General 5-17-2004

Dance Review: Studio 2A (Wednesday, May 5)

Lightsey Darst conveys in beautifully choreographed language a set of dances that take ballet out of the proscenium and put it in our midst.

Matthew Keefe has a brilliant idea: take ballet, that dance of rarified bodies and elite spectators, and set it in the most democratic space: the floor-level round. While modern pieces presented in this format didn’t feel different from their on-stage counterparts, the ballet was a revelation. Suddenly the dancers were so close: we could hear them breathe, we could hear the pointe shoes beat the floor. The flattening perspective of the stage assists the flattening rules of ballet, so that the audience can’t tell when the performer’s leg has crossed out of a perfect arabesque to an in-between position; but up close we can see how the dancers fail perfect positions—and somehow (call it the spirit of the times) this is more intimate, more moving. We see how each dancer twists the tradition to make it fit her body, and twists her body to make it fit the tradition. Bodies become both more common and more beautiful in the round: suddenly we see limits, imbalances, even deposits of fat we never suspected were there; we realize that ballet dancers age, ache, ride the bus, and then get up in front of us to wrestle with this demanding form.

But how does the round work, anyway? Is it a constantly changing front, the performers facing first one way and then another? Is it a chance to see the dance from backstage, from the wings? Is it a kaleidoscope, the same in all directions? Jennifer Hart has the best answer, in her lovely and passionate “Aria” (danced by Sam Feipel and Sara Ivan). She uses turning, twisting, and across-the-body movements to accomplish what Rodin accomplished in sculpture: art from all directions. The piece never has a front; the dancers focus on each other, each oriented always to the other’s touch.

“Aria” is not only inventive, but also heart-rending. Feipel and Ivan’s partnering looks like wrestling close up, but that’s not a criticism; it’s more like real life, more like passion, than the bloodless encounters we often see from the second balcony. (Not that there’s not a place for bloodless encounters. Sometimes we’ve had enough real life.) If ballet has a signature emotion, it’s doomed passion, as in the lift that can fly sky-high but must eventually come to ground, and “Aria” mines this mood. Feipel and Ivan dance with conviction, but wisely keep their acting quiet, proportioned to the space, and let their long expressive limbs and twisting bodies convey desperate desire. The swirling, simultaneously earthy and unearthly beauty of the dance can’t last; when it goes it leaves loss and vision behind.

Matthew Keefe tries out various strategies for dance in the round (face different steps in different directions, maintain kaleidoscopic symmetry) but his best solution comes in his solo improvisation “Brain Storming.” Imagine a boxing match: the competitor, unconscious of the audience, isn’t always facing you, but he will be eventually, and in the meantime you don’t mind being behind his performance. Keefe attacks various spots or lines on the floor, changing his fixation occasionally. Restless and energetic, he darts, leaps, and rolls, feline and lupine. In his choreography, he often depends on gesture, scheme, and symmetry; dancers pause, beckon, then repeat their last steps with a different partner. There are slow spots, predictable shifts. Titles bear a too-obvious relation to the pieces; in “Economics,” dancers grab at airy commodities; in “Fate Weighs In,” a woman in a red dress governs the loves of two men and two women. What if Keefe abandons the schemes and fills his choreography with the same unsettled drive, the shifting desire, that pervades his improvisation?

Three other choreographers filled out the evening. Penelope Freeh’s “Telephone Joan” is tantalizing but ungrounded in an excerpt. Myron Johnson’s “Make Me Wanna Holler” depends on some conventionally sexy moves, but also uses furious nose-wiping to portray an indeterminate state of mind—desperation, anger, and enjoyment all at once. Stephanie Fellner, precise and lucky, stars in this single-woman piece. Benjamin Johnson must be the only person crazy enough to choreograph to the Vestibules’ wacky word riff “Bulbous Bouffant” (no music, just talk and rhythmic words), but he succeeds by having the dancers dance to, not act out, the words; when a voice interjects “foible,” there’s a correspondingly non sequitur movement from a dancer. Please, try this at home: dance the word “macadamia.” Where Jennifer Hart’s “Aria” made me cry, Johnson’s “Irving, Sambob, and Murray” made me laugh, hard.

I’ve already mentioned some of the dancers. Julie Tehven and Anja Syfrig (in Keefe’s “Windows”) are dancers you can trust; Tehven opens her body from the top of her ribcage, keeping no secrets, while Syfrig dances with classical sincerity and passion. Brittany Fridenstine, on the other hand, is a different type; with her tight yet curvy body, her speedy attack and vulnerable grace, she’s a natural coquette. While classical ballet has plenty of roles for the small, fast, clever dancer, at the moment the small, athletic, honest gymnast seems more in fashion. It’s good to see Fridenstine get the space to do what she does so well—in a lighter mood, with Benjamin Johnson’s piece, and with a dangerous edge to her flirtation, in Keefe’s “Fate Weighs In.”


This performance was dedicated to the memory of Homer Avila. I saw him once in ballet class, without knowing who he was. Away from the barre, he balanced while others leapt, traveled, pivoted in arabesque, and yet at a glance he appeared to be doing exactly the same steps. I thought I was rude to watch, but I couldn’t help myself. He made the air around him dance.