Barnard Dances

The Barnard Project
Choreography by Gabri Christa, Jeanine Durning, David Neumann and Reggie Wilson
Dance Theater Workshop
New York, NY
December 7, 2006

By Susan Reiter
copyright 2006 by Susan Reiter

The Barnard Project, an enlightened collaboration between Barnard College’s Department of Dance and Dance Theater Workshop that is now in its second year, is as much about process as it is about the end result. Professional choreographers—mostly ones that have recently been presented at DTW—spend the fall semester as associate professors at Barnard, creating new dances on the students. They get access to a larger number of performers than they might usually be able to use in their work, and the students get the experience of having a dance choreographed on them. In addition, they get the experience of performing in one of the city’s premiere downtown venues.

Last year the Project featured works by three choreographers, two of whom were adapting earlier works. This year’s edition included for works, all brand-new. However valuable the experience was for the student dancers, the program achieved only minimal theatrical impact until the closing work, by Reggie Wilson. It was filled with short bursts of pedestrian movement, assigned tasks that kept the dancers occupied but failed to cohere into with shape and dynamic impetus.

Two pieces were more overtly “dancey,” while the other two were assemblages of bits and pieces, often odd and quirky ones. Most trying and tedious was Jeanine Durning’s “[heart],” a sullen exercise which kept 12 women quite busy, but to little effect. Most were in simple tops and skirts or leggings in shades of grey, but two were in bright colors: one wore a purple top and red skirt, the other had the colors reversed. But their differentiation was not played up within the abrupt bits of movement and stasis, except that one of them spent some time sobbing loudly while facing the upstage wall. This emotional outburst came out of nowhere, as did most of the over-extended and unfocused activity. One dancer, positioned downstage in a cluster with three others, sang a few lines about “trying to reach perfection” which were later heard in a bluesy song that was played in brief snatches. Dancers paired up face to face, or sat on several folding chairs at the sides of the stage to observe others. Nothing seemed to develop from anything else, and the abrupt shifts in the sounds collage (brass flourishes one moment, a wistful violin melody the next) did not help matters.

The ten dancers also wore grey in David Neumann’s “Speak the Title Now or, Coward Shoes” but the costumes—each slightly different—had a distinctive flavor, evoking schoolgirls in uniforms with its pinafores, jumpers pleated skirts. A lone man—the slyly unflappable Buck Wanner—was part of the ensemble yet also the outsider. The piece, during much of which the house lights remained partway up, seemed more a study of behavior, with emphasis on how people observe and react to one another. One charming moment had the full cast in a line, with Wanner in the center, and the women both seeming to include him as part of the group while at the same time sending signals that his presence made being noted. When everyone ran loudly and heavily, circling the stage, Wanner then continued all alone, making a second trip around the space. In the end, he had enough of trying to fit in, and simply left, climbing the stairs between the aisles.

Gabri Christa’s “Not So M.” (cryptic titles certainly were the rule on this program) was an uncomplicated but pleasant work for 12 women to a jazz score (by David S. Ware Quartets) that sounded like an extended improvisation, beginning as an extended solo for plucked bass, with piano, drums and sax gradually enriching the texture. Moving initially in a cluster, the 12 women dipped and swayed their way across the space, ponytails bobbing. When the occasional duet took center stage, the interactions were sometimes gymnastic and unexpected: one woman scuttled along on all fours, facing upwards, over the prone figure of another, who then grabbed her by the ankle. Christa’s work made the dancer look at ease and stylish (helped by Liz Prince’s casually chic tops and skirts), and it had a taut, compressed energy.

But when it came to authority, Reggie Wilson was far ahead of the others. His “Arrested Development of Violent Femmes” was the one work that didn’t proclaim itself a “student piece.” In their elegantly sensuous, frothily shirred and flounced white dresses, his dozen women moved with calmly centered grace and a quiet element of surprise. Buoyed along by a selection of flavorful music—the last one had a distinctly African pulse and lush generosity—the swooped like wide-winged birds, pulled themselves along the floor like soldiers prowling along the ground, and paired up to offer to each other support. During the final moments, the women dancing in resilient unison, framed in golden light. Wilson’s gift is for filling the stage with evocative images, and using the body with robust, earthy vigor. He and his troupe, Fist and Heel Performance Group, were in all in residence at Barnard as part of a pilot initiative to bring in one choreographer and with his/her company. It seems certain they offered these students invaluable lessons.

Volume 4, No. 45
December 18, 2006

copyright ©2006 Susan Reiter



©2006 DanceView