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REVIEW: Week One Gotham Dance Festival

Still Photo from "Motor" by Brian Brooks

"Motor" by Brian Brooks Photo Credit Christopher Duggan

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his week, I’ve been spending my evenings at the Joyce Theater for the jam-packed Gotham Dance Festival, compiled by Ken Maldonado of Gotham Arts Exchange. This summer, Gotham Dance Festival offers up ten choreographers, showing world premieres as well as past repertoire. After a few days of reflection and gathering various reviews of performances, my own reactions to Brian Brooks Moving Company and Monica Bill Barnes and Company are still resonating. I’m left chewing on two remaining themes: repetition and character environment.

Dancers are prolific generators of movement phrases. When Brian Brooks finds a moment that works, he sticks with it, using repetition as a strength and simplicity as a platform for embellishment. Repetition, though an often under-appreciated choreographic tool, certainly has the potential to diminish effect but can also foster a closer eye and patience in the audience. A majority of the time, I appreciated Brooks’  repetition much like a good line in a book. Rather than giving his viewers a continuous stream of the new material to either notice or discard, he chooses for us the part he wants to underline. It is effective in the sense that it shows good phrase editing.  Set in a striking tunneled archway created by hundreds of lines strung into the audience from the stage, “Motor” highlights Brooks’s partnering sensitivity as well. Weight is the focus here. The patterns of six dancers become indistinguishable, running between, over and under one another. This piece would be half as interesting were it not for its visual background. Even in their tunnel, the dancers were not clearly human nor were they the embodiment of an idea. It wasn’t until they started slowly losing clothing with each passing section that I saw them as characters and longed to know their story or the challenge they faced. Perhaps it is the set design triggers this in us. Dancers in an empty stage can easily do movement for movement’s sake. When you place them in an environment, explanation is required.  My mind wandered from the movement to find an initiating force.

Brooks solo, “I’m Going to Explode” again uses set and costume to clarify the intended spirit. Without the typical man’s suit, we would never picture Brooks as a stifled employee. Here though, the music choice also illuminates the otherwise out of place vibratory arm action and collapsing of feet and legs. But with a soundtrack, the memo reaches us.

"Descent" by Brian Brooks Photo Credit Chritopher Duggan

"Descent" by Brian Brooks Photo Credit Christopher Duggan

“Descent” captured my attention the most of the three selections because here Brooks makes the “dance”  about movement of a material rather than bodies. Fabric is blown through the air by dancers rigorous waving of boards creating wind. Beautified by hazy and full lighting by Philip Trevino, the fabric only floats, uncontrolled. I find the idea simple but stirring because Brooks let it be. “Here is something you should take time to watch,” he says with this choice.

When Brian Brooks finds a moment that works, he sticks with it, using repetition as a strength and simplicity as a platform for embellishment.

This is what I continuously found–my own viewing choices, directed. Brooks asks us to watch, then watch again, and we do because it is the agreement we make by coming into the theater.

Saturday I returned for my second night with Gotham Dance Festival, this time entering the whimsical world of Monica Bill Barnes. Must be a lot of pressure, always to be introduced as a comedic choreographer. If you know anything about Monica Bill Barnes prior to reaching the seat, you expect to leave smiling. My first encounter with the company was last summer at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival where they performed “Mostly Fanfare” and “Another Parade.” Returning, I admit that I hoped for laughter, but when I was not immediately amused during “Suddenly Summer Somewhere” I was anything but frustrated. Barnes’s character world fascinates me not because it tells a good story but because searching for the story is actually fruitless. When we see dancers who exhibit theater tactics (facial expressions, pedestrian interactions, mouthing of conversations) our impulse is to know background and plot. What Barnes does is distract us from our questions by integrating undeniably strong technique and feel-good space eating. I quickly decide not to strive to figure out the piece but let its suggestions wash over me, unconnected. My willingness to accept what Barnes is giving, on her own terms, makes the experience enjoyable. I start to laugh.

"Mostly Fanfare" by Monica Bill Barnes Photo Credit Christopher Duggan

"Mostly Fanfare" by Monica Bill Barnes Photo Credit Christopher Duggan

The brilliant Anna Bass, Monica’s cohort on stage and longtime friend, make me question the dance careers of the thousands of aspiring artists floating around New York City, who daily trudge to auditions. What happens if Bass, clearly a skilled technician, was never prompted to be comedic? Had she never collaborated with Barnes, we may have only known her for her soaring leaps or great feet. I am grateful for the circumstance that brings her to this particular stage, in this particular trench coat. It makes her particularly good. I commend Barnes for finding these four dancers amongst the many and allowing them access to a robust performance that calls on something so beyond technique. She was not alone in what she wanted to express, and she remains committed to this course.

My willingness to accept what Barnes is giving, on her own terms, makes the experience enjoyable. I start to laugh.

I am not concerned that I saw many of the company’s previous motifs repeated, such as holding chairs in their teeth or throwing punches into the air against invisible opponents. It is a challenge to look again at old material just as it is to create new. What I see here, in the frequent nods to previous work, is a through-line. As authors are known to repeat ideas in their canons, Barnes world for “Mostly Fanfare” is only a slight variation for the World Premiere of “Everything is Getting Better all the Time.” Where her “Another Parade” used a confetti drop, now she uses a sparkly curtain and batons. But I’m still laughing—and the adage comes to mind “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” She may have to haul out the new for her next new work to keep the people hooked, but just as with Brooks’s use of repetition, it is the choreographer’s prerogative to shape the attention span of his or her audiences.  This is a tough proposition, for we the iPad community are unrelenting on our expectations to keep it fast and fresh.

Gotham Dance Festival continues this week with Kate Weare Company and CorbinDances in the evenings and Summer Sampler Matinees featuring Sydney Skybetter, Ashley Leite and Julien Barnett. I’ll see you there.

Post by Emeri Fetzer

Emeri is Managing Editor of and a full–time freelance performer. Emeri most recently danced in Punchdrunk's 'Sleep No More' NYC and in original choreography for PITH Dance. Originally from Salt Lake City, Utah, with BA’s in Dance Choreography and English from Goucher College, Emeri loves to marry writing with a strong passion for movement. She is also a regular contributor for Theater Development Fund's online magazine TDF Stages.

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