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    Arthur Aviles, Lawrence Goldhuber (beast) and Brandin Steffensen in DanceNOW_40UP
    Photo by Steven Schreiber
    Arthur Aviles, Lawrence Goldhuber (beast) and Brandin Steffensen

    Still Kicking

    The 40UP night at DanceNOW holds its own


    It isn't often the case that a program of dance pieces would present the personalities of its dancers as one of its chief artistic points, much less draw attention to the various human individualities of these dancers. And yet, so much of what stayed with me after DanceNOW's annual festival kickoff was not so much the choreography itself but the individual performers. Perhaps the one consistent impression I got over the course of the evening was the overwhelming sense of love and commitment necessary to the execution of dance, and dance-making, over the length of a career. This is not surprising, as DanceNOW's long established program featuring artists aged 40 and beyond, continues in the same vein of inclusion to feature dancers not only well over 40 years of age, but also physical types anomalous to the dance world. It's an enticingly democratic world we're entering, a utopian parallel universe where age and physical fitness (or lack thereof) are no barrier to one's access to dance as a form of expression.

    Produced by: Robin Staff, Tamara Greenfield, Sydney Skybetter.
    Lighting design by: Julie Ana Dobo.
    Dance Theater Workshop
    October 27 and Nov. 1

    What results from this paradigm shift is that the performer is no longer in service to the piece, but the piece is in service to the performer. No doubt any "regular" person could find dance a rewarding activity, however the question then becomes: will it also be rewarding for others to watch? The answer is mostly yes. However, I hasten to add that DanceNOW's 40(UP) is by no means some pseudo-feminist Dove commercial celebrating "real" women (or in this case, "real" people). At its best, the program showcased real professional artists. And where technical flashiness was a rarity, expression and artistic commitment were all in ready supply.

    In one of the early pieces, a hybrid of movement and storytelling performed by Dixie FunLee Shulman, the preconceived ideas of "dance" and "storytelling" are bent and blended into a kind of hodgepodge of mainstream performance art and stand-up. It's fascinating to watch Ms. Shulman accent and give shape to her spoken text with physical movement. And yet, there's no way to describe either the storytelling or the dance as exceptional by itself. Her performance relied heavily upon personal charm, and a professional connection with the audience. Ms. Shulman, who does not have the prototypical dancer's body by any standard, still has an ability to move with fluidity, and an understanding of physical balance and composition, which lent her story about "Friends" an undercurrent of poignancy that did not compromise her wit. However, it was oddly unsatisfying altogether.

    Wallie Wolfgruber in the Lar Lubovitch piece So In Love in DanceNOW_40UP  
    Photo by Steven Schreiber  
    Wallie Wolfgruber in the Lar Lubovitch piece "So In Love"
    One of the truly standout performers and choreographers of the evening was Heidi Latsky, whose excerpt of "Gimp," set to Pergolisi's Salve Regina, was a fiercely conceived drama that seemed a true embodiment of one of the implicit themes of the night: the idea that dance was an art that transcended the physical limitations of disability and age. And yet I wouldn't be doing justice to the piece if I didn't also say that "Gimp" is about so much more than that. There's a quality to Latsky's choreograph that manages to express the full sense of a performer's physicality, from moments of graceful stillness into bursts of flailing movement. It's a quality that translates into the confidence and integrity that Latsky displays in her own dancing. In her duet with Jannis Brenner, in Brenner piece "On the Rim of Thought," Latsky reminds one that Margot Fonteyn and Maya Plisetskaya danced long after their 40th and 50th year, and that dancers of a certain age are fully capable of measuring up without any special allowances being made.

    However, It wasn't until Risa Jaroslow's excerpts from her forthcoming "Sixty," that the focus of the evening returned squarely to the art of dance not as a broad utopian concept, but as a vehicle for ideas and expression, rooted in the choreography itself. With her exceptional company of young dancers (Luke Gutgsell, Elise Knudson, Rachel Lehrer, and Paul Singh), Jaroslow contextualizes the past for us, creating a bridge to the present moment with her reboot of "Plain Crossing," a piece first presented in 1977, in Trisha Brown's Broadway loft. As the fifth member of what was originally a quartet of women, Jaroslow narrates the history not only of the piece itself, but also of the world as it looked that year politically, socially and personally. Her choreography is so full of vigor and spontaneity. Like other choreographers before her, she is wonderfully adept at creating patterns, at understanding the expectations created by those patterns, and how best to subvert the expectations she has created. "Plain Crossing" is a perfect vehicle for the time-capsule she is presenting too. It is so clearly a work of its time, and yet it is not dated in the bad sense of the word. Instead, it provides perspective, a starting point from which to see how dance has evolved in the cultural world of an ever-changing New York City.

    The evening ended with Doug Elkins' "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," a hiphop- inflected take on Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Sound of Music." Elkins, in his understated way, is a brilliant and inventive artist. His face shaded by the hood of his xl sweatshirt, Elkins brings the hard scrapple life of the basketball court to the sunny Austrian mountains of the musical. Elkin's themes are consistent with his methods too. In so many ways, Elkins seems to clear away the subterfuge and, with his dancing, provide a location where disparate worlds can meet, a congenial place of reconciliation that he utilizes to create a language that slices through artificial distinctions of race, class, and cultural. His choreography comes naturally out of the language of everyday gesture, where the crotch grabbing of hip-hop posers meets the faux glamour of the club and the practiced mime of shooting a basketball. His choreography is so nuanced, so specific, that even the gestures and steps that we've never seen look familiar. It's the truest form of physical comedy (purer than the efforts of Ms. Shulman), where every flicker of the hand or roll of the hip has just enough attitude and just enough of a wink to land like a punch line or an epiphany. It's funny because it's true.

    NOVEMBER 4, 2008

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