Terror, Fun, and Works&Process

Tour de Force!
American Ballet Theater Studio Company and Armitage Gone! Dance
Peter B. Lewis Theater
Guggenheim Museum
New York, New York
May 27, 2006

by Dale Brauner

copyright 2006 by Dale Brauner

Brian Reeder and Karol Armitage. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to take two works by French composers and choreograph dances to be shown at the Works & Process program “Tour de Force!” at the Guggenheim Museum.  So went the offer by series producer Mary Sharp Cronson.  The result: an entertaining, if uneven, evening of dance in which the challenge was carried out in one case with great fun.

This showcase usually follows the formula in which performers are introduced, work is shown and then the artist is interviewed by a moderator (in this instance, by Time Out New York dance editor Gia Kourlas). Peter Phillips of the Tallis Scholars also was given the task of composing music to rondeaux by the 15th-century poet Charles, Duc d’Orleans. He took part in a talk with George Steel, but I’ll leave the description of that portion of the evening to Music View Times, if such a publication exists.

Reeder was given a piece of music by Mark André called “Asche,” for viola, violoncello, bass flute, bass clarinet and piano (all the music for the evening was played live by the Ensemble Alternance). The terror he felt at having to work with this collection of blips, squeaks and groans transferred itself into the clever “Gotcha!” for the American Ballet Theater Studio Company.

Looking like they stepped out of a J-Crew catalogue, two couples with flashlights made their way through the darkened theater, climbed upon the stage and swirled their torches about until the lights went up; they cavorted gamely, as if on a beach.  Like the plot of teenage slasher films such as “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” the kids become uneasy when a man, played by Tom Forster and dressed in black with a black ski mask, skulked about. Quickly a body is discovered, and then the teens are killed one by one and artfully laid about the stage. The ballet ends with the killer looming behind a freaked out Leann Underwood.

Reeder’s reaction to the music was fear, “which is why I think I put a lot of fear into this piece.  It’s not the usual music I would be leaning towards. There’s no definite 1-2-3, 1-2-3. There’s no waltz going on there. I have a tendency to go towards the CDs of relaxing classical music: Mozart, Schubert… So it was good for me. When I heard this, my first impulse was, ‘I don’t know, I don’t think so.’ Then I actually said, ‘Take the challenge. Step on board.’  And I’m glad I did.”

Cinema and humor are important elements in Reeder’s work. In a previous ballet for the Studio Company, “Staged Fright, set to music by Alfred Hitchcock’s frequent composer Bernard Hermann, Reeder was influenced by the master of suspense’s films “Psycho,” “Vertigo” and “North by Northwest.”

“I really love film,” said the former dancer at New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Frankfurt. “All these horror films came to my mind immediately as soon as a heard this music. I decided I definitely wanted to explore this darker milieu.

“Some of the more recent Japanese horror films came to mind, the ones that had been done over in a Hollywood way, like “The Grudge,” “The Ring,” “The Ring Two.” The more I worked with the dancers and took into account their youth, it almost took on a teenage, cheerleader massacre-kind of thing. I really wanted to stay true to who they were while exploring this theme.”

Reeder used the easy access to the stage from the seating area and tight performing space to his advantage to create a sense of claustrophobia.  His dance vocabulary isn’t wide here, but he skillfully finds the steps he needs to express various emotions, such as stabbing pointe work to show fear. 

 “Gotcha!” taps into the current climate of surveillance felt in our post-9/11 world (note the villain’s character is called “Suspicious Person”), while still displaying the clever sense of humor seen in Reeder’s “Lost Language of the Flight Attendant.”

“Humor is the greatest medicine, but one person’s humor can be another person’s sadness,” he said. “Some people might find this piece sly and creepy, but somebody else, who had a bad experience, all they see is something that reminds them of a bad time.  Humor is an important part of my life and how I deal with things.  I don’t intentionally do it, but it becomes a piece of my work because it is a part of me personally.”

Armitage took a more cerebral approach to her 17-minute piece, “Visual Brainstorming,” set for five dancers and to Gérard Pesson's "Mes Béatitudes."

“This piece was given to me by Mrs. Cronson.  I heard it and, like Brian, was puzzled by what to do as it was outside of the usual music I’ve been working with,” Armitage said. “I got an idea that turned out to be really fun to pursue, to use this concept of how human beings have these cells in our brains called mirror neurons. These neurons are the way in which we can anticipate what other people are doing movement-wise or emotionally.  It’s what gives us empathy, what makes us social.  I tried to create movement where people were copying other people…it was a tool to give me some new dance ideas.” 

The end product played out like an after-Merce Cunningham work to music seemingly influenced by Italian serialists (not entirely surprising since Armitage danced for Cunningham for five years).  Midway through the piece, I began to notice when one or two of her talented dancers started to lead the way, but by then it was too late.  I prefer her “punk ballets” for their visceral power. “Visual Brainstorming” never broke out of its theories. Perhaps Armitage will take what she learned in this exercise, move it forward and create a work with greater immediacy.  And that’s really what Works and Process is all about.  Mission Impossible became Mission Accomplished.

Photo: Brian Reeder in rehearsal with the ABT Studio Company. Photo: Rosalie O¹Connor.

Volume 4, No. 13
April 3, 2006

copyright ©2006 Dale Brauner



©2006 DanceView