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Juilliard Dances Repertory

by Elizabeth McPherson

March 27, 2009 -- The Peter Jay Sharp Theater

Sitting in the theater prior to the performance, I sensed strong currents of history and continuity. The voices and faces of former Juilliard teachers and choreographers such as Martha Hill, José Limón and Antony Tudor have a lingering presence alongside the present faculty, in part because many present faculty are artistic descendants. The upcoming program itself paid tribute to the tight family tree of dance as the choreographers presented have numerous connections to each other and back through the dance lineage.

One wonderful aspect of college dance performances is their eclecticism.  Modern dance is so much about personal expression that what has often been and continues to be the overriding company format is one director/choreographer with the dance company performing primarily works by that one person. I don’t think the need for that will disappear, but I do think there is a need for more modern dance repertory companies in the United States. Is was truly a relief to see differing visions presented, giving greater variety and texture than is often the case with an evening of one choreographer’s works.

First on the program was “Gloria” (1981) choreographed by Mark Morris. Luscious dancing and choreography filled the stage, accompanied by snippets of  trademark Morris movement humor thrown in the mix. One such moment was the increasingly smaller circular arm movements of one female dancer at the very edge of the stage as she exited. The dancing was beautifully precise with Stephanie Amurao standing out particularly for her extension beyond precision to personal expression within the confines of the choreography.

For “The Fugue” (1970) choreographed by Twyla Tharp, there were two casts, one all female and one all male which is the cast I had the pleasure of seeing. The dance is done without accompanying music, all the sound being contributed by the dancers through their feet (they were wearing heeled jazz shoes), hands clapping, and the occasional voice counting. The dance is brilliantly choreographed with contrast, counterpoint, and unison all executed by the dancers with no external unifying force such as music. They stay in sync with each other purely through breath, visuals, sounds, and I would guess hours and hours of rehearsal. Even though many of the movements are performed by all three dancers, and they are dressed in identical costumes, Denys Drozdyuk, Craig Black, and Jonathan Campbell, brought their individual styles to the dance – one tougher, one more lyrical, and one a bit quirky -- to create a memorable performance.

Lar Lubovitch’s  “North Star”  (1978) conveys a sense of the movement of planets and stars with constant swirling through space and a feeling of never ending. The first solo, performed by Kendra Samson stood out because it did not move through space, but also because her performance was intensely dramatic, reminding me of Mary Wigman’s “Witch Dance” as Samson seemed to pull every force of the theatre into her body to spew it out again in almost violent contortion. The Phillip Glass score unexpectedly brought a somewhat dated feel to the dance as a whole.

After a second intermission, the audience was treated to the highlight of the evening, the premiere of  “From Max and Three” (a re-working of two previous dances) choreographed by Ohad Naharin. The space was opened up by removing the legs in the wing space so that the lighting trees were exposed. With a cast of 36, the dancers filled every inch of space. The dance began with all dancers on stage and with one dancer smiling in a forced, static manner – very funny. Soon, all the dancers began moving in place with sharp hip isolations and sporting that same forced smile. After the women exited, the men began flying through space, with such speed and force, and so many of them that it seemed as if collision was inevitable. The women followed with a slower more trance-like dance that shifted and morphed almost like sand in the sea.

At one very humorous moment, the entire cast lined up as if for a camp or school photo with the first line sitting, the next kneeling and the next standing, but from that funny moment, things got eerie, culminating with a loud, deep monotone voice counting in Naharin’s made-up language. Reminiscent of some of Twyla Tharp’s choreography in which each movement is numbered vocally (which I recently saw in a performance of Tharp’s “Torelli” at Montclair State University), the dancers sometimes in solo, sometimes in groups, and most intriguingly in couples performed somewhat static movements that sequenced from 1, to 1,2 to 1,2,3 and so on, so that the dance was continually adding on to itself. Before long the cast had formed three straight lines in various parts of the stage and began a sequence in which the first dancer in each line performed a movement and then moved to the end of the line. Sometimes the next three would do the same movement, and sometimes one would break out to start a completely new phrase that might then be repeated or not. The dance ended with one dancer walking forward as if he might come through the curtain as the curtain dropped. This dance was incredibly rich with innovation and originality. The movements seemed to come out of the dancers’ very souls and yet had a cohesiveness that comes from one vision.

The accompanying Juilliard orchestra (for all but the last dance) was conducted by George Stelluto. How wonderful to have live music for the audience, and performers! The mutually supportive relationship between music and dance is so often thwarted by politics and financial issues. Would that more professional companies and more colleges could find the ways and means to present dance and music together.

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