New Dances, Edition 2014
Austin McCormick: La Folia
Loni Landon: and then there was one
Kate Weare: Night Light
Larry Keigwin: Exit Like an Animal
New York, Peter Jay Sharp Theater
10 December 2014
While many troupes this time of year are leaping through snow flurries, slaying mice and cracking nuts, Juilliard Dance is also hard at work, opening its 2014-2015 season with four world premieres.
The participating choreographers – Austin McCormick, Loni Landon, Kate Weare and Larry Keigwin – worked closely with students across Juilliard’s programs, for a total of 97 dancers on stage each night.
The Class of 2018 got the saucy treatment from McCormick, whose own troupe, Company XIV is currently performing its popular Nutcracker Rouge, “a Baroque burlesque confection.” Known for a signature blend of burlesque, circus arts, dance and the Baroque, McCormick’s La Folia (set to Arcangelo Corelli’s piece of the same name) doesn’t look entirely at home on the Juilliard students. Costumed by Fritz Masten, the men are shirtless in black trousers and suspenders, their eyes slathered in kohl, looking a lot like the Emcee from “Cabaret.” Strapped into black corsets with cage bustles at the hips, the women look like they walked off a Jean Paul Gaultier runway (or a Madonna or a Lady Gaga show).
The hip swaying, sashaying choreography is perhaps too theatrical for a body of 24 dancers. There are a lot of chins down and fierce-looking faces, but the variety in interpretation is distracting and suits smaller, more cabaret-sized performances. Much of the gesturing mimics bondage (arms and hands taut, tied and straining), and the women are often seen crawling around on the ground, slavishly. The choreographic high point was an all-male sequence involving linked hands and a Balanchinesque weaving and knotting of bodies. It showed a different distribution of movement, but the majority of the work felt like an awkward marriage of “Strictly Ballroom” camp and competition choreography.
In a now-famous interview with ”Rolling Stone,” Kurt Cobain credited The Pixies as being his top influence, namely for their revolutionary “dynamics” which used a “soft and quiet and then loud and hard” approach. “Loud quiet loud” became a veritable genre (there is a Pixies documentary named after it), and the style was copied by many a band, most famously Nirvana. Contemporary dance is in a similar place right now, favoring a high-contrast style that utilizes a fast, slow, fast, and soft versus hard approach, a trend that was highly visible in Loni Landon’s and then there was one, performed by Juilliard’s Class of 2017.
Swift movements are stopped abruptly, dancers freeze in poses, then pick up speed again. A definite mood piece, Landon’s vocabulary, like many choreographers working right now, owes a debt to Ohad Naharin’s writhing but ferocious gaga style, wherein softness is contrasted with the concrete, and speed is up against stillness. For the audience, the thrill is in the blatant athleticism required to pull off such feats. There were some interesting moves in Landon’s piece, but there isn’t much momentum. The star solos didn’t necessarily go to the dancers who looked best performing her work. The spread of two dozen bodies might have overwhelmed the piece, and it would be interesting to see her work on a smaller ensemble. The music, a commissioned score of abrasive, squeaking strings, sounded dated, and didn’t do the work any favors.
Kate Weare’s Night Light, danced by Juilliard’s Class of 2016, is a highly combative piece that doesn’t flinch in the face of manipulative violence. Notes of Naharin are visible here too, especially with the tic-gesturing, the rhythm-based sequences of ensemble regroupings, and in the contact work, when dancers pass silent communications from one erogenous zone to another. Given the costumes – both men and women wearing long-sleeved blue tunics – and much of the choreography, it’s clear Weare has something to say about the sexes, if not that they are equal then that neither is the one less cruel than the other.
While the program slumped, mood wise, in the middle, it went out with a bang thanks to Larry Keigwin’s Exit Like an Animal. Using Curtis Macdonald’s commissioned score of throbbing percussive music, Exit Like an Animal is a fast, furious piece that makes you feel like you are in the middle of the Serengeti, via Studio54. Taking cues from both the predatory and herd-like behaviors of animals, Keigwin has created a sassy, savvy blend of the “Soul Train” on steroids and Jerome Robbins.
Opening to a stage drenched in blood-red light, Exit Like an Animal uses moves and running sequences that look like they could be straight out of West Side Story Suite or Glass Pieces – and there’s hardly any harm in that. Dancers move on and offstage in seamless groupings and regroupings, a skill many choreographers should envy (if they don’t already). Keigwin understands momentum, and he’s at his best moving more than a couple of dancers around. Juilliard’s Class of 2015 look like a group of gazelles. Don’t let the joyous rhythms fool you, this choreography is difficult, including leaps taken from a completely supine position on the floor. The geometry is frequently spherical and spiral, with lots of torque and beautiful head rolls, but not so much that it devolves into gimmickry. Exit Like an Animal makes you want to do just that: race out of the theatre, and into the wild, and possibly into the club too.