BWW Review: Contrasting the Jejune and Divine at Battery Dance Festival
Battery Dance Festival's performances on August 13th and 14th, 2019 were a strange contrast of divine artistry and jejune paralogisms.
Leading the heavenly charge with Moss Anthology: Variation #5, Jacqulyn Buglisi cast her dancers as gossamer creatures idling beneath the canopy of a palatial forest. Opening the ballet, Can Wang led a procession of her colleagues sailing majestically across the stage, morphing into stag positions with every backwards flick of her scorpion-tail like leg. This luxuriant calm was broken as Blakeley White-McGuire flashed between the ranks, transforming her fellow elemental creatures into battalions of Amazonian warriors ready to battle the destructive forces of climate change with a fury that mirrored her lightning-swift battu.
Buglisi illustrated her prowess as artistic heir to Martha Graham by staging the action as a life-or-death epic. Nowhere was this mixture of savage and sublime more potent than in the dancing of leading soloist, Stephanie Van Dooren-Eshkenavi who contorted her delicate frame into that of a preying mantis hurling itself, foe in mouth, against jagged rocks only to recover and pounce again. Rather than focusing on ancient Greek legends as was Graham's wont, Buglisi framed Moss Variation as a prophecy: climate change is an imminent extinction-level threat that will bury our world à la Vesuvius if we fail to affect immediate changes.
Watching Buglisi's dancers devour the stage to Jeff Beal's insightful score made clear that one can determine a choreographer's capacity by gauging her or his ability to make concise statements with a distinctive voice that is supported by rhythmically relevant music.
With this criteria in mind, it is evident that Nicole von Arx's Wally would have meandered even if her accompanying musical composition had not, though perhaps some of her physical effects--for instance, Zachary Gonder standing on her back for 30 seconds while she locked her arms in plank position--would have delivered greater impact with music that better commented on her function as a foot stool.
In The Time Followed Yin Yue and Grace Whitworth mirrored the undulating waters of NY Harbor unto the scintilla with their constantly rippling arms and effortless partnering; at one point Yue effortless swung Whitworth's horizontal body from one side to the next. Yet, while the piece deployed skillful progression, it offered little in terms of movement or musical variation.
Ashlé Dawson/Breaking Conformity Production danced the physical equivalent of yelling "Kindness rules and Racism sucks!" to a spoken word track that was just as nuanced. Enzo Celli's Vivo Ballet tried tackling the refugee crisis with a great deal of facial mugging, unison work, and the deadly inclusion of one of Zoe Keating's overused pop cello pieces. Meanwhile, Chloe London's solo for Tim Bendernagel was so literal in manifesting the understatement of Michael Wall's Gesture 1--Bendernagel spent more time lying on his tummy staring at the audience than he did moving--that it might as well not have been on stage.
Does this minimal response to music, or minimally responsive music, register as art? If so, then it is art that lacks persuasiveness.
Diving back into the divine, Razvan Stoian's smoldering contemporary-ballroom duet, The Iron Dove, supplanted creepy sexual exploitation with a unexpected study in power dynamics. Stoian maintained a tight grip on Jillian Linkowski throughout Dove as is he were holding onto her for dear life. Floating across the stage, it was clear that Linkowski was the person in charge, even as Stoian enveloped her in deep back-bends. As the eponymous character, she could have sent him tumbling to his doom at any moment. Set to Mac Quayle's symphonic Adagio in G minor, the audience saw that Stoian's fixed smile belied the underlying turmoil in his gait as a charming attendant locked in a singularly dependent relationship.
Ja' Malik's A Love Sonnet also explored power dynamics in a relationship, though from a same-gender-loving perspective for Black men. Set to Schubert's Ave Maria, the ballet presented Maxfield Haynes in what is traditionally a woman's role, being partnered by Jared Brunson. Both dancers possessed incredible facility and dug into their material with greater ease than one would have thought possible considering that the stage was dangerously soaked with condensation. While squirm-inducing, this haphazard effect enhanced Ja' Malik's beautiful choreography by driving home the point that though the surrounding world was set up to sabotage their relationship, by relying upon each, this couple could make it through. Happily, they triumphed.
konverjdans performed a contemporary piece choreographed by Tiffany Mangulabnan that did little to distinguish itself beyond providing its talented dancers opportunities to revel in their athleticism.
Due to my current association with Janice Rosario I am only able to report that her choreography was performed by Xavier Townsend and Spencer Grossman to Max Richter's transposition of Vivaldi's Summer.
Ballet Nepantla and Vanaver Caravan offered the most musically rewarding performances, not only because their dancers doubled as musicians but because one could feel their rhythmic connection and understanding to every aspect of the storytelling.
Every choreographic step was like a musical note in a beautifully composed score.
Nepantla's Guerrero Suite was filled with rhythmic-percussion--courtesy of the dancers' heeled boots--and perfectly sequenced waving handkerchiefs as they marched across the floor in beautiful geometric formations that constantly revolved into fresh patterns according to the accompanying mariachi music. The overall effect was akin to the opening and closing of a flower. Co-directors Andrea Guajardo and Martin Rodriguez choreographed the four movement suite as a fusion of Mexican folkloric forms and ballet that temporarily transformed the festival into a brochure of the Rio Grade come to life, with a brief interlude for a sensuous pas de deux en pointe with Anthony Bocconi zestfully partnering the sprightly Ayaka Taniguchi. At Guerrero's conclusion I was ready to book my trip to where ever Nepantla was headed.
Introducing Vanaver Caravan allowed the inimitable Battery Dance Festival director Jonathan Hollander to hold court with a charming story from his childhood. It should be noted that listening to this warm man extol his love for music and dance is one of the great pleasures in attending this festival. During this story Hollander revealed that he was raised in the former home of Pete Seeger and later worked with Livia Drapkin and Bill Vanaver who themselves worked with Seeger as choreographers and musicians. Their contribution to the festival consisted of excerpts from a work that they developed during their collaborations with Seeger called, Turn Turn Turn: Celebrating Pete Seeger in Dance & Music. This masterful, feel-everything revue felt entirely fresh what with its jaw-dropping swing-dance stunts, fantastic musicianship, flawless tap-drills, and hilarious physical routines. Whether you are a fan of Americana or not, the piece counts as essential viewing.
Battery Dance Festival is never better than when it is presenting companies that have a deep connection to their musical material. Hopefully next year's participants will remember this point: choreography is only as wonderful as its music is rich.