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    Risa Jaroslow: Sixty
    Photo by Anja Hitzenberger

    The Glow of Generosity

    Risa Jaroslow puts on her own retrospective


    Risa Jaroslow's Sixty is a work of rough edges, startling beginnings, quirky misfires, and an inordinate glow of generosity. Conceived in the spring of 2007, just before her sixtieth birthday, Sixty is a sort of scrapbook of a life and career centered around dance. Made up of fifteen episodes (some of which seem unrelated to the others), Jaroslow pushes her concept in form rather than content. Running a clean sixty minutes, the work seems to lift the veils of make-believe, eschewing cool conceptualism in favor of the misty halo of memory and sentiment.

    Choreography by: Risa Jaroslow.
    Dancers: Luke Gutsell, Risa Jaroslow, Elise Knudson, Rachel Lehrer, Paul Singh.

    Related links: danspace | Risa Jaroslow
    November 13-15 and 20-22, 2008
    Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church

    It's regrettable that so many choreographers these days feel compelled to explain their work; it often suggests either a lack of confidence in the work's ability to communicate its intentions, or a need to direct the audience member's experience of the piece, robbing its viewer of the luxury of committing themselves personally to the work. Jaroslow is certainly guilty of this, and yet her ideas are never so abstract as to alienate, and are often even too self-consciously conceived, as in "The Long Haul" which serves as a kind of prelude. And however unwelcome its title, "The Long Haul" has a clear and present danger about it. The dancers launch themselves spread-eagle into the air, land on the floor, and roll. This is repeated in different patterns, gaining momentum even as the repetitiveness underlines the apparent frustrations and set-backs in an artist's life. Once exhaustion sets in, the four dancers lay piled in the corner, heaving breathlessly. After several beats, the pile of four splits like an atom into two couples, a transition that is both organic and understated, as well as touchingly profound. The performance has begun with risk and perseverance (absorbing that kind of shock in your hands and arms cannot be healthy even for the strongest dancer), and gives way to themes of relationships, notably the relationship between dancer and choreographer. And yet the notion of assisted living, as related through the "assisted dancing" of her choreography, makes Jaroslow's message clear: as an artist, one cannot do it alone.

    In her pairings, Jaroslow explores the pointed dichotomy between the body in tension and the body in limp repose, with one dancer determining the movements of the other. Instead of the obvious power relationship of the choreographer to her puppet-dancer, her lead dancer is not only positioning his partner but dancing with his partner as well. In one of the subplots of the evening, "Limbs I, II" begins with one dancer setting into jerky, repetitive motion the four limbs of a second, seated, dancer. That dancer will then sit and another dancer will set off his limbs, the pattern continuing. Finally, Jaroslow herself comes out to redo all the movements of the now four flailing, twitching dancers. The storyline will conclude later in "Limbs III," with Jaroslow the lone subject on the chair, her five dancers setting each of her limbs into a spastic, nodding, prolonged frenzy. Subtlety is definitely not one of her objectives.

    Jaroslow's choreography is often characterized by inelegant balances, jagged body positions, and reaching gestures that circle and stretch. Much of Sixty is danced in silence, which has the effect of lifting the responsibility of interpreting music from the dancers' shoulders, and allowing them to instead offer the innate speed and dexterity of their own bodies (and personalities) as compensation. The first half of Sixty is relentlessly self-referential, and yet it's hard to miss the great generosity she extends to her dancers, a generosity that denotes complete faith in their abilities, and which recognizes and nurtures the individual charisma of each one. In fact, the piece can easily be read as a love affair between Jaroslow and her dancers.

    While Jaroslow is not the most musical of choreographers (the few music selections included were lackluster and failed to add anything to the whole) she can certainly count beats. "Bending and Bowing," originally set to Jewish music from the 1600s, is as accomplished and formal as any modern dance piece I've seen. With the entire company taking up the dance space, the piece consisted of little more than bending and bowing. However, it served as a welcome reminder of Jaroslow's skills at creating music through movement and the repetition of patterns of movement.

    What she lacks in musical insight, Jaroslow makes up for with a keen eye for casting dancers. Each of her five major dancers is a star, their charisma working both alone and together, and Jaroslow is especially adept at exploiting these differences. Everything from their haircuts to their body types are meant to underline the unique place they hold within the company, so that it is never difficult to pick them out even in large ensembles. Among her dancers, Luke Gutsell is perhaps the most accomplished at finding the grace in Jaroslow's determinedly inelegant poses. He is tall, with long sinewy limbs that extend with a purpose that never fails to resolve at the very tips of his fingers and toes. There is a freedom and authority to his dancing"�"his arms stretch far out to touch the far extremes in open-chested, round and rolling gestures, lending a unique lyricism to Jaroslow's choreography.

    Paul Singh and Elise Knudson, both intelligent dancers, form a partnership that is very much about their differences. Singh has a boyish, mischievous quality, while Knudson is square shouldered and self-possessed. In their pairings for "Duets," inspired by a letter from Jaroslow's husband, the dancing gets mired in nostalgic musings, with the couple grappling and photographing one another in their underwear under soft light. There is intimacy and romanticism, surely, but very little of the danger, pathos, or eroticism that might have elevated these episodes from the misty water colored memories they come off as. Here, Jaroslow allows herself to be self-indulgent, something perhaps she feels entitled to.

    On the night I attended, Rachel Lehrer seemed less focused than I've seen her before. It's unfortunate, since she has the potential (along with Singh) of dominating a performance with little more than her ability to be present. With her floppy fro of brown curls, and kewpie doll face, Lehrer fits in naturally with the other dancers, and the element that she brings to the table was sorely missed.

    "Sixty," it should be said, is not without its blunders. The pink backpacks with the hornet wings were clearly a mistake, distracting from choreography that was neither humorous nor interesting. And Jaroslow's extended riffs on parochial school lesbianism lacked the substance necessary to justify such prolonged tangents.

    Finally, "Plain Crossing," a fabulous work originally created thirty years earlier, is recreated here along with Jaroslow's commentary. It was excerpted brilliantly for DanceNow a month ago; however, here, it seemed like an afterthought, awkwardly inserted and out of place. In the end, Jaroslow references "Plain Crossing" in her "Coda," with the regrettably predictable purpose of tying the past to an on-going future.

    As a self-portrait, Sixty is refreshingly free of anxiety and regret. The piece positively brims with a sense of indebtedness and gratitude, an on-going homage to the events and relationships that have aided her on her life journey. It's a backward glance into the past, and her appreciation of the events and people that have shaped her, and her career, just misses coming across as an Oscar speech. The inevitable valedictory lap quality of a self-retrospective like this is decidedly offset even before the "Coda." Risa Jaroslow is obviously not going anywhere. We can only hope that the years to come are as productive as the years before.

    DECEMBER 8, 2008

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