dendy finally unveils his talky version of the Theseus myth (at Abrons Arts Center). The American Ballet Theatre season at the Koch is full of classic shorter stories; Bill T. Jones collects a bunch that are shorter still, at New York Live Arts; and two African men, Faustin Linyekula and Panaibra Gabriel Canda, bring tales of post-colonial dislocation, using words and movement, to Brooklyn’s BRIC House Ballroom.

See also: The 2014 Fall (Arts) Issue: An Index

Creating dance has historically been the province of the unemployed. In the 16th century that meant the nobility; King Louis XIV of France helped to popularize ballet as a diversion for his courtiers. More recently, it’s been young men without jobs who’ve had the freedom necessary to perfect the phenomenon we call breakdancing, on the streets of our cities, and on display during October’s Fall for Dance series at New York City Center.

Some of the most appealing shows this fall are, in fact, social dances, like Pina Bausch’s Kontakthof, which follows 11 couples through a long evening at a German dancehall — in this case, the BAM Opera House. Also at BAM, Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, founded 50 years ago with the help of Martha Graham and now under the direction of Ohad Naharin, knits together classical training with movement derived from pleasure-seeking young clubgoers in Sadeh21, made in collaboration with Naharin’s powerhouse ensemble.

We spectators, however, continue to sit—the price we pay for attending so-called “high art.” Go to a stadium: During the action, the lights stay on and you’re free to wander around, grab a beer, take a leak. But we whose job and pleasure is attending to the complexities of concert dance know our place: riveted to the action and, like the long-suffering Jewish mother in the light-bulb joke, sitting there in the dark.

DANCENOW Joe’s Pub Festival
September 3-6 and 13

Forty choreographers take the Pub’s tiny stage in short works; audience favorites each night take encores a week later. Highlights include the Bang Group, Bridgman/Packer Dance, Claire Porter, and Zvidance. Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street,

National Ballet of Canada
September 9-14

Christopher Wheeldon’s 2011 hit Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland finally comes to town, with an atmospheric score by Joby Talbot and dazzling designs by Bob Crowley. Performed by the marvelous National Ballet of Canada dancers, it’s been called “both recognizably traditional and joltingly contemporary at one and the same moment.” David H. Koch Theater, 20 Lincoln Center Plaza,

Fall for Dance at the Delacorte
September 12-13

The 11th Fall for Dance festival kicks off with a free show in Central Park, featuring Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in a work by Nacho Duato, Bill T. Jones’s spectacular D-Man in the Waters (Part 1), Damian Woetzel’s new project with jookin’ star Lil Buck, and dancers from the New York City Ballet. Tickets available in the park on show days, or via online lottery. Delacorte Theater, Central Park at 79th Street,

Pacific Northwest Ballet
October 8-12

This strong Seattle-based troupe, under the direction of NYCB alum Peter Boal, performs dances new to New York by Christopher Wheeldon (to music by Joby Talbot) and Alejandro Cerrudo (music by David Child and Max Richter). Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue,

Fall for Dance
October 8-19

This big dance bargain provides glimpses of 20 troupes hailing from India, Sweden, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Germany, France, South Africa, and across the U.S. — including the Australian Ballet and Philly hip-hop stars Rennie Harris Puremovement, spread over five programs, each playing twice. Tickets, $15, go on sale September 14; move fast! New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street,

RoseAnne Spradlin
October 8-11

Spradlin, an alchemist of risk, sexuality, and wild style, returns to NYLA with the haunting g-h-o-s-t c-r-o-w-n, for three women and “additional dancers.” She collaborates with composer Jeffrey Young, visual artist Glen Fogel, and lighting designer Stan Pressner. New York Live Arts, 219 West 19th Street,

Dance Heginbotham
October 9-11

The New York premiere of Chalk and Soot marks a collaboration between witty choreographer John Heginbotham and composer Colin Jacobsen; the latter has set Dadaist poems by Wassily Kandinsky, and the score will be performed by the string quartet Brooklyn Rider and singer Carla Kihlstedt. Jerome Robbins Theater, Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 West 37th Street,

Mark Dendy Projects
October 9-26

In his autobiographical Labyrinth, Dendy, as compelling an actor as he ever was a dancer, retells the Theseus myth as a drug-fueled adventure on the eve of Superstorm Sandy. Heather Christian, Stephen Donovan and Matthew Hardy join in to create sound, music, and video live onstage in the maelstrom. Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street,

American Ballet Theatre
October 22-November 2

It’s the troupe’s 75th anniversary, and they’ll perform Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas and Christopher Wheeldon’s Thirteen Diversions, in addition to works by Antony Tudor, Twyla Tharp, Jerome Robbins, Frederick Ashton, Michel Fokine, Leonide Massine, and Agnes de Mille, plus a premiere by Liam Scarlett. David H. Koch Theater, 20 Lincoln Center Plaza,

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch
October 23-November 2

The mistress of European dance theater is five years gone, but her troupe marches on, returning to BAM with her 1978 Kontakthof, 30 years after it first wowed local audiences. BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue,

Tales of Home: Congo/Mozambique
October 24-25

Le Cargo by Faustin Linyekula/Studios Kabako fuses storytelling and dance to evoke a sense of loss. In Time & Spaces: The Marrabenta Solos, Panaibra Gabriel Canda works with guitarist Jorge Domingos. Both pieces explore intimate experiences of cultural dislocation in Africa. BRIC House Ballroom, 647 Fulton Street, Fort Greene,

Soledad Barrio & Noche Flamenca
October 29-November 9

Noche Flamenca y Antigona, choreographed by artistic director Martin Santangelo, features the incomparable Barrio as Sophocles’ tragic heroine; the music is live, the performers are fierce, and the experience is unforgettable. Santangelo, who is Barrio’s husband, rewrote the play’s text into lyrics for singer and guitar. Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue,

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company
November 4-15

Jones’s Story/Time 35, 36, 37 & 38 is inspired by John Cage’s Indeterminacy: Each performance is different, weaving together movement, music, and one-minute stories and featuring special guest artists. New York Live Arts, 219 West 19th Street,

Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, A Dance Company
November 6-8 and 13-15

Inspired by the life and work of photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris, who documented black life in Pittsburgh from 1936 to 1975, Brown’s One Shot has video projections by Clifton Taylor and music by Anónimo Consejo, Billy Strayhorn, Ahmad Jamal, Mary Lou Williams, Arturo Sandoval, Mamadouba Mohammed Camara, Lena Horne, and Phyllis Hyman. BRIC House Ballroom, 647 Fulton Street, Fort Greene,

Batsheva Dance Company
November 12-15

Ohad Naharin invented a technique called Gaga, which has catapulted his 18-member troupe into the front ranks of contemporary dance. In Sadeh21, to a musical collage, they perform gender-bent line and club dances that evolve into abstract scenarios of humor and beauty. BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue,


Tennessee Williams Gets Taken to the Dance

In Tennessee Williams’s 1944 play The Glass Menagerie, the characters’ dreams intersect and collide—shattering the way the horn of Laura’s glass unicorn breaks off when reality, in the form of the Gentleman Caller, obtrudes into the Wingfield household. In Faith Healing, Jane Comfort’s marvelous 1993 interpretation of the play (just revived at the Joyce Soho), those dreams are expanded through choreography into a shimmering underlay for Williams’s words.

In the text, the faded Southern belle Amanda, whose husband has run off, drifts into memories of her many suitors and imagines that her lame, excruciatingly shy daughter, Laura, can master business college and get a job as a secretary. Either that, or get prettied up and find a husband. Amanda’s son, Tom, a surrogate for the playwright, dreams of escaping his humdrum job and his mother’s daily chiding, and becoming a writer. Laura plays with her menagerie of little glass animals and, perhaps, wishes herself prettier and bolder.

Comfort’s performers speak a great deal of Williams’s dialogue, but add subtext through dance or stylized movement—sometimes poetically and indirectly, sometimes with repressed passion, sometimes hilariously. They also morph into other characters mentioned in the text. The casting is crucial. In this production, the role of Amanda is again performed by Mark Dendy. Dendy may be marginally less athletic than he was 17 years ago, but his startling rendition of Amanda has only grown in depth. His voice coaxes, rages, caresses sweet memories, and flattens bravely when the fantasies crumble around Amanda. The new members of the cast (Heather Christian as Laura, Sean Donovan as Tom, Matthew Hardy as the Gentleman Caller, and Leslie Cuyjet as the Woman in the Movies) inhabit their characters in ways subtly different from the original performers’ interpretations (Christian’s Laura, for example, seems far more fidgety and mentally disturbed than Nancy Alfaro’s was), and all are wonderful.

The characters slide into each other’s visions. All of them at times echo Laura’s fluttery little gestures that evoke her glass animals. Tom stars himself in movies (not necessarily of the play’s period) that express his sexual fantasies (Hardy caresses Donovan from behind, while they mouth the dialogue of the prison seduction scene from Kiss of the Spiderwoman). But a dream of Superman (with the performers lip-synching the movie’s soundtrack) features Laura as Lois Lane and the Gentleman Caller (a friend of Tom’s from work) as Clark Kent. To see Superman and his girl racing around the space and—lying on their bellies on neighboring stools, their arms spread—is to envision a Laura that Tom would love to see, liberated from her crippled body and introversion.

Many of Comfort’s choice are surprising, but all are apt. When Amanda excoriates Laura for secretly dropping out of the secretarial course, Laura then imagines reversing the roles, just as she “imagines” ripping off the fluffy gingham dress her mother has dolled her up in to reveal a red-sequined sheath. The awkward scene between Laura and the Gentleman Caller underscores the confidence his apparent approval of her engenders; they both wear roller skates, and he gently induces her to take bigger steps until they’re flying giddily around the room. An argument between Tom and his mother escalates into a furious wrestling match, no holds barred.

With the help of music by Richard Landry and Brooks Williams, Comfort’s whole production floats beautifully along, exposing the darkness beneath the play’s currents. Written during a World War, summoning up the lees of a bygone South, and memorializing the playwright’s sister (crippled by serious schizophrenia and eventually lobotomized), The Glass Menagerie script has its own powerful magic. Comfort’s tactful humor and her glosses on the text do not diminish that, but can make it even more poignant. In his final speech, Tom says, “I left Saint Louis. I descended the steps of this fire escape for a last time and followed, from then on, in my father’s footsteps, attempting to find in motion what was lost in space.” I think that Comfort has given a new kind of motion to this beautiful lost-in-space-and-time play.


Spur of the Moment

Improvisation in dance used to have a bad rep (in college, Twyla Tharp walked out of a class when asked to “be a cloud”). Since the ’60s, the return to improv as a classroom study, a compositional tool, or the basis of performance has spawned forms (contact improvisation) and companies (the Grand Union). I’m a sucker for improvisations: the structured kind, like Dana Reitz’s solos or Steve Paxton’s music-based ones, and cut-loose jams. I still remember a profound duet that Ralph Lemon and Bebe Miller performed at a years-ago edition of Movement Research’s annual Improvisation Festival. I’m excited by the alertness and the wiliness that it takes to respond to the moment.

Group improvisations tend to be playful and experimental. The performers behave as if they’re thinking,”What if I tried this?” And, “What’d he do if I jumped on him?” The outcome of such risks can be entrancing, although the possibility of self-indulgence or sabotaging a colleague’s choices always looms. And sometimes, improvisations don’t take fire. I felt this on a Friday night at the 2004 edition of the Improvisation Festival during Descending Matter: (between states), performed by Astrud Angarita, Sigal Berman, Rebecca Serrell, and Osmany Teller. Perhaps the title was a key, because their gamboling, noodling around one another, and intermittent soloing had a kind of slackness, a diffidence. There were props, including an ironing board and a bench, that held court in St. Mark’s while we listened to a voice speaking (I think) Portuguese and cased a guitarist, who sat attentively and plucked one string just as the session was ending.

In Temporary Relief From Objects and Events, that same musician turned out to be Douglas Henderson, messing sand and pebbles around on a mic’d table and making a loop of the result to goad Minneapolis-based Morgan Thorson into a stumbly dance with many falls. He stroked a wineglass while Thorson fell into another dazed eruption of movement, as if all the assorted trunks and pieces of audio equipment onstage had addled her equilibrium sensors.

The downtown dance world is always thrilled when its stars turn out to jam, especially if they’ve never improvised together before: Mark Dendy, Pooh Kaye, Sally Silvers! They began elegantly in a line, all wearing black pants and white tops, advancing toward us to lush orchestral sounds, looking terrific. But after the music cut out, one of them said reprovingly: “We’re supposed to do that in time,” and the self-deprecating tone crept in periodically (“It’s not as easy as it used to be”). When black garbage bags dropped from the St. Mark’s balcony, the three began an orgy of crazed thrashing around, strapping on foam rubber mattresses, rolling one another up in them, turning Dendy into a black plastic bundle, doing things with a red cord, kibitzing. There was even a surprise streaker. Of course, these pros were often truly witty and ingenious, and always entertaining. I wondered, though, if they’d ordered up all the props and sudden music changes because they didn’t quite trust themselves to hold our attention by just moving. They needn’t have worried.

Another divinely disparate bunch—Louise Burns, Seán Curran, Kenneth King, and Sarah Skaggs—also either lacked faith or went all out for a postmodern layering of texts. Watching how Curran’s fast feet dialogued with Skaggs, enjoying Skaggs’s apparent fascination with the always inspired ditherings of Kenneth King, or wondering if Burns was going to be a loner throughout (she wasn’t) turned problematic because of the simultaneous patter of Carla Peterson, the executive director of Movement Research, and Lucy (The Factress) Sexton. Peterson talked entertainingly on a variety of subjects, professional and personal; but Sexton knows how to work a mic and shake up a crowd. We learned something about her and her kid and more about women who shave (she devoted a lot of mildly scornful amazement to the “postage stamp pussy”). At one point, I thought that King, dancing close to her, was going to magic her into some other state, but no. And, although Sexton did casually get naked for a few seconds, I was more interested in watching Curran making like a b-boy on the skids. The four are wonderful performers, and they worked wonderfully together, competing texts notwithstanding.


Three Guys

The “Altogether Different” festival is in full cry at the Joyce through January 28, and I’ll resist trying to define “different” (as in “different from what?”). The winter sampler has become a tradition.

In I’m Going to My Room to Be Cool Now and I Don’t Want to Be Disturbed, choreographer Mark Dendy celebrates the ’70s records he wore out as a kid. As his beguiling dancers preen and wag their pelvises in one another’s faces, a certain postmodern irony keeps showbiz slickness at a distance. This is not just because of Dendy’s choreographic gifts, the work’s offbeat touches, and the performers’ gusto. Expert as the dancers are, you can still see them as the sexy visions conjured by the music in the fertile imagination of a boy quietly rebelling against growing up drenched in Christian virtue.

When Timothy Bish shows us his muscles to Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” jolting straight up in the air as if electrified by his own hormonal charges, we see not just a virtuosic display of beefcake, but a kid in front of a mirror trying it all on. When golden girl Ashley Gilbert, opening in Janis Joplin’s “Summertime,” swings an elegant leg high, she seems pleased, as if the accomplishment were inadvertent. While Grace Slick’s unforgettable recorded voice careers through the escalating spirals of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” and Dale Knoth paints gray whirligigs and hallucinatory shadows with light, Gilbert, Nicole Berger, and Christalyn Wright stagger and giggle and cluster—a chorus of the stoned disguised as girls freaking out at a sleepover.

Dendy affirms his cheerful, anything-goes stance on gender and sexuality. Bish and Todd Anderson size each other up like aggressively friendly dogs and walk off hand in hand. Among those who strut like runway models around a square of light to Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” is Steven Ochoa, in high-heeled ponyskin boots and a boa. Ochoa and backup dancers Anderson, Bish, and Lawrence Keigwin do a club act to Ike and Tina Turner’s version of “Proud Mary,” wearing longish skirts of black leather strips that twitch and swirl over their bare buttocks (the excellent costumes are by Bobby Pearce).

There are serious moments amid the witty, sexy bluster. Keigwin dances his own choreography with wonderful explosive desperation to Bill Withers’s “Ain’t No Sunshine.” And while Janis Joplin wails for her Mercedes-Benz, Berger, wearing a hooded sweatsuit, jerks and crumples and reaches out in a pool of light, as if there were no bottom to her craving.

John Jasperse’s work reflects a very different aspect of the ’70s: the radical experiments with form that enlivened sectors of downtown dance and reframed the ’60s’ interest in pedestrian movement. When, in Jasperse’s wonderful 1997 Waving to You From Here, he and Jennifer Allen, kneeling, arrange and rearrange small stacks of books in perfect synchrony, the common task acquires the sheen of a precision drill. The irony is compounded by one uncommon element: the temporary parking of a book in each of their mouths.

Even the most heated acts are cooled by repetition: Parker Lutz positioning Juliet Mapp as if she were a big doll by grasping her neck, Mapp blocking Allen’s attempts to climb the steps at the back. It’s a bleak piece. James Lo’s sound score is faintly menacing even at its quietest; an overhead ceiling of metal screens descends foot by clanking foot, reducing the scale of the possible tasks and eventually obliterating these spectators of the apocalypse.

Waving to You From Here was originally presented alone. For this Joyce program, Jasperse added another, briefer work, Scrawl (premiered in 1999 at the American Dance Festival). It suffers a bit in comparison. It’s a fine piece, just not as rich as the older work or his recent, more sensual Fort Blossom. A robotic voice offers idiotic guidelines for public speakers; later the voice, as it emerges through Lo’s sound score very slightly more human, intones familiar pairs (meat and potatoes, death and transfiguration, Sonny and Cher, etc.). For a long time, Jasperse, Lutz, Mapp, and Miguel Gutierrez stand with their backs to us—each facing a fabric pillar elegantly lit by Stan Pressner—and build a pattern with rapid, angular flicks of their arms. Gradually they add turns, other gestures, and finally bigger, dancier movements, designed with Jasperse’s characteristic austerity and performed with matter-of-fact clarity. Rolls of linoleum—red on one side, white on another—unfurl into carpets they lie on and pull about. Jasperse may see life as an endless process of rearranging the known, but he can make it look deeply satisfying.

Wally Cardona has no qualms about presenting a single 48-minute piece. That seems fine, because his new Trance Territory takes the dancers through a voluptuous ordeal of altered states and leaves them drained, with just enough energy to start walking toward the back wall as the lights go out. The dance is part rave, part primal ritual.

Working their supple, muscular bodies, waving and pumping their arms, Joanna Kotze, Kathryn Sanders, Matthew Winheld, and Cardona focus inwardly much of the time, sucked into a whirlpool of obsessive motion, light, and sound. Yet everything is crafted and somehow controlled. Abrasive as they sometimes are, the sounds that DJ $mall ¢hange, a/k/a James Dier, draws from his spinning platters have a certain refinement. So do Roderick Murray’s lighting effects. Sometimes red light suffuses a part of the stage, or white spots pick out four green paths or the red lines that define a rectangle. The dancers rip up dark tape to uncover these lines, like acolytes assisting at a rite. They gather to touch Kotze gently and clothe her in white. Later, when she collapses, they make a nest to pick her up. OK, she could have passed out on the dancefloor; she also could be a candidate for the oracle priestess.

The piece is all mystifying atmosphere and curious beauty. The four begin to thrash wearing bizarre scarlet face-covering helmets and dresses of woven red strips (by Jill Anderson); they change into black clothes, and finally into white ones. Sometimes they touch; occasionally two or more will huddle, clasped as if simultaneously embracing and sinking into the floor—although they do neither. Mostly, they’re isolated in their own trances or numbly watching others. At one point, while Cardona stands at the back of the stage lashing his arms and torso around, tall, gorgeous Sanders stands at the front and slowly, almost creakingly, sinks into a deep plié and then sits staring at us. After a while she lies down; when he’s finished, he comes and stands over her. But that dramatic moment, like so many others, doesn’t lead to any connection between them. She rises and starts turning slowly; he takes over her spot and builds to wildness.

When, near the end, three of them dance along the green paths, Kotze repeats the same oddly lovely phrase again and again and again, as if time has ceased to have any meaning to her. She doesn’t know she’s tired until she’s horizontal. But Trance Territory is no Rite of Spring. The ritual will happen again next Saturday night, and nothing will change.


The Memory of All That

With the barking fervor of the fanatical televangelists he loves to parody, Mark Dendy prepares his latest work for the opening of the Joyce Theater’s three-week “Altogether Different Festival” on January 10. Aided by choreographic oracle Phyllis Lamhut, Dendy orders his dancers to give him “heavy testicles and heavy ovaries” as they slink into a square formation to the slumming march beat of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.”

The new dance, I’m Goin’ to my Room to be Cool Now, and I Don’t Want to be Disturbed, was inspired by Dendy’s recollection of his conflicted adolescent years, when he was waist-deep in surging hormones. His memories of primal rock’n’roll arousal are propelling Cool Now. Joni Mitchell, Aerosmith, Patti Smith, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, and Chaka Khan all figured in the fray between the teenage Dendy and his fundamentalist Christian mother.

“I remember we were driving down Monument Avenue—at the time my mother was so controlling my life; I was 13 or 14—and there were these longhaired kids in bell-bottoms on the street,” he says. “She spat out, ‘Don’t look at them!’ as if their energy was going to make me into one of them. And then that Chaka Khan song “Tell Me Something Good” came on—awoink, awoink, awoink, chackakuh—and they get to the chorus and they’re making this hard-breathing sexual noise, ‘Tell me, tell me, tell me,’ and it just sounds like sex. And my mother goes, ‘Turn that off! That’s filthy!’ ”

Dendy spins the fantasy filth into gold with a thumping homoerotic duet for two men, accompanied by solos, couplings, and ensemble numbers like “Walk on the Wild Side,” led by Steven Ochoa in a hot pink spandex minidress and knee-high pony-hair boots. Mom couldn’t have figured how wild Dendy would become when he and his high school theater pals, at parties, discovered 15-minute “turn-out-the-lights” sessions, perfect for a blow job or two. “I had my first rum and coke, my first joint, and my first penis all in the same night,” he claims proudly.

“This ain’t deep Dendy,” he admits, although when Nicole Berger plows into a torturous, bare-breasted solo to Janis Joplin pleading for a Mercedes-Benz, and Lawrence Keigwin spins out glorious phrasing to “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone,” you know the feelings, at least, come from his gut. “It’s meant to empower gay men and let them recognize their spirit and to embrace the straight people in the audience who have gay spirits—and for the ones who don’t, to lift them up with a gay spirit. It’s kinetic, sexual Dendy,” insists the choreographer, who took Lamhut’s advice to throw away a planned theatrical script and turn it into a “dance-y dance.” The seven performers passionately inhabit the songs, even though most were in diapers when the music was recorded.

Seven companies appear on the “Altogether Different” roster this year, including ChameckiLerner, the John Jasperse Company, and Compagnie Flak (the first Canadian troupe in the Festival) making their Joyce debuts. “We’ve been edging toward going outside New York in the past few years,” says Linda Shelton, executive director of the Joyce, adding that local companies have been chosen in the past so they could take advantage of seminars on fundraising and producing offered in conjunction with the festival.

Each troupe is allocated three performances spread over the festival’s 18-day run. Several veterans are returning this season: the Wally Cardona Quartet, Iréne Hultman and Friends, and Mark Dendy Dance & Theater. And some of the heavy-hitting groups—such as Armitage Gone! Dance (the souped-up troupe of near expatriate Karole Armitage), Jasperse, and Dendy—could arguably have filled their own weeks. “We’ve been able to keep the ticket price at $20, so the audience can really experiment,” says Shelton of her choreographic smorgasbord.

The memory of a song that Venezuelan-born José Navas’s father sang to him as a baby lent itself to the title of Compagnie Flak’s Perfume de Gardenias, a poetic and provocative work for six dancers that has its New York premiere January 11. The piece explores the flavors of desire and love exhibited by humans—in this case six naked human bodies. Navas chose to literally expose movement by having the dancers remove their clothes during the rehearsal process. “When we are onstage with no clothes on, there is a different way to move when you are just with your skin and bones and flesh,” he says. “We try to push that farther; that material is what we took to construct and structure the piece. It is my version of what heaven should be—if we go to heaven.”

Back on earth, the highly acclaimed team ChameckiLerner performs reality checks with its Rashomon-like Poor Reality on January 12. Four dancers, including company founders Rosane Chamecki and Andrea Lerner, in near identical dresses and turbans, range through a landscape of mirrored Plexiglas panels that leave open to question who is real and who is not. “It is about how we deal with the fact of understanding reality,” says Chamecki. “I look at you and I think you remind me of somebody I knew. I have an image of her and she has an image of who she thinks I see. And then there is the image that she has of herself and what she actually is.” Got that? Set to the music of Dusty Trails, Poor Reality glides hypnotically from a sequence in which the dancers assimilate each other’s gestures to a dramatic trajectory at the end of which the performers finally connect physically.

True to the spirit of the festival, each of the three companies opening next week wants audiences to take something different away. Says Navas of Perfume de Gardenias, “I want people to leave the theater with a different understanding of themselves as desired objects or as humans who have desires.” In Poor Reality, Lerner asks viewers to look “at the brutality we inflict upon ourselves, how it becomes painful to accept ourselves.” Dendy says of his work, “It’s just a piece that’s slick, that moves, that doesn’t sacrifice my homosexual conversion values.” With his characteristic diabolical grin, he adds, “There’s a list of all the boys I want to convert, Jerry Falwell, so you’d better try to find it before I get to the next one.”

“Altogether Different Festival 2001” includes the work of seven troupes in rotation over a three-week period. For complete schedule information, see the dance listings in next week’s Choices section, call 212-242-0800, or visit


Four Journeys

For The Amber Room, Zvi Gotheiner turns the stone basement of an 1849 synagogue (now the Angel Orensanz Foundation) into an art gallery. Lights and voices guide the crowd to cluster—now here, now there—before enigmatic “pictures.” The first: A Russian choral march escalates Ying Ying Shiau’s magnificent, twisting, assertive dance toward desperation. The last: Christine Wright and Dirk Platzek, seated on a bench, billow softly into embraces—wanting and not wanting to leave their haven. In others of the nine vignettes, a woman is auctioned off and two buddies march to a German drinking song (Malcolm Low keeps getting hurt; Todd Williams cures him—maybe—with ballet exercises).

When we climb the narrow stairs to sit in the synagogue itself, with its beautifully wrecked ornamental wall and brilliant blue ceiling, images that had seemed unrelated fly together. Scott Killian weaves Russian and German songs into his score (the carved panels known as the Amber Room were abducted from Russia by the Nazis, and vanished). As the space fills with shifting linear patterns traced by 14 splendid performers, the gestures and steps that had been particular to the characters in the basement become the movement warehouse for a community. The masterful choreography radiates pride and defiance, and as long as it lasts, that lost artwork seems to reassemble and shine.

Despite the manifestos read, the slogans painted, the singing of the “Internationale,” the Cuban tango, the muttered French, and the fallen bodies, Sally Silvers’s fascinating Storming Heaven at the Kitchen doesn’t come across as a journey through the revolutions of the past 140 years. The piece gains richness from these details, from the black paper scrolls with flourishes of white writing and other bold constructions by artist Antonio Martorell (who’s a busy, bearded onstage elf), and from the music and sounds threaded through Bruce Andrews’s collage. Silvers’s choreographic subject, however, seems to be the fomenting of the revolutionary spirit—the period when it’s half-formed, whispered, agonized over. Silvers is an abstract artist, not a storyteller.

When the group of crack Downtown dancers huddles, we glimpse between bodies or beneath clasped hands quick, furtive encounters; a question is asked, a message passed. David Neumann leads the group in a drill, but the steps are quirky and buoyant. While some people lie twitching on the floor, others “guard” them like players waiting for an opponent to get up and be tagged. Men show their muscles in formal patterns. Shoring up a colleague’s confidence takes the form of Cydney Wilkes helping Alejandra Martorell to balance on one leg. Wilkes, in a wonderful solo, makes nearly fainting a star turn. Despite all the crashing to the ground, the only permanent sacrifices are the white paper-cutout people Silvers scatters from a bundle and arranges on the floor.

Symphony Space’s “Face the Music and Dance” series commissions collaborations between choreographers and composers. And, fellow New Yorkers, isn’t it great to have live musicians onstage? Scott Killian’s rowdy-sweet score (played and sung by an ensemble of five) is an enormous asset to Danial Shapiro and Joannie Smith’s The Routine. So is David Greenspan’s multi-voiced narration, with its rhythmic, repetitive wordplay. Building on Shapiro’s 1999 solo Shtick, now smartly reworked, the two choreographers create a racing-around potpourri of historic borscht belt entertainment and the sour taste of the failed routine, the failed career. The best parts are the most specific: Shapiro’s pratfalls, extravagant gestures, and haunted stares; Smith’s weary tabletop finger dance; the cardless card playing; the wonderfully bizarre and fearless adagio act that Susie Bracken and Matthew Janczewski practice while Smith eats her dinner. The Routine—perhaps attempting to mean too much—hasn’t fully jelled yet. The dancing, excellently performed, seems unglued—saying “sexy,” saying “frantic,” but not where or why.

On the same program, Mark Dendy’s Jam begins by stroking us, then jolts us. Superb jazz musician Don Byron strolls down the aisle, laying out a velvet melody on his bass clarinet. Then dancers erupt amid the audience, shucking shirts, sticking their sculptured legs into the air.

But Jam isn’t gimmicky; it’s a terrific “pure” dance (in contrast to Dendy’s recent theater pieces), full of juicy movement for Byron’s trio to sweeten or prod into fervor. Wearing Bobby Pearce’s long, dark-blue silk skirts (plus tops for the women), eight luscious dancers engage in sensual acrobatics that make no gender distinctions. At one point Dendy, using few real tango moves, translates the tango’s flick of legs between legs into group patterns, building bridges and pathways to dart through. He makes stillness tighten and release the rhythmic flow and alter the feel of space. (When Ron Todorowski emits a dazzle of movement, Nicole Berger just sits and watches happily.) In Jam‘s music and dance, illusions of spontaneity and community feather skillfully through artistic control.

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View photographs from Shapiro and Smith Dance


Graham Cracker

Poised to launch into a scene from his autobiographical choreoplay Dream Analysis, Mark Dendy has his legs wrapped around a wooden chair at Dance Theater Workshop’s rehearsal studio in Chelsea. The piece weaves the story of a budding female impersonator haunted by his mother, the two halves of Nijinsky’s personality, Judy Garland, and two Martha Grahams. With his face at rest, Dendy, short of stature and hair, resembles a cherub, albeit one contemplating his first sin. Suddenly, the scene begins. Dendy juts out his chin and exposes his lower teeth, as if possessed. His eyes narrow. Martha Graham speaks through him. “I’ve styled my hair tonight as the high priestess of myth overseeing the iconographic matriarchal sacrifice,” purrs the Tennessee-bred Dendy. “But then there comes that moment when you glimpse at yourself in the mirror and it dawns on you that she is looking at you and recognizing you as herself.” Then, with a flare of his eyelids, he rises, turns upstage, and strides elegantly away.

This hilarious bit of scenery-chewing actually loses something in performance. When it’s fully staged, during Dream Analysis‘s three-week run at DTW opening Thursday, Dendy and Richard Move will play the monologue dressed in identical gold-lamé-and-black gowns, mimicking each other’s gestures from either side of a fake mirror. But Richard isn’t here today. Dendy’s theonly Martha, though to the eye he’s just a half-naked, tattooed, and bearded gay guy, with only his vocal technique and his downright creepy ability to switch rapidly between a Martha Graham impression and his own larger-than-life stage presence to support this particular illusion. But that’s plenty. When Dream Analysis played the Joyce in January as part of the 1998 Altogether Different festival, it garnered raves from The New York Times, surrogate brain of the bourgeoisie, which called the company “brilliant.” Dendy was less than satisfied. “I thought it was terribly flawed, but I didn’t let on once everybody else loved it. So now I’m going back to try to fix it.”

Like Martha, the 37-year-old actor-writer-choreographer considers himself a perfectionist. “I was so influenced by Graham,” he gushes. “She was the first drag queen I was ever exposed to. She knocked me off my feet! She took herself so seriously, but she also knew it was an act.” Of course, though he may idolize the mother of modern dance, there comes “that moment.” Dendy might just as easily describe himself that way–without even switching the pronouns. Indeed, Dendy’s life and work seems to organize itself around a zillion seeming opposites, whipping them into a confused froth until they form sweet stiff peaks: innocence and depravity, high and low culture, spirituality and evil, masculinity and femininity, glamour and sleaze. “There’s something queer about him,” says David Drake, who plays the psychoanalyzed young Dendy stand-in, Eric Henley. “Specifically queer–not ‘gay,’ because it’s all twisted up in there.”

Try this twisted-up identity on for size: gay fundamentalist, born in Weaverville, North Carolina, where his grandfather was the town’s Presbyterian minister and his grandmother a converted Jew. Dendy’s grandparents were fire-and-brimstone Christians, but they and his parents sorta knew he was gay. His parents knew well enough that after moving to Nashville, they didn’t discourage his artistic leanings. Dendy attended a magnet school where after 1 p.m. every day he took classes in theater and dance, and then began rehearsals at 7. “In my second semester, the modern teacher put on some Harry Belafonte and told us to improvise,” he remembers. “I totally went off. The spirit came into me and I just went off to this music like I’d never done before. Afterward, the teacher said, ‘I need to speak to you.’ She told me I had a gift for movement and encouraged me to keep taking classes. So that was it, I was bitten.” Dance had found him, naturally, by way of a neoreligious epiphany, with undertones of a scene from Beetlejuice.

His father found him in other compromising positions, but according to Dendy, he chose to look the other way. “When I was 16, my Dad walked in on me a couple of times while I was having sex with a guy. Once we acted like we were sleeping. We just froze. The other time we acted like we were wrestling. He told us, ‘Put some clothes on, come on out here, and watch TV!'” In typical Southern fashion, however, the love dared not speak its name until the lover turned 30. “I always knew that my mother knew the deeper truth, that [her religious fervor] was bullshit, that it was an act. It was her role and she had taken this part and she couldn’t get out of it so she had to act it.”

But again, there comes that moment. Dendy would later juxtapose two seemingly irreconcilable parts of his background in the same persona, and distill a character from his mother’s mask: Sandy Sheets. His drag alter ego, styled by Andre Shoals (a/k/a Afrodite) while the two were on tour with fellow Southern choreographer Jane Comfort, clipped Dendy’s evangelical roots to his homo activism. She was a walking contradiction, a “televangelist transvestite” who “did homophobic exorcisms” and “took homophobic demons out of people.” She quoted from the Bible, Dendy recalls, teaching “the true message of Jesus, which is unconditional love for your–snap!–fellow man.” She burned a replica of the Branch Davidian compound onstage at P.S. 122. At Mona Foot’s Star Search, Crowbar’s long-running drag competition, Sandy Sheets upset the unstoppable Girlina, who had enjoyed a months-long, Jeopardy-type championship. She was audacious, extreme, and above all, hilarious.

Though it both satirizes and deifies his influences, Dendy insists that Dream Analysis is his story. “Everything else was a study that led up to this,” he says. “I did that book The Artist’s Way, where you write three pages a day and make all those collages and everything. This work came out of that book… as Martha Graham would say, ‘the handling of the material of the self.'”Dream Analysis‘s protagonist, the starry-eyed Henley, who explains the complicated network of influences crashing through his psyche to a psychiatrist played by a drag queen, seems miles away from his no-nonsense, done-it-all-twice creator. “The boy is absolutely totally me,” Dendy insists. “There is an innocent naïve idealistic hopeful inner child in me.”

Yet 10 years ago, when it was just an enfant terrible, Dendy’s inner child seemed to have been kidnapped. “Throughout the whole ’80s, I drank heavily and did a whole lot of drugs. I’d get back from Europe, blow everything I made, charge money on my agent’s credit card, hit the West Side Pier and hustle for three days, and then go on another binge. I was a mess! Then everything fell in on me at once. Spiritually, mentally, physically, emotionally, and financially. I moved into Hotel 17 for two weeks. It’s a hustler hotel with roaches. It’s nasty and skanky. And it’s gross.”

As much as its theatrical component tells a story of the redemption and reconciliation of opposites, Dendy’s choreography illustrates those themes with a brash clarity and humor that often proves more viscerally affecting and inventive than the text. Particularly exquisite is the final sequence, in which the two Nijinskys, accompanied by Claude Debussy’s “L’Apres-midi d’un Faune,” perform a sensuous and virtuosic duet, practically in unison. At first running in place beside one another, occasionally breaking the pattern with a flourish of the arms, they begin to trade focus. Dendy blends his classical training with athletic cartwheels, quirky jerks, and strange spins. They stand on each other’s calves. Twice it seems as if one Nijinsky has kicked the other. The Nijinskys use their hands for guides, elaborations, and punctuation. They slide over one another’s backs, entwining limbs. At one point, they kiss in a way that does not seem labored, sentimental, or political. Their lips just happen to be in the same place at the same time, so they come together. Here, it seems, “that moment” takes on a greater meaning. No longer is it the matriarchal Martha, Mother, psychiatrist, or Judy Garland recognizing the seeker through the mirror; it’s Dendy, recognizing himself as himself.