writers on dancing



Anita Cheng Dance
Joyce Soho
New York, New York
January 13, 2005

by Nancy Dalva
copyright © 2005 by Nancy Dalva

A parallax is an apparent change in the direction of an object, caused by a change in observational position that provides a new line of sight. Anita Cheng's choreography—in tandem with accompanying video by Ronaldo Kiel—provides these apparent changes to an observer remaining stationary. Her adept , meticulous art is cool, sometimes to the point of chilliness, but provocative. The marvelous technique is Merce Cunningham's, but the style is her own. The contemporary live music she chooses, and the arty costumes for two of the pieces on this program, complement her work, though it is perhaps frustrating (this is an old story with Cunningham, with Balanchine, with almost everyone) when line is veiled by fabric, even when the resulting imagery is suggestive and appealing, as are the four women in silvery white organza robes in the new work called "West of Winter."

This piece, last on the bill, has an arresting original score by Gordon Beeferman, in which soprano Lisa Bielawa sings with and against her own recorded voice, like some latter day Queen of the Night (from Mozart's "Magic Flute") with a tape recorder. Like her opening piece from 2001, "Daybreak," the dance is a sorority, with a girl-group feeling reminiscent of Doris Humphrey and early Martha Graham. Perhaps goddesses, perhaps celebrants of a tea ceremony, perhaps stars in a constellation: they go about their cool business, chaste, but gorgeous. Harmonious, yet individual. Indeed, it is a significant hallmark of the choreographer's craft that over the hour of the program the dancers emerge as individuals. Erika Bloom's lush arms, Kate Jewett's ardor, Blanca Cubillos-Roman's scintillating attack, Elyssa Byrne's long elegant legs, Cho-Ying Tsai's serene intention, Renée Smith's shapeliness: these qualities emerge as the technique stays clean, elegant, and true.

Despite Cunningham's enormous influence in dance, and the legions who follow him one way or another, it's unusual—and wonderful—to see a choreographer working so clearly in his technique, using the language to tell a different story—or, to be more precise, to paint a different picture, since there is no story here. Instead, there is a constant unfolding of a movement sequence, whether with four dancers or with one, with an effect not so much of stop-action, but of start-action. This would be the opposite of an Edward Muybridge sequence, where movement is frozen. Here, it is unfolded, as when a fan is opened. Started, not stopped.

Because Anita Cheng has mastered Cunningham technique personally and perhaps also because she is familiar with his repertory, all her pieces contain pure Cunningham referents—you might see these as quotations, or you might just see this as her using the language. (Cunningham has used his classroom as laboratory throughout his long career.) At any rate, these are not so much quotations, as fleeting mirrors. As when, in the first quartet from 2001, called "Daybreak," a dancer tilts her upper body, arms to the sides, you see the tilt that characterizes Cunningham's "Locale." Or in her "Field Continuum, " the arms curved upward to the front from his "Changing Steps." Or, in the same dance, a correspondence in structure, and device, to the duet from "Aeon," long a staple in Cunningham's "Events." In the only racy number on the bill, "Duet for Now" from 1988, a body is raised up from the ground on one arm, perfectly sideways: this, you have seen recently, in a duet of stunning virtuosity, in Cunningham's "Interscape," which he made in 2001, and which was excerpted in last month's "Events" at the Joyce Theatre. (This makes you understand, in a fresh way, how Cunningham uses and devises and redevises his own material.) When here you see one woman hold another's outstretched foot, kneeling next to her, you might remember a, identical moment from Cunningham's "Scenario." Or you might remember the same figure used in an "Event." Or you might, of course, just see what is in front of you. A dance by Anita Cheng.

While is perhaps unfair to define something by what it is not, or what it does not do, it is fair to say that a certain ritualistic quality is infused in these dances by something missing. They lack rhythmic contrast, and travel blandly. (This would be completely unlike Cunningham, who, like George Balanchine, is a choreographer with no "in-betweens," the journey as significant as the arrival.) Given that the early duet–warmly danced by Blake Pearson and Victoria Lundell–was the only one without video and the only one with a lot of oomph, I found myself wondering how much care was taken in co-ordinating with the video (which was variously abstract, architectural, and representational)—or, really, just what had made the choreographer become so careful. There's a way to be precise yet passionate, too.

The choreographer's own new solo—which she danced with multiple images of herself, projected on the white box walls of the stage—was an alphabet. "Ten Before Now After" is a series of poses, the most intriguing actual step being a little flat-footed scrunching of the feet, causing the body to sort of oonce forward or sideways in modest increments. For this piece, her only appearance on the bill, the choreographer wore a black shirt, and black trousers. So did her projected images. After a time, the work stopped being a solo with projections, and started to be a duet, a quartet, a quintet. That image was the evening's only metaphor, but a potent one. Out of one dancing body, a whole congeries of dancers. What's choregraphy, if not that?

First and third photos:  Anita Cheng in "Ten Before Now After" Photographer: Jonas Gustavsson
Second photo:  Renée Smith, Kate Jewett, Elyssa Byrnes & Erika Bloom in Anita Cheng's "Daybreak" Photographer: Jonas Gustavsson

Volume 3, No. 3
January 17, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by Nancy Dalva


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last updated on January10, 2005