Instinct on Parade
Choreographers of the 21st century may be looking down the evolutionary scale for inspiration. That was the message from three young New York artists, who put their newest work on display in a marathon triple-feature at the Baruch Performing Arts Center last week. Laura Peterson, Chris Elam and Nicole Berger all played in some way with the likeness of human and animal behavior.
Peterson’s new work, “Security,” explores the lower end of the Great Chain of Being, somewhere around the dust mites. The whole piece is done with the dancers on all fours, scurrying about in buglike bursts of motion, in striped tights and black hoods. The action is accompanied by a surveillance camera video: it seems our friends have emerged from a subterranean tunnel, and are being monitored by the guardians of some bleak industrial property. The bugs themselves are industrious, and totally harmless, interested mostly in each others’ rear ends, which are decorated in frilly lace. If from the title one expects a satire on homeland security, or social security, it’s not there. Peterson’s irony is deeper than that: it might be a satire on all human fears and phobias, in particular our trepidation about our true nature, about how much we have in common with the lower orders. Still, the piece is broadly comic and audience-friendly, thanks to two highly visible and gifted muggers. Adele Berne and Christopher Hutchings play a creature couple who are alternately attracted, repelled and indifferent to each other’s seductive butt-twitchings. Their funniest scene is on the surveillance video, where Hutchings stands up and furiously shakes his booty to a French pop tune, knocking a top hat off Berne’s head and drawing a look of disdain and mock incomprehension worthy of W.C. Fields. The finale is also a hoot: in an evolutionary breakthrough, Berne discovers how to use a roller skate, first trying it on her head, then her rear, then—eureka!—strapping it to her knee. (These are special quadruped-friendly skates, constructed by Jon Pope.) Soon the entire cast is careening across the stage on their hot new wheels.
Human-animal behavior was also on display in Chris Elam’s premiere, “Toes of a Snail,” whose very title confounds the two realms. Its most spectacular passage was a pas de deux for a bird of paradise and a nerdy boy, danced like a mythical rite of spring by Jennifer Harmer, in a blue leotard decked in feathers, and Adam Scher, in white shirt and bow tie. The action is an initiation into the ways of nature, a mating dance that scrupulously avoids any romantic or sentimental gestures. She circles him, mesmerizes him, ensnares and entangles him, and then serenely leaves, to be replaced by another female, this one in a skirt and sweater, but with a few symbolic feathers attached. The ensuing hot duet for Brynne Billingsley and Scher adds the element of human pleasure, but never loses the primal motivation.
The live sound score by Rob Erickson mixes meows and clucks with babies’ cries and guitar riffs, kind of an electronic barnyard. It suits the action, which seems to be a benign transmission of instinctive behavior. Dancers pair off, the dominant partner instructing, scolding, sympathizing, modeling, dragging the other around when all else fails. Though it’s strictly utilitarian, there’s something friendly and sweet about the process. This is the charm in Elam’s work, the sense of a peacable kingdom. Another premiere on the bill was a duet for Elam himself and the heavenly Harmer, he skinny and dark, she voluptuous and blond, in pants and identical striped shirts. It’s called “Fill in the Blank,” and the action recalls Aristophanes’ theory of love in Plato’s Symposium—love is a divided self searching for its missing other half, the half that can make it whole. In this case it was a hyperactive, quirky, demanding guy, finding a woman so strong and pliable that he can kneel on her, cling to her, and in the end roll himself into a ball with her. They exit head-over-heels in a double somersault, inseparable at last.
Nicole Berger’s dance-and-theater piece “Welcome to Birdland,” also highlights the avian influence on civilization, in this case the privileged suburbs of southern Connecticut. It’s about an up-and-coming ad man, his apopleptically anxious wife, and their lonely daughter, played by the author-choreographer. Desperately in need of a hobby to repair their frayed family ties, they try birdwatching. Some black-clad city birds show them how to let loose and shake their tail feathers, and they attain a brief, ecstatic respite from their chronic uptightness.
It’s not much of a plot, but then again it isn’t much of a life. The territory is familiar—J.D. Salinger mapped it in the 1950’s—and the point of view is essentially adolescent: a clever teenager ranking on her hung-up elders. Hopefully, the talented Berger can find a way to leave all that behind and move on.