Friday, February 15, 2013

Aoki and Kimitch share Danspace

Dance fans treasure St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery. No matter how individual choreographers set up its sanctuary for the best viewing of their shows, the church can feel familiar and comfy like home--indeed, a sanctuary for this art and the people who love it. And yet, there's also something about this setting, maybe its remarkable history as Danspace Project's home, that can challenge the artist. It's not Lincoln Center, not City Center, certainly not a grand cathedral but, especially when left unadorned by set design, it gives off more than a hint of expansiveness--in volume and time--that can sometimes make you feel a little puny. This weekend, two emerging choreographers Aretha Aoki and Benjamin Kimitch are sharing a program at Danspace Project and facing this issue of space in very different ways.

Leaving the two dancers (Julie McMillan and Claire Westby) standing in near darkness and silence for an unusually long time, with their backs turned to us, Kimitch opens discontinuous sounds by creating a space that is, at once, soothingly still, mysterious and withholding. He throws us back into awareness of our expectations to see action and have things handed to us right away. The length of this opening passage is one big--if quiet--"No." So what do we do with this? We sit there and breathe the somber space as it is--sacred, eerie, even dangerous.

When we're finally granted a look at McMillan and Westby in a generous pool of soft light, both wearing loose white costumes like sleepwear, we gaze long at a simple, striking image--the women elevated onto their toes. Each one clasps her neck with one hand; McMillan folds the other hand to her opposite shoulder, while Westby extends her free hand in front of her, palm out and fingers elegantly stretched towards the floor. With eyes closed and faces as pale and expressionless as death masks, the women appear like sonambulists out of a surrealist's vision. Their long-repeated movements--careful, even ritualistic, backward steps and pivots in various directions--suggest an awareness of the space that is either deeply intuitive or well-practiced. After a time, a low, motor-like rumble arises. It is not clear why--or whether we should understand this sound (designed by Matthew Flory Meade) as the product of the environment or its strange inhabitants.

As if the choreographer flipped a switch, the dancers suddenly address the space more assertively, introducing stretched, exaggerated shapes, inclinations and poses, even brightly skimming across the floor. Kimitch's approach to the space of Danspace suggests that it is filled with images that capture moments in strict, material detail. (I sense a perfectionist streak.) While never presuming to fill the space with just two dancers, he nevertheless uses it as an elegant backdrop or lightbox for his collection of wonders and curiosities.

In Las Gravitas, Aoki tackles the hard thing of setting a solo--and herself as soloist--against St. Mark's space and even space, as in the cosmos, itself. Indeed, all of this starts out with a sense of gravitas and considerable boldness of appearance--black clothes, wild black hair--and gesture. All of that eventually breaks down in comic relief truly as much of a relief as it is amusing. In one element of this, dance writer Cassie Peterson's voiceover flips from a dry, labored description of Aoki's "laboring body" in its "endurance and repetition" and its "tectonic shifts" to suddenly throwing shade on her unsuspecting subject. "A fifteen-minute solo? Who does she think she is? Deborah Hay?"

Las Gravitas documents a process of self-awareness--namely, awareness of one's tininess and inadequacy and even incompetence set against expectations, yours as well as others', against everything that has come before you, against the vastness of interstellar space and even the stardom and superior vocal power of one Jim Morrison.

Despite all that, this performer gives it a shot: What if my contribution is small? What if it's messy in shape, aimless, a bunch of doodles and loose ends, desperate to cover itself in the fig leaves of scientific factoids? What if my voice is barely listenable? I am here. Hey, despite everything--and there's a lot of struggle in that everything--I pulled myself and all of this together for you.

"Shared Evening: Aretha Aoki and Benjamin Kimitch" continues through tomorrow evening with performances at 8pm. For information and tickets, click here. 

Danspace Project
131 East 10th Street (at 2nd Avenue, Manhattan

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