BWW Review: A Washout of Wan Music at Battery Dance Festival
"If music be the food of love, play on", Duke Orsino begins in Shakespeare's Twelth Night, "But", one might respond, "if that music has no rhythm, why bother?". Such was the case at night two of Battery Dance Festival's 38th season. Acclaimed for presenting exciting choreographers from all over the world, the festival's August 12th, 2019 performance was notable for highlighting the importance of wedding movement to its music in an evening of dance that rarely landed on solid ground.
A brilliant independent choreographer noted for her gut-busting humour, Mari Meade's Dialogue found greater success in its opening solo for Morgan Hurst than in the ensemble work that followed. Hurst delivered the evening's breakout moment with high flying limbs which mirrored a cobra poised to encoil its meal. Though Meade's fully-committed collective of dancers have been working with her for close to a decade, even they could not enliven the simple ensemble work that followed. Dialogues' musically precise, cartoonish miming belonged to a 1960's Broadway musical party-scene, which might have been interesting as an acid-trip were one not accustomed to Meade's habitual kaleidoscopic ensemble work. Simplicity can feel elevating, but not when coupled with the daffy sophistication of Ella Fitzgerald's scatting.
The bi-costal all-male company Pony Box Dance Theatre suffered the opposite problem: there was a solid choreographic structure but where were the dancers who could execute the movement? Raymond Ejiofor and Zach Denison were excellent, as was choreographer Elijah Laurant, but their three colleagues were either under-rehearsed or unprepared for the professional stage.
Arkabakkin, Emma Evelein's tic-laden duet with Lucien Denny--both from The Netherlands--featured hip-hop influenced partnering with constantly swirling hips and shoulders for her and a laconically stolid response from him as he efficiently maneuvered her body from one splayed position to the next. This juxtaposition of black-to-white and flexible-to-staid might have drawn interesting contemporary parallels with Balanchine's Agon had it found support in better music than Olafur Arnalds' limpid catalogue.
Water Street Dance Milwaukee's Action, Re-action and Words, generated its own music. Jacob Brooks jammed hard on his drum set, while poet Brooklyn Lloyd tiptoed around waiting to deliver his words, as Jasper Sanchez alternated between a panther-lite form of breakdancing and percussive stumbling to the ground. The obvious throughline came from the title-work's instructions: independent work progressed into a game of call-and-response. Then in a moment that felt more didactic than illuminating, dance and music diminished to allow Lloyd to speak without interruption. Yes, one has to cede space in order to hear the other side, but is making that point worth sacrificing movement in a dance piece?
Continuing in this vein, Norwegian choreographer Jon Ole Olstad delivered two back-to-back solos performed by American dancers backed by rhythmless music that belonged in the background of any mumblecore movie you've ever seen. The dancers were strong and determined--particularly Leslie Page Plummer with her hyper-flexibility and incredible strength--but strenuous stretching set alongside structureless strains does not an engrossing piece make.
Laboration Art Company's Excerpt for Anna found a schism of action between its meticulously scrumptious opening 10 minutes and ambling closing. The opening was a solid piece that ended with robust applause as the lights came down. This good will was lost as the lights rose for another 10 minutes during which Laboration's two dancers ran back-and-forth across the stage, took their skirts off, arranged bottles across the stage, slow danced and chatted with each other, and then knocked the bottles down. It was precisely too clever by half.
What kept the evening's lofty spirit high was its opening speech delivered by festival founder and artistic director, Jonathan Hollander. Whatever the outcome of any given evening, I am convinced that his warmth and love of dance is the reason that this festival continues to draw diverse sponsorship, fantastic artists, and record crowds. As an ambassador of the artform, his zeal is nothing short of inspiring. Long may he reign.