New stuff

By MARCIA B. SIEGEL  |  January 19, 2010

Several mid-career choreographers working from a baseline of ordinary but technique-informed movement have developed sophisticated theatrical dances with bigger social implications. David Dorfman's new work-in-progress, Prophets of Funk — Dance to the Music, begins as a riff on the music and mannerisms of Sly Stone and dances off in the direction of gay romance, freedom marches, charismatic preachers, and even a bit of audience participation. Tere O'Connor's Wrought Iron Fog continues his wry commentary on the nature of spectatorship for both the dancers and the audience, and what it means to be "ordinary" when you're so obviously performing.

John Jasperse offered excerpts from a work in progress, Truth, Revised Histories, Wishful Thinking and Flat Out Lies — which may be riffing, as ironically as its title, on the attitudes and seductions of hip culture. Jane Comfort is in the midst of making Beauty, a farcical celebration of Barbie's 50th birthday, with male and female members of the cast wearing highly inflated swimsuits and Dynel hairdos. And Mark Dendy has restaged his exquisite 1998 reflection on the diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky, Afternoon of the Faunes.

In addition to the showcases in theaters, lofts, and studios all over town, the Joyce Theater was presenting Pacific Northwest Ballet for the week, with a repertory that included works made for the company in 2008 by Twyla Tharp and New York City Ballet alumnus Benjamin Millepied, as well as pieces by Edwaard Liang and Marco Goecke.

Tharp's Opus 111 (the title refers to Brahms's G-major string quintet) continues the choreographer's long preoccupation with couple dancing. Six pairs of men and women are dressed almost identically (by Mark Zappone) in simple dancewear with wisps of purple and orange chiffon draped over their torsos. They swirl in and out, stopping, reversing, or rising so that their movement gets imprinted for a moment before it races on again.

Tharp is meticulously formal in her choreographic patterns. The romantic music seems unnatural to her, though she's choreographed Brahms more than once before. She works here with more restraint than in the classical ballets I've seen her do in recent years — fewer pirouettes and tricky lifts, less sense of excess. She hasn't lost her customary speed and ingenuity, but the dancers gave it such a dry reading, it seemed a bit pedantic.

The company did affect the same expressive neutrality in all three other works. This non-committal style — if it is PNB's style — didn't harm Millepied's 3 Movements. He used Steve Reich's 1986 Three Movements for Orchestra as accompaniment and driving force. (All the music for PNB's performance was taped.) Reich's propulsive, multi-layered work doesn't ask for character or expression — and yet its driving rhythms released a physical freedom in the dancers that they didn't attain in Tharp's ballet.

At first, the eight couples seemed to ride the pulse of the music but not much else of its texture and harmonic changes. A slow section picked up some of Reich's markers of change, with suspensions and decorative additions to the basic step vocabulary. In the faster third movement, Millepied finally brought out Reich's polyrhythms, with constantly changing small groups moving in inventive counterpoint, then consolidating into sideward-jumping lines and circling chains.

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