PERCEPTION: Dance // New York Live Arts Presents The Barnard Project

POND photo courtesy Ian Douglas.

The four pieces presented at New York Live Arts November 15 – 17 represent a fair parcel of the spectrum expected from a performance event birthed from the combined efforts of students of an interdisciplinary program (in this case, Dance and related humanities). Choreographed by students of Barnard College Department of Dance and performed by Columbia University dancers, the whole event felt to be a refreshing pre-figuration of what is (or may be) to come for these young artists--energetic and attentive debutantes, as it were. Much of it bore the sheen of inexperience, though to diminish it would be doing the whole a disservice. In this presentation, the failures and cliches were often more compelling than whatever attributes might propel it into the camp of what might qualify a seamless performance. The work showed promise of the import subsequent pieces by these young artists might acquire over time, but where transcendence lacked, charm danced in droves.

The works presented were, as ordered: POND by Nora Chipaumire, LindenLeahMarthaScottCatherine by Juliette Mapp, Happy B-Day J cage by Beth Gill, and Besotted Bumperby Reggie Wilson.

The negative placelessness of the black box theater swallowed the space around the starkly contrasted expressions of the performers, beaming or self-serious faces emerging, bringing their inner worlds outwards. They activated it not by subsuming into the art, but rather via their humanity. The first three pieces, which I shall separate from the fourth by a note of sophistication and genuine transcendence to which I would only attribute to the latter.

In the first three performances, each with their own merits, I was never not aware of my own awareness, checking my own perceptions; with each new sensory addition, I felt the churning of integration, readjustment, alignment of thought and judgement. The ineffable quality of a piece that allows it to be something steeped within is that which sits between things, between movements and notes and costumes and facial expressions, between foot and floor, stage left and stage right--but the success of the between-ness depends entirely on a cohesion and resonance of the elements that are present.

A four-part cotillion for the maybe-up-and-comers, announcing their presence to New York in a varied, reference-steeped romp bearing the seal of the interdisciplinary nature of their creativity, the event was rife with reference, a familiar indulgence from one reader, listener, thinker, viewer--to another. There is indeed vast gratification in the nod and wink of pointing to something and being met similarly with a nod and wink, indicating a shared awareness. This is one connective varietal between one person to his neighbor, but more meaningful ultimately is a connection that is not dependent upon trivia. It relies upon that which all things can be stripped down to. When real art is in its skivvies, I find it is just as human as the rest of us.

The tropes in The Barnard Project were present and delightful to note as they arose: one clear, direct narrative, even precocious; another experimental and weird in the way that one may hope to be in the stage of youth post homogeneity-yearning-induced mimicry and pre self actualization into a quirk that is self evident. There were moments of grace, of import, of real experimentation, and certainly patterns of artistic sophistication, but there were also moments in which the thin veil of performance awkwardly, revealingly shifted to expose the characters beneath.

Once dancer in POND smiled in an underlip-bitten, eyes-nearly-closed exploration of movement. Everything seemed to her delicious, and it was a treat to watch. She was in the pond but she failed to be the pond. Her movements were a bit out of sync with the others, and her energy certainly didn't match. However, despite her deviation from the choreography, from the group mentality, from the aura of the stage--her passion made the piece, or at least it tickled me, which is more than I could say for the whole, which I found at best interesting, and undoubtedly ambitious, but the intent was unclear, viscerally not present, and physical presentation (costume and makeup) inconsistent and distracting. I watched that one pleasantly unruly dancer in the otherwise controlled and experimental dance that endeavored neither beauty nor ugliness, nor weirdness. Most of the sounds came from the aforementioned musical hybrid of the progressively expected and, more interestingly perhaps, the slap of bare feet on the black stage; the awkward squeak of the heels upon turning, and the occasional denouement: “swim” spoken in unison by the dancers to induce a period of more fluid movement.

Following POND, came LindenLeahMarthaScottCatherine: the most clear read of the bunch; a study in Realism, the piece bore a narrative, a coming of age tale of four girls, all endearingly shrouded in something resembling a one-shouldered ancient Greek toga made from mom’s colorful curtains. The girls dance through interactions tracing the progression from mimicry and motherly caretaking to the induction of competitive spirit; they vie for a front spot in a line carrying them nowhere but to another part of the stage. Angst enacted nearly wordlessly, speaking only to announce names and class (Sophomore, Junior, etc.), a clear precursor to the class distinction that constitutes the social fabric of the real world (that is, the one outside of academic institutions). As they shift from one to the other, sitting precociously and introducing their comrades, their identities shift, and one’s sense of self does in adolescence, subject to context, reaffirming what one thinks one should be based on vague cues that one has yet to develop the skills to decipher, taken from an equally clueless and frustrated peer. This meta-micro, at once self-referential and mimetic social dance as it were, is written like a play in this piece. Less interesting as a dance and more as a dance-theater hybrid, I found the story enjoyable and relatable, if a bit juvenile—but hey, that’s what it was: juvenile. It filled its form as both an embodiment and a telling of feminine adolescence—awkward, absurd, and entirely charming.
LindenLeahMarthaScottCatherine photo courtesy Ian Douglas.

Beth Gill’s Happy B-Day J cage read like a day. Two dancers were dragged by their feet across the stage, one face down and the other facing upwards; there was silence and no movement for just long enough to build suspense, and then the awakening: the girl whose face was downwards clearly did not want to get out of bed. Her movement explored her body in jerky actions, either pained or angry or perhaps de-fatigued; regardless, it felt like a struggle; conversely, the dancer on her back moved in an exploration of waking movements that to students of yoga would read remarkably familiar as opening of the joints, full, languid rotations of the arms and legs, at once graceful and apparently unconcerned with the sensation of being perceived—those are movements felt, and empathetically, deliciously, I felt them too. What followed was at times a bit scattered. Dancers entered and exited, rearranging each other. Most of the movements were unremarkable; the intention unclear—the costumes could have indicated either dance or yoga, whereas the dance itself indicated a presence (inherently) of both. There was little cohesion in movements but there was a progression, it was interesting, and again, a few somewhat enchanting performances made it all the more watchable. My reference-programmed mind saw Gregor the Metamorphosed Bug in the scrambled crawls stage left to right; and didn't know what to do with the four blue tape lines drawn on stage left during the middle of the performance, which seemed to neither add aesthetically or demarcate a choreographic sequence discernibly.


Happy B-Day J cage photo courtesy Ian Douglas.

Last, and rather appropriately as a climax, was Reggie Wilson’s Besotted Bumper, which materialized hard work without feeling labored; utilized lighting theatrically and formally, adding shadow dancers on the back wall to even further enhance the number of performers (around 12, already at least double that of most performances). It simply felt more substantial, an impressively manifest cohesion of Primitivism (alluding to African tribal dance in the wide steps, jumps, and heel thumps) and Modernity. The costumes, all the same cut, alluded to the shapes and cut of African garb, whilst simultaneously indicating a relevance of the jumpsuit of a mechanical/industrial worker in the states--albeit chic. The music was at times clearly African and otherwise a celebratory and the sort of track one might find on a compilation CD of Island Music bought in a Grocery store checkout line between the OK magazine and the Wrigley gum. Electric drums and amalgamated beats that nearly assertively predicate the notion of fun in suburban American pool parties—the reference was spot on. A tongue in cheek oscillation between contrivance and pure expression, a delightfully and aesthetically rich performance.


Besotted Bumper photo courtesy Ian Douglas.

New York Live Arts presents The Barnard Project, November 15 – 17 at 7:30 pm; November 17 at 2 pm at NYLA Bessie Shönberg Theater 219 West 19th street, New York, NY.

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