Dylan Ward enters and sits downstage next to a glowing milk glass lamp. “Hello. Thanks for coming,” he says into a microphone. Three dancers gather upstage and idle patiently as Ward introduces the show. The introduction quickly veers into a sort of artist’s stream-of-consciousness, and the dancers begin a flow of repeated gestures behind him. This is WORK, Ward’s newest piece created in collaboration with the performers—Devon McDermott, Jim Kent, and Alexander Pham—and performed at Velocity Dance Center November 20–21.
Most of WORK surrounds Ward telling a story from his past as the dancers move. Sometimes they explicitly illustrate the story; sometimes they interact only abstractly with the text; sometimes Ward joins them to dance himself. Ward tells his stories with a rambling, eccentric air, but the speaking feels honest, unscripted. The movement has the same quality: nothing flashy, almost casual, but executed with great skill. There’s a real sense that the dancers are here without pretense. They are here, now, to do this work. It isn’t about transportation or transformation, as it so often is in the performing arts. It’s about presence, and you can see it in the way the performers acknowledge each other, the room, and the audience.
McDermott, in particular, couldn’t be more natural on stage, perfectly balancing an easy calm with precisely executed movements and thoughtful engagement. Pham, Kent, and Ward also navigate the choreography with effortlessness. Gestures swoop and flow without stop or start. Double pirouettes and assembles exist organically between a detailed hand gesture and a seamless transition to the floor. The perpetual motion means that everything flies a little bit under the radar. The relationship between the movement and the stories sneaks up on you. Moments of connection arrive quietly where you didn’t expect them.
At face value, most of Ward’s stories are unrelated. He recalls why he started dancing in college, a folk tale his mother told him as a boy, an interaction with a fireman at a bathhouse, a story from a favorite French concept album. He tells a few of the stories with multiple endings; with others he goes on tangents about infinity: the spaces between that keep expanding as you zoom in and in. It’s this idea, of the places in between, that lets the piece communicate. Ward plants the seeds, giving just enough context and leaving space for the audience to draw the conclusions. It is one of those rare works that leaves you contemplating long after the show ends. It is brave enough to offer more questions than answers.
The second piece of the split bill (also called WORK) is Kim Lusk’s Trio in Silver. It is a complete change in tone but just as high in caliber. Featuring Erin McCarthy and Pham in addition to Lusk, the trio moves about the stage as a unit, often in perfect unison, executing linear movement with precise stops and an unwavering air of self-possession. Their seriousness is undercut with the subtlest of details: a little shift in position, a turn of the head, an accent on a musical beat, all of which trigger waves of laughter from the audience.
Original music, by Ryan Hume, also plays into the comedy. A candy-coated instrumental pop song reminiscent of a late-90s Britney Spears album takes Pham and McCarthy on a duet journey that is equal parts ballet class and VH1. There’s a fair amount of straight-faced posturing, and moments of pure goofiness—like when McCarthy reaches out to Pham with a perfectly extended leg and drags her toes all the way down his body in hilarious inelegance. Lusk somehow never strays from excellent technique, even as her dancers engage in gut-busting parody. Her crafting of details and sense of comic timing bring to mind Jiri Kylian with a millennial edge. It’s refreshing to see ballet used to achieve non-beauty, and humor without any room for sloppiness.
With two skillfully crafted pieces, this independently produced split bill was one of the best shows of the season. Sadly, WORK was not one of the best attended. Lusk and Ward are putting in the work, and their work is paying off. Do not miss what these artists do next.