Review: SATELLITE COLLECTIVE Oscillates Between Dull and Refined

By: Jun. 14, 2016
still from "Gran Jericho"
directed by Lora Robertson
presented by Satellite Collective
92Y; Dig Dance

Full Disclosure Time: I have known Marcus Jarrell Willis since 2009. As the Artistic Director of The Moving Beauty Series I have presented his work three times. Our relationship, while affable, is strictly professional and has no bearing upon my review.

Satellite Collective presented a meandering evening of different works this past weekend at 92Y's Buttenwieser Hall as part of the Dig Dance initiative. I attended the Saturday June 12th performance with great anticipation. As a fellow presenter I always perk up when I hear a wonderful introduction and Artistic Director Kevin Draper - a charismatic man who established immediate rapport with his audience and swiftly won us over to his side with his easy-going manner - delivered exactly that. It certainly didn't hurt that his monoprints of ink on canvas - "View From The Ceiling"; created with visual designer Brandon Baker and scenic artist Marie Rosasco - set the scene as sumptuous backdrops. If only the rest of the concert had flowed as smoothly.

On the heels of the introduction, four musicians entered the space and took their seats as if they were about to perform. Instead they sat there as Nikhil Melnechuk took the stage to deliver a spoken word piece written by Mr. Draper. It was awkward to say the least. The speech was read with the breezy cadence of a person giving testimony about something inconsequential while a sound-scape of chirping birds played in the background. This character was an older woman who lost her garden - which she assumed would be her legacy- her husband, and her faith.

"I had to put to rest that my garden would outlive me. This is a lot to learn from a small grove of trees."

And yet it was not very interesting to hear. Under Mr. Melnechuk's delivery, each word was given equal weight signifying blandness.

A compilation of choreographic phrases pieced together by Devin Alberda - a member of NYCB's corps de ballet - was next on the program. It opened with Mr. Alberda and Peter Walker moving independently of each other with slicing limbs and jumps that caused the torso to bend in an arch. It was like watching the body take gulps of air. In tandem with Mr. Draper's backdrop the dancers looked as if they were slicing at stalks of wheat in an open field beneath a harvest moon. The initial effect was beautiful, though one longed for deeper pliés from these dancers; they landed too heavily. Another lovely effect was Mr. Alberda's perfectly balanced double attitude turns - I am unaccustomed to seeing ballet dancers turn barefoot - which flowed into a whip-dash corkscrew turn partnered by Mr. Walker. From here the dance meandered. Alec Knight entered and seemed to hang out while his colleagues wandered aimlessly around each other until a hitch in Ritchie Greene's score announced "here's your chance to do something interesting". This cue pulled all three dancers into an initially bland sequence of unison that developed into an exciting revolving third that switched the dancers around the stage in a figure eight pattern. Here was dancing that we'd been waiting for. It ended soon afterwards, just as the piece started to take off. This was clearly an early draft for Mr. Alberda. Hopefully he'll cut the muddle, develop the ending, and connect it to the beginning.

The lights lowered to blackout as Lora Robertson's short film "Gran Jericho" played. During this blackout the musicians stayed seated. One kept expecting to hear them play; they never did. Unfortunately there wasn't much to see in the film. Three dancers from NYCB hung around leaning against a building or a tree and a camera with not terribly steady handling recorded their minimal movement. The end.

The saving grace for the evening was Marcus Jarrell Willis' premiere "Kindred Spirits". Set to an original score by Aaron Severini, which evoked a wary tension with its sharply ascending opening, this ballet featured Mr. Willis and Demetia Hopkins-Greene - both recently retired from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company - in a perfectly calibrated character study between two mature lifelong friends. The movement vocabulary while frequently simple was delivered with the smooth precision of a master mime until suddenly breaking out into incredible bursts of ultra articulate coloratura footwork. These were two characters with an established ritual. They were there for each other in a way that felt time tested and instinctual. All was not perfect bliss; there were times when one touched the other in a way that was not appreciated or that a hold was relinquished too quickly for comfort. We've all been there. Sometimes you wish the hug would have lasted a little longer. With Ms. Hopkins-Greene's and Mr. Willis' phenomenal facility and acting, every nuance landed with full effect.

After a row of "don't touch me", "Kindred" settled into a painfully exaggerated adage of beauty. Both dancers faced front; Mr. Willis reached slowly towards Ms. Hopkins-Greene only to peter out; she reached for him and stopped short; they both reached around and past each other as if to hug; and then they turned and walked into an embrace that didn't engage until the other tried to retreat, at which point they held onto each other. I could have cried; the yearning was achingly sweet even as the two refused to acknowledge their mutual need. When they did acknowledge it, their partnering beautifully captured the feeling that no matter the season "all you have to do is call". "Kindred" is not without flaws. It is five minutes longer than it needs to be and repeats a few moments that do not feel deserved. Rather, these moments resembled musical echos whereas variation or invention of new material would feel fresher. That said it did not seem gratuitous or burdensome. Most impressively, Mr. Willis is the rare dancer from the Ailey organization whose work feels singular. Eschewing grand themes, he dares to make masterpieces out of the small moments. This is a piece that one longs to revisit. Hopefully it will soon be presented again.

Despite the uneven showing, Mr. Draper is providing a valuable outlet for showcasing work. He only needs to find better work and to structure a program with greater flow. Then he will have a hit. I look forward to revisiting Satellite in the future to see how they have progressed.