Sunday, March 11, 2012

Conversations: American Dance Theater and Ohad Naharin's Minus 16

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) is currently touring a number of works, including Ohad Naharin's Minus 16, and the collaboration strikes me as both obvious and incredibly significant. Ohad Naharin is Israel's 60 year old preeminent choreographer, and director of Tel Aviv's Batsheva Dance Company. He came up dancing under Martha Graham, and his works have been performed globally, primarily in Europe and the Americas. He has been praised for his creation of Gaga, a dance language that both reconsiders the dancing body and eliminates the relevance of the image or ideal, focusing instead on feeling. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has been widely-recognized as a pioneering integrated dance companies in the United States (having formed sixty some years ago), receiving honors from several US presidents, the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award, and the keys to the city of New York. So for the AAADT to perform work by Naharin seems like a no-brainer.

But there is something more profound about AAADT and Naharin working together that does not come across so clearly on paper. I witnessed this Saturday night at the Sergestrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, as the company performed a lineup that included choreography from both Ailey and Naharin, as well as the late Ulysses Dove. To understand the way the reinterpretation of another artist's work can also expand the meaning of the work, it is important to understand the context of said reinterpretation.

Sergestrom Hall is an opera house theater: a capacity of almost 3,000, with proscenium and several tiers coated in a Napolean red plush fabric, and red walls that stack up to 125 feet. A deep red hue, urgent and impressive, serves as backdrop and backstory to any performance on the lit black stage. Being raised Catholic, it reminds me vaguely of the churches we would visit as children - not so much for prayer as for tourism, because with all the visual significations of glory it was hard to focus on god. It is a Real Theater, the kind kids being groomed for a life of performance, enrolled in Ballet III and Advanced Tap dream about. These are the sorts of places AAADT performs.

An important side note is that AAADT is a brown company, made up almost entirely of people of color, most of whom are African American. Similarly, the majority of the Sergestrom attendees Saturday night were black. Black people who came to see a black contemporary dance company dance black choreography. They got that. But they also got something else.

Minus 16 includes excerpts from Narahin's Mabul (1992), Zachacha (1998), Three (2005) and Anaphaza (1993). From Anaphaza comes one of his more well-known pieces, Echad Mi Yodea. Performed like all of Anaphaza, the piece is performed by the full company in black slacks, black jackets, white shirts, and black hats - dressed more or less as Hassids, a costume which they remain in throughout the piece except for a brief period where they disrobe.

After their series of repetitive aerobic choreography to the throbbing beat of The Tractor's Revenge punk version of the holy song from the Haggadah, after the poignant and delicately violent duet between a pair in matching underwear, the American Dance Theater leaves the stage and enters the audience. In order to accommodate the dancers in transit, the house lights go up and for the first time (perhaps ever in this particular opera hall) we the audience are commanded to look at ourselves. The stage becomes backdrop as the dancers in black jackets blend in with an audience dressed for the ballet. One by one, our dancers return to the stage, each now with an unsuspecting volunteer with whom they begin to duet. Their volunteers quickly transcend the mark of "volunteer" by the fact that they are compelled to dance with their partners. Though it is obvious that theirs is an improv to the AAADT's choreography, this is certainly partner dance and the clusters are clearly engaged in the communion of the duet.

And the audience, via the unfocused lighting and the silliness of watching new dancers and non-dancers respond in dance to their partners' choreography, are given permission to project ourselves and our own desires onto the bodies of the anti-volunteers. We hoot and holler and cheer for the untrained partners at least as much if not more than for the AAADT dancers because we recognize ourselves in them, and now that they are on stage and receiving so much individualized physical attention, we also recognize them as special.

There are a number of ways to address the problematics of the proscenium, wherein architecture and lighting create hierarchies of power related to class and visual worth. One is to engage in the vaudevillian practice of "taking volunteers," which I conflate with audience provocation: both practices envelop individual audience members into a show while still maintaining a distinction between the show and the audience. Other tactics are to eschew the stage altogether, perform amongst the audience, or perform with an audience in the round. While perhaps a more dynamic mode of performance, these methods tend to render audience members as unwitting props to someone else's piece. In none of these practices mentioned is the gaze intercepted, and while the performer does take risks by using unrehearsed bodies as props, the maintenance of a hierarchical distinction between performer and audience is fairly critical.

Where the above tactics rely on risk, AAADT's rendition of Minus 16 is more concerned with trust. In Minus 16, partners are allowed the space to figure out the improv and they eventually all do, at which point the dancers embrace them and the duets fall into an easy and intimate two-step. The only direction the dancers give is with their bodies, and their relationship with their partners is a mutual one of watching, giving, receiving, and making room. How much do the dancers trust their partners to make the piece work? How much do the dancers trust themselves to allow their partners to play and discover the improv? And how much and how quickly will the partners trust that they are safe up on this glorified stage - how much will they believe their dancers when the latter tells the former with their bodies that this is their dance too? The dancers remain in their matching and unremarkable costume of black shoes, black pants, black jacket, white shirt. The partners are the special ones for these fleeting moments, not the dancers; it is the partners who are costumed as if they had solos.

Eventually the partners exit the stage and the dancers dramatically collapse to the floor. When all but one duet remains, the crowd grows noticeably hushed. It is as if we are watching our own most private moment. There it is, manifested as a young, strong and graceful brown dancer in undistinguished formal wear in a rocking embrace with a diminutive elderly black lady in a bright yellow skirt suit. Our own desires to be held, to be challenged, to be taken care of, and to be seen are played out between these two, and we - the audience - feel it. Eventually the last dancer collapses, and our own hearts, momentarily trapped in our throats, flex and relax just as quickly. We can laugh with this older woman who, as if awoken from a dream, seems to have no idea what to do next, and looks out at the audience perplexedly. She eventually waves goodbye to our cheers, and as she exits the lights cut. Drama. Only a handheld spot suddenly appearing downstage left follows her, and she makes the correct decision of how to leave this scene without anyone telling her.

American Dance Theater's version of Naharin's Minus 16 is one of those rare performances that is the perfection of that term "conversation" that artists like to throw around - as in, "this piece is in 'conversation' with this other piece." Often, as we rarely use our words, the conversation is one-sided. Almost as frequently our conversations are with dead people who can never talk back. But the sort of conversation Minus 16 is striking - and, in this instance, the very particular conversation of Minus 16 as performed by AAADT for AAADT's audience - is a very rare one indeed. This conversation is mutual, it is engaged, and we don't know where we will end up when it's done. But we feel like it's okay to trust ourselves to follow it.

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