“Throw People”
Misnomer Dance Theater
Choreography by Chris Elam
P.S. 122
New York, NY
May 13, 2006

By Susan Reiter
copyright ©2006, Susan Reiter

It was a strange, oddly absorbing world that Chris Elam established in the course of this program of two intimately scaled dances. Dancers nuzzled, butted heads, walked on delicate tiptoe that made their legs resemble those of deer, and generally met up with a degree of intimacy that was both deeply sensual and ferocious. It’s not that the four women in “Land Flat,” the opening work, or the trio that performed the concluding “Throw People” were indulging in specific imitations of animals. But last year, Elam’s troupe performed an outdoor work in Battery Park in which he scattered birdseed to invite the participation of nearby birds, and during the course of “Land Flat,” the wonderfully serene and alert women did sometimes evoke bird imagery, with their inquisitively bobbing heads and oddly hyper-extended arms jutting out from sharp angles at the shoulder and elbow.

While his background includes study of Balinese dance forms and time spent in Cuba, Elam’s work here evoked not so much specific cultural associations as a quirkily inquisitive spirit — and a fascination with the degree to which bodies can wrap and twist around each other, often with extreme, nearly disconcerting, results. He subjects the dancers’ knees — his own more than any others, in the often dangerous-looking entanglements of “Throw People” — to significant weight bearing and near-distortion.

In “Land Flat,” Brynne Billingsley, Jennifer Harmer, Coco Karol and Dorian Nuskind-Oder were barelegged and wore varied, mostly pale, dresses that could have come from a thrift shop. They began their calm, exploratory maneuvers in silence, initially in unison but then separating, though they sustained a strong mutual awareness, with wide-eyed expressions that gave them a look of being ready for anything. As various, mostly understated, musical selections came and went, there were moments of suspension and stillness. Their bare legs and elegant relevé positions at times evoked the movement of storks, and they frequently clasped their arms behind their backs or through their legs, holding a balance with an air of quizzical expectancy. Towards the end of the 25-minute piece, as faintly Indian-sounding music was heard in intermittent, spare segments, the focus narrowed to a more intense exploration between Coco Karol and the one woman, whose flowing dress had a distinctly romantic sweep. The quartet then reassembled as the first few measures of a Donizetti aria were heard, clustering together and clutching one another. Just as it seemed something new was about to begin, the lights faded out and the piece ended, leaving an intriguing, but not unsatisfying, sense of incompleteness.

Things were much rougher and less decorous in “Throw People,” a trio for Elam, Karol and Luke Wiley. Accompanied by live musicians (placed at opposite walls) performing Andy Teirstein’s score for sax, marimba, accordion and mandolin, they enacted a scenario that by the end reverberated with echoes of Jerome Robbins’ “The Cage.” For a considerable time, all the focus was on Elam and the amazing Karol — a tremulously delicate yet ready-for-anything dancer as they entwined and rough-housed in a demanding duet that ranged from the provocative to the grotesque, often testing the limits of their bodies’ strength and pliability. Wearing beinge leotards with stripes of thick ruffles attached, they were fearless and daring, and demonstrated an amazing degree of trust. Meanwhile, Wiley, in a grey-blue jumpsuit, strode around and kept his distance, seemingly not part of the scenario.

Eventually, he peeled off his jumpsuit to reveal a similar tank suit, with orange ruffles that matched those on Karol’s, and soon they became a mutual fascinated pair, exploring and testing one another’s bodies with creaturely spontaneity. Elam soon returned, fierce and seemingly betrayed, to briefly grapple with the other tow before facing off with Wiley, whom he tossed to the ground on his back with an alarming thud. From the way Karol soon re-allied herself with Elam, one began to feel she (with her blend of waif-like innocence and minxish slyness) had been doing his bidding — perhaps softening Wiley up for the kill. The lights went down on the two of them hovering over Wiley’s prone body.

Both these works sustained one’s interest and revealed Elam as a choreographer who knows how to allow space and calm into his works. His mysterious investigations hovered at the edge of violence, and there may be a limit to how far his hyper-intense extremes of yoga flexibility and Pilobolus-like body entanglements can be taken. But he seems to be well in control of his material and confident in the ability of movement and music to express something unique and persuasive, without the addition of a lot of bells and whistles — and there’s certainly something to be said for that.

Photos by Mark Sadan.

Volume 4, No. 19
May 15, 2006

copyright ©2006 Susan Reiter



©2006 DanceView