I had the opportunity last night to check out a preview/rehearsal of PNB’s “Sculptured Dance” event, premiering as part of Summer at SAM on August 11. The video PNB just posted on YouTube (below) gives a little glimpse of the event, which features choreography by PNB’s Kiyon Gaines and Ezra Thomson (whose work wasn’t shown last night), Whim W’Him’s Olivier Wevers, Spectrum Dance Theater’s Donald Byrd, and Kate Wallich, most recently known for her Industrial Ballet at the Moore Theater, each of whom are working with a group of dancers and one of the sculptures in the Olympic Sculpture Park.
Going in last night not really knowing what to expect (or what phase the dances would be in, given that it was an “open rehearsal”), I was really blown away.
The first piece up was Gaines’s work at Richard Serra’s Wake, danced by Leta Biasucci, Benjamin Griffiths, Leah Merchant, and James Moore of PNB. Any regular readers of this blog (are there any??) will know that I have fond memories of seeing the Merce Cunningham Dance Company perform at Dia: Beacon in 2008 inside and amongst Serra’s Torqued Ellipses.
For me, Gaines’s piece, which he said was trying to engage with ideas about perspective and the way Serra’s work play with it, didn’t yet live up to its potential, but felt like it was on its way. The movements blended a kind of capoeira-esque shifting of weight with balletic arabesques and partnering in ways that were engaging, if not totally original. And a moment when Merchant danced alone toward the back of the sculptured space while the other three remained in front was memorable–her tall frame suddenly smaller than Biasucci’s petite one. I would have liked, like at the Cunningham events, to be invited to walk through the space and alter my own perspective along with that of the moving dancers–a topic that came up in the post-rehearsal talk-back.
Wever’s piece was set on four boys from the PNB Professional Division–Ryland Acree, Clay Murray, Zion Rivera, and Kuu Sakuragi–and danced around and underneath Alexander Calder’s The Eagle–the piece that seems to me the most iconic of the Olympic Sculpture Park. Set to the boys’ own voices shouting out counts and questions (“what do you feel? fear!”) and composed of much marching and partnering– three boys often lifting a fourth in spider-like shapes and poses–it felt a bit more like a teaching exercise meant to disinhibit its dancers (which, given who its dancers were, it might well have been) than a piece that Wever’s would set on his own company. That said, it was fun to see these young ballet-trained boys experiment with same-gender partnering and using their voices in ways that ballet dancers are rarely asked to do.
For me, the event really picked up in terms of polish with Donald Byrd’s piece for PNB dancers Cecilia Illesiu and Miles Pertl–both new to the company this year–and set at and on Roy Mcmakin’s Untitled. Untitled was the only sculpture the dancers were allowed to touch, consisting of a cement bench, a metal bankers box, and a bronze deck chair, which the dancers alternately sat, laid, danced, and stood on. Accompanied by a Piazzolla tango, Byrd’s piece explored questions of connection and disconnect: the two dancers beginning looking at their cell phones–Byrd later said they were texting each other, but to me it looked more as if they were using their phones to distract themselves from one another–and then entering into a duet that was at times yearning, at times intimate, and at times distant and angry. The most resonant moments were when Illesiu buried her head in Pertl’s shoulder while he gazed out into the middle distance–it felt like knowing a relationship is over without wanting to admit it yet– when Pertl lifted Illesiu into a buoyant arabesque that brushed the leaves of the tree next to the sculpture, and when, at the end, Illesiu was lowered onto the back half of the bench, disappearing behind its back, Pertl hovering above her. Whether it was a death or a consummation (or both) remained ambiguous.
The highlight of the event for me though was the final piece of the evening, Kate Wallich’s new work at Roxy Paine’s Split, which seemed to finally deliver on Gaines’s desire to explore perspective compellingly. Featuring the always mesmerizing dancers of Whim W’Him–Tory Peil, Jim Kent, Mia Monteabaro, Justin Reiter, Patrick Kilbane, Thomas Phelan, and Kyle Johnson–the piece took place throughout Split‘s hilly meadow, inverting the standard audience/proscenium stage relationship by having the dancers positioned on an upwardly slanted and curved slope with the audience below. The vibe was something like music festival kids impersonating bunnies in a field: their grey street clothes and sunglasses mirroring the unnatural naturalness of Split. This was the piece that had the most “afterimages” for me, to borrow from Arlene Croce: Kent singing to himself in the middle of that vast field; the other six dancers appearing on the hill-scape in a line, as if out of nowhere; Peil seated on the retaining wall gazing out over Broad Street; Kilbane bounding like a rabbit down the footpath; dancers disappearing into giant tufts of grass (and the bees buzzing around them); Wallich bouncing to the beat streaming from her speaker as she walked it along the V-shaped path that abuts the field, its sound building and fading like the bodies of the dancers had done throughout the work; the satisfaction of them all dancing together after they had danced alone and in pairs, but retaining their individuality, each movement and pose a little different from that of the dancer next to them. This was the only piece of the night that felt like it couldn’t be adapted for a theater.
In all the event–which was designed for audience feedback and to encourage audience engagement–was a big success on at least the most important metric: it made me want to go back this summer. Good job, PNB–I’ll definitely be corralling some friends to attend the final product in August!