Finding a voice

Battleworks at the ICA
By DEBRA CASH  |  February 29, 2008
BATTLEWORKS: Sometimes it doesn’t all seem to be going in the same direction.

If you got snowed out of World Music/CRASHarts performances of Battleworks at the Institute for Contemporary Arts last weekend, you might still have caught Robert Battle’s languorous Unfold, which Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performed at the Wang Center earlier in the month. Unfold was a duet set to the aria “Depuis le jour,” from Charpentier’s Louise, sung by Leontyne Price. It turns out that Battle’s choreography for his own company embraces a wide range of musical genres — everything from Bach to the contemporary drumming of Les Tambours du Bronx. Closer inspection, however, shows a choreographer making a series of perplexing musical choices that don’t always serve him well.

Take the Bach pastiche in Battle’s Overture. If you’re going to choreograph the “Air on the G String,” you’d better have something new to say, but why does the music accompany someone hurling her lunch? In Overture, the dancers slow down as the harpsichord or piano inventions hurry along. Then, abruptly, they seem to be released into speed. It’s a good effect, but Battle overplays it. Similar musical taffy structures the edgier, more successful Promenade. From bobbling chicken strutting to lust-crazy tackles, there’s a sourness under this fractured square dance for robots — as in Fritz Masten’s white, bustle-augmented muslin costumes, all the seams show.

Battle’s robotic isolations go primitive in The Hunt, which he choreographed for David Parsons’s company in 2001 (the last season Battle was dancing with that company), and which was soon adopted into the Ailey repertory. It’s easy to see why Ailey fans find it such a crowd pleaser: in this work of jungle machismo, a quartet of bare-chested men wearing slashes of face paint and red-lined black skirts chomp their teeth, drag one another along the floor, curl into one another like a nest of snakes, and finally join in rhythmic celebration. Burke Wilmore’s lighting patterns mark the floor with kente cloth geometries. The Hunt is sometimes cast with a quartet of women; it would be fascinating to see how the aggression translates.

Yet Battle’s musical decisions leave me reaching for subtexts to hang onto. What is Samuel Roberts doing during In/Side, the tour-de-force solo set to Nina Simone’s honeyed invocation to absent love? He looks like a tree in a hurricane whose limbs are being torn off, but then, intermittently, he pulls himself together with gentlemanly self-possession. Is one set of gestures his inner experience and the other the poise he shows the world? And what’s the relationship — or at least the nature of the contrast — Battle sees between Renée Fleming’s arias and the exultant Baptist preaching sampled by Steve Reich in Open the Door? Is Battle contrasting varieties of spiritual attention? We see dancers sitting on one another’s backs as comfortably as if they were on park benches taking in the weather; that’s juxtaposed against the violent throat-clutching jitters of a bunch of stocking-headed toughs.

Watching Battleworks’ current repertory, you can tick off Robert Battle’s influences on your fingers. The dancers throwing their chests back and lunging in Overture hark back to Humphrey-Weidman technique. Promenade could be Paul Taylor’s Cloven Kingdom, where formality is a thick crust over our animal natures. There’s a soupçon of Mark Morris sign language and a few downtown dance pedestrian gestures. But it’s rare that the choreography settles into a distinctive voice.

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