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mid: first week of men in dance – review

Peter Boal in Donald Byrd’s Carveresque
(Angela Sterling photo)

By Rosie Gaynor

What was it like in Seattle when Richard Jessup started Men in Dance: Against the Grain 17 years ago? How grateful we must be to the men whose passion and effort and conviction have helped reverse societal opposition to men dancing, thereby opening the way for the next generation of artists, and giving a wonderful gift to the audience.

Nowadays, Seattle certainly doesn’t lack for fine adult male dancers. And, as we saw on opening night of this dance festival on Friday night, we’ve got good boys in dance as well. The second piece of the evening featured four high school boys—one a drummer improv-ing and three tapping out a piece by Cheryl Johnson.

In a way, these young men’s performance serves as a description of the evening’s offerings: varying levels of skill, varying levels of conviction, varying levels of clarity of purpose, and various ways of saying “We’re men, and we dance.” There was the: “This is so amazing,
why isn’t everyone doing it?” And the shyer: “This feels good, but, well, I’m not sure, but I think I might be good at it, and folks are enjoying it.” And: “Let’s shake up this boring life.” And: “I’ve got rivers and rivers of rhythms inside of me; don’t dam me up.”

The dancing started early, with men doing site-specific movement in the Broadway Performance Hall lobbies. It carried into the auditorium, where Alia Swersky’s Small Spaces took place under full house lights as folks were settling into their seats.The five (the program lists six, so obviously I missed someone from where I was sitting) dancers explored the stage, under the stage, and the aisles in various modern-dancerly ways, some quite humorous, some serious. A shout-out to the two fellows playing with seats: the schtick was funny but their honest delivery made it happy-making and not just a cheap laugh.

Ezra Thomson, Josh Spell and Price Suddarth in Barry 
Kerollis’s Cypher (Angela Sterling photo)

The young tappers started the evening off with rousing rhythm, sometimes muddy but most often clear and enthusiastic. The tenor changed dramatically for Barry Kerollis’ Cypher, things getting spare and refined immediately with the simple electronic drum rhythms and a sophisticated light design providing snapshots of the opening movements. This is the young choreographer’s second strong work of the year; it’s so interesting to watch his style develop. Three of his four works so far have been based on thought but not bogged down by it, and they don’t outstay their welcome. They share a cool cleanness, whether danced by PNB students or, in this case, PNB professionals. Cypher features neat, compact jumps, upright ballet backs that dissolve into rippling fluidity, and a sometimes tense, sometimes graceful juxtaposition of ballet and primal rhythms.

David Lorence Schleiffers’s Hillside followed, taking us from Kerollis’s rarefied jungle onto the track, where shorts are short and shirts are striped and the squeaks of sneakers are sometimes comical, sometimes sad. To me it made a statement about men in athletics and men in dance—men’s ways of finding motion, be it acceptable or not (like the “sissy” run the piece starts and ends with, which is very sweet, and not mean or loud), funny or sad or gentle or mad or healthy or destructive. Like many of the works in this show, it might have made a more compelling dance if it had ended sooner. The sports-as-dance aspects of the first half or so were fun to watch and would have been enough; we didn’t need the more dance-familiar moves that came toward the end. (We? Well, let’s be accurate here: I.)

Jim Kent and Ben Maestes III danced Wade Madsen’s Breath of Light (from 1982). This slow, paint-with-bodies piece really relies on the dancers’ ability to convey emotion and find beautiful lines. My favorite image in this love story that is told with hand touching upstretched hands, hands caressing the air above cheeks, hands wrapping around torsos, was the final image, with Maestes lying down and Kent, hovering above him, his left leg following the line of the supine body, his arms in winging slightly, softly over this loved one.

Thomas Van Doren in Eva Stone’s 
Me Over You (Angela Sterling photo)

After Breath of Light, we needed a breath of lighter air. It came in the form of Eva Stone’s Me Over You romp, first performed in her Chop Shop festival. As the four men ran around in white shorts (one in a cute tutu) I kept trying to grasp the humor, but it kept eluding me. I had ample opportunity to look for it, as the piece had several (five?) movements. I think I wasted my time trying to pin down what the piece was saying and whether the performance showed the men’s true technical ability or whether they were just clowning around. It seemed important to me at the time, but in retrospect… When I look at the image Men in Dance provided, I see that I missed something…

I looked forward to Jason Ohlberg’s solo for himself. His Ascent was much quieter than his powerhouse leap the Festival featured on its marketing materials. Quieter and more horizontal, it stretched to a sacred-sounding song by Charles Villiers Stanford. The most stirring moments of this piece for me were when he was just lying on his back, his long body stretched out in the unforgiving light, at rest. At the end, he walked upstage along the center into the black. It was shocking for some reason, rather than cliché, and I had to wonder (I wished I could remember!) if the whole piece (which started on a diagonal) had taken place along the diagonals and whether this constituted a break in the plane. Funny how so simple a thing as a chance in direction/plane can have such an effect.

Lucien Postlewaite and Andrew Bartee 
in Olivier Wevers’ Monster 
(Angela Sterling photo)

Olivier Wevers’ excerpt from Monster followed. (The full piece—three pas de deux—premieres in January as part of Whim W’him’s second season.) Like Ohlberg’s, this was a private piece. It was dedicated to six teens who had been the victims of homophobic bullying, we heard over the speakers before the piece began. The work began with soft fade ins and fade outs, revealing moments of tenderness and pain between two dancers, Lucien Postlewaite and Andrew Bartee. They are both skilled dancers, capable of virtuosic leaps and all, but Wevers didn’t spotlight that. Rather, he used their strength to achieve beautiful lifts that didn’t put much space between the dancer and the floor but were slow, graceful, circling swooshes. He used their technique to make legs whip up and around, super fast yet super fluid, not for a moment disturbing the quiet of the piece. He gave them heartwrenching clutches. And, the beautiful, curious use of demi-pointe that we saw in Wevers’ work in January made a return, with a different inflection here, (not so centaur-like and primed with delightful 18th-century self-awareness, but) more of a slipping, desperate run in slow motion. It stood out all the more because of the bright red socks the dancers wore.

Second to last on the program was Donald Byrd’s piece for Peter Boal. Don’t worry if you missed it: it’s on the program for Town Hall & CityArts’s Soliloquy show, October 22. And yes, it was definitely a highight of the evening. It’s another quiet piece that happens in the dark. Boal, in jeans and tennis shoes that announce that he’s not going to be doing Le Corsaire, appears to be a man seeking something, a muse perhaps. It seems a wondering, melancholy search for the most part, but there are moments of light and hope to alleviate things. Gaze (which is something I’ve been thinking about since I watched a Velocity audition this summer) somehow became more than a way to connect with the audience or a way to initiate or emphasize movement; it seemed so central to the theme of the piece that a cool shift occurred. I can’t quite explain it, but, here’s an example: the spotting in Boal’s smooth turns went from technical requirement to yet another exploration of the act of seeking.

Smooth turns? Oh, boy. Boal’s beautiful lightness and lift made me jealous of those who got to see this man dance in New York for so many years. And, the lyrical, gentle choreography Byrd made for him bodes well for the Oklahoma! that Byrd’s choreographing at 5th Avenue this spring.

Deborah Woolf’s propelling temple of a piece, Frattura, ended the evening. The bells that start the work grow louder and at one point I felt as though I were inside an enormous windchime. The five men who slipped in and out of the entrance upstage center wore velvety pants that flowed around their legs as they performed their rituals. Their movements were large and repetitive and formalized, often square, often in unison, here the arms pulling as though heaving on heavy ropes that dangled from above, there the legs bent and trudging forward with speed. (Can you trudge forward with speed? It’s a cool style; I remember it from her Edward Gorey piece last at the A.W.A.R.D. Show! last year.)

Friday night, I looked into some of the many faces of men in dance. What a pleasure! Private, pensive, communal, searching, playful, hairy… Hairy? Where, pray tell, is it written: thou shalt be clean-shaven in dance? Maybe that rule goes further back than the written word; a beard and messy (or, just curly?) ponytail in Wolf’s Frattura sure struck a primal nerve for some of the folks I spoke with as we left the Broadway Performance Hall. I can’t say I come down on the side of hairiness in the context of this monk-ish piece, but it does seem a funny comment at a festival supporting men in dance. I suppose it shows just how far we have left to go?

Men in Dance runs through this weekend, with a different program.

p.s. This was the eighth Men in Dance festival… I’m looking forward to the ninth! But while we’re waiting for it…consider picking up Eddie Villella’s book, Prodigal Son. It’s a great read…about a trailblazing Man in (American) Dance.