Douglas Dunn & Dancers
by Juliet Neidish
February 28, 2009 -- Ailey Citigroup Theatre, New York City
The choreographic world of Douglas Dunn manages almost magically to be vibrantly suggestive. It can be experienced on numerous levels, not the least of which are visual, musical, emotional and relational. Humor, mystery and quirkiness are its abiding qualities. Dunn began making dances in the 1970’s, and his oeuvre is marked by the influence of Dada extending through a Cage/Cunningham lineage. Thanks to the 92nd Street Y’s Harkness Dance Festival celebrating its 15th anniversary season, Douglas Dunn & Dancers mounted a major revival, “Pulcinella,” along with the world premiere of “Then Boss in Man?” at the Ailey Citigroup Theater in New York City.
“Then Boss in Man?” is an intimate and captivating piece. The elegantly dressed classical guitarist Tali Roth sat downstage left, providing music for the six dancer: Kira Blazek, Douglas Dunn, Liz Filbrun, Jean Freebury, Paul Singh and Christopher Williams. Throughout this piece, there was a conjuncture of sensuousness and unique visual effect. Charles Atlas, a veteran Dunn collaborator, designed the piece, including the costumes. Atlas’s placement of a mirror as a backdrop upstage set up the marvelous possibilities for visual layering. It allowed us to see dancers both front and back, and also, we the audience could see ourselves. The dancers’ fashionably sharp-looking, two-toned unitards cut on the vertical were a smart device enabling the double vision of front-back, in and out.
Ms Roth performed with intensity and commanding strength to the dark sonorous textures of six Spanish-themed musical selections, yet the dancers for the most part seemed etched in a stunning quietness as they moved in and out of their mutable duets. A simple glance or moment of fleeting eye contact suggested relationships within their abstract movement motifs. Later on, a small frenzy of lightly humorous nature stirred things up when Dunn entered as a four-armed green monster of sorts. The monster get-up looked homegrown arts and craftsy, and Dunn is a subtle, playful creature. He thwarted, but remained endearing, almost adorable at times. His chaîné turns with all four arms reaching up overhead were downright hilarious.
The only non-cohesiveness in the piece occurred in the section danced to “Libertango” by Astor Piazzolla. This is a driving musical selection in the tango nuevo genre. The choreography was speedier and task-oriented, a departure from the quiet, sensuous movement introducing the piece. Perhaps it was just a temporary pitfall of dancing to live music but instead of the action forging a synchrony with the music, I was consistently aware of a slight time lapse between the two, not unlike an out of sync dubbing in a foreign film. This was a deterrent to the sense of satisfaction that can otherwise be experienced when music and movement dovetail seamlessly.
The revival of “Pulcinella” (1980) was an event in itself. Originally a commission from the Paris Opera Ballet, it offered Dunn both European visibility and the artistic challenge of working with highly trained ballet dancers in a major opera house. The score is Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella,” which premiered in Paris in 1920 when commissioned as a ballet by Diaghilev and was in fact a reworking of an older score by Pergolsi. Pulcinella, of course, is a prominent character of 17th century Commedia dell’arte. Dunn revived the piece in NYC some 25 years ago at which time he danced a major role. The current production includes 16 dancers, with Dunn in cameo appearances as master of ceremonies.
Rather than create a narrative ballet portraying the experiences of this clown or trickster character, Dunn cleverly sees all the characters in his piece as Pulcinellos. The costumes designed by Mimi Gross are each a variation upon the traditional Italian archetype. The choreography is rich and textured with changes in tempo, rhythm and mood, mirroring the score. Upbeat and dynamic, it is easy to watch. Curiously, however, all the men in the company were much more successful than the women in bringing a historically stylized and comedic aspect to the movement. Kudos to Reid Bartelme, whose interpretation seamlessly tweaked Dunn’s modern dance vocabulary with a 17th-century sensibility or quotation despite the difficult technical demands of his major role. The Pulcinella character is primarily a male energy, but whatever the reasons may be, the fact that the women in the piece by and large remained as post-modern interpreters did weaken the full effect that this piece could easily have achieved.