For its New York debut performances, LEVYdance offered four intriguing, well-crafted chamber works that made a persuasive case for Benjamin Levy as a promising, intelligent new voice on the scene. The San Francisco-based ensemble made its debut in May 2003, and this program suggested he is working scrupulously and modestly, not trying to over-reach beyond his means, or to offer a sampler that screams "look how many diverse kinds of dances I can present on one program."
These four compact works shared a rich, chewy physicality and a serious fascination with exploring the ways bodies can nurture and repel each other. There were some solo interludes, but mostly Mr. Levy sent his dancers into dynamic, direct contact. If they were sharing the same space, sooner or later they were bound to meet up, with the results ranging from sensual to violent.
There is no room for levity or marking time in Mr. Levy's dances. Situations seem intense, if not dire, and there are no casual asides. There is a lot at stake in every encounter, and his five company members plunge into his robust, vigorous movement with fervor and commitment. His movement has a supple flow blended with a forceful, from-the-gut impetus; the Graham-focused training he received at the University of California at Berkeley's dance program clearly imbued him with an appreciation for movement instigated from a strong center and for dance as a means of communicating human situations in which a lot may be at stake.
But, based on this evening, Mr. Levy is not interested in evoking a specific time or place, or with assigning identities to his dancers or using them to represent anyone specific. He employs movement, along with thoughtfully chosen musical scores and dramatic lighting, to create evocative, often shadowy scenarios in which every confrontation or observation across space hints at rich possibilities.
The first half featured the most recent works, and they almost could be companion pieces. Their costuming is related; both feature stretchy, clingy material with intriguing angles or layered piece added. Just busy enough to be intriguing but not distracting, these costumes by Wendy Sparks allow the viewer to relish the deep muscular impetus of the movement, with its curving and unfolding, and to make the inventive, twisting partnering moves register clearly and sensually.
In "Holding Pattern," two women and a man wearing soft, mossy green inhabit a hermetic world in which eight low-hanging bulbs occasionally light up, and sometimes bob and sway after being hit during some of the tensely calibrated partnering sequences. After Christopher Hojin Lee opens the work with a brief solo, the dancers pairing in various ways, as though exploring all the possibilities. Mr. Levy's moves are inventive and deft, but never slick, and the dancers commit to them with a bold lushness and a sense of daring. During one exchange, Mr. Lee and one of the women arrive abruptly at sudden, sometimes extreme holds, only to slip out of them and on to the next. Mathew Johnson's electronic sound environment incorporates a low-key steady beat, and grows increasingly harsh as the work develops. Mr. Levy is clearly in control of his materials but his ending feels somewhat tentative.
The full company of five performs in "That Four Letter Word …" in which they alternate between observation and participation. At the start, three women are upstage with their backs to the audience scrutinizing the introductory duet between Mr. Lee and another woman. The crimson and maroon costumes includes softly flowing dresses for the women. As the dancers plunge robustly clinging, groping contact, at times it seems that the four-letter word at stake might be love, and at others it could just as easily be something much more crude and venomous.
The brief quirky interlude in which they bring on balloons and slowly let the air out of them to unleash a series of funny sounds did not feel organically connected to the rest of the piece, which progressed through a feverish standoff, with support generously offered and then withdrawn, set to a haunting Fado melody. The finale—set to an rhythmic Spanish song which repeatedly asked "Donde?"—had the dancers finding temporary refuge in a skewed approximation of social dancing, interspersed with sudden falls to the floor. This itme, Mr. Levy came up with a smart, memorable punctuation mark of an ending, as the five found themselves entwined in a swirling flow of movement, propelled by the juicy music, until one by one they broke away and were propelled upstage and away, till just one abandoned woman was left standing there as the final note was heard.
Mr. Levy put in an appearance in "Falling After Too," a duet he co-choreographed and performed with Darrin Michael Wright. Compact and well-matched, identically dressed in red t-shirts and khakis, they began face to face, tentatively reaching towards and testing each other with small, brief arm gestures. Their degree and intensity of contact gradually expanded, as they alternated between staying closely connected or breaking apart. At times they worked side by side in unison; at others, they engaged in maneuvers that veered, often abruptly, from tenderness to harshness. Who was in control, who was manipulating whom? The churning, melodic flow of Anthony Porter's piano score helped propel the ongoing, fluidly organic unfolding of their face-off.
"pOrtal," which closed the program, also benefited from its music, a rich electric cello score by Christopher Lancaster. What stays with me from this atmospheric quartet are the pliable, sensual give-and-take; the sudden, rough falls to the floor, often onto the knees, with accompanying loud thuds, and the repeated lift in which one woman, and later another, dives into a cantilevered lift with Mr. Lee, her body arching back. Thanks to Mr. Levy's firm, control of his materials and concise, focused approach, there were quite a few of such striking images and moments of surprise in the course of this program.
Photos of LEVYdance by Weiferd Watts.