Thursday, December 11, 2014

DoublePlus: new works by Anna Azrieli and Stuart Shugg at Gibney

Choreographer Stuart Shugg dances in Dear Washing Machine, Long Night
(photo: Alex Escalante)

Making work for the new DoublePlus series (Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center), choreographers contend with distinctive features of the theater space, including two stands of columns and a mirrored wall. My sense of this environment, its challenges and opportunities, has grown--largely on a subliminal level, I think--as I've attended these artist-curated programs over several weeks. But last night, as I watched ensemble works by Stuart Shugg and Anna Azrieli (curated by Jon Kinzel), it really hit me.

It's fascinating how both of these artists put themselves and their fellow dancers into the space, taking up strategies that previous choreographers have used and discovering their own approach.

That mirrored wall, for instance, could be avoided and even covered, I suppose, but DoublePlus choreographers often seem drawn to it. Columns can temporarily hide things from view. They can also suggest handy subdivisions in what what would be, for a piece with one or a few dancers, a fairly roomy play area. You can stash one or more dancers in one spot and force viewers to shift attention between that place and something happening elsewhere, making us work to piece together a relationship between the two or abandon all hope of finding one. Or you can even make the audience look beyond the space itself. For instance, while choreographer Audrey Hailes (showing Death Made Love to My Feet in an earlier DoubePlus program) danced alone in the center of the theater, a door opened onto a partial view of two dancers in a brightly-lit dressing room. We could only wonder what they were doing (playing cards, I think, and later, applying makeup) and why Hailes wanted us to be aware of their presence.

Shugg's Dear Washing Machine, Long Night
above: Hadar Ahuvia, front, with Shugg and TJ Spaur
below: Spaur, left, and Shugg
(photos: Alex Escalante)

I mostly liked Shugg's Dear Washing Machine, Long Night for qualities of springiness and momentum where one thing leads to another--a tilt, a swing, a toss of the arm, an easy communication that doesn't have to mean anything other than the flow of a body's internal messages continuously sent and agreeably received and acted upon. It pleased me to watch how Shugg and Hadar Ahuvia and TJ Spaur move. Shugg acknowledges the columns, seems to have made peace with them. His dancers touch, slide down or push away from them with gentleness. The columns could be partners, or wished-for partners, in the dance, and they lend an unobtrusive structure to something soft and evanescent.

Anna Azrieli's Averaging
(photo: Alex Escalante)

Like some other DoublePlus artists, Azrieli sends some of her dancers in Averaging to wash right up against the front row of the audience. Like the mirrored wall, the Gibney audience's edge seems irresistible to artists. And why not? We're right there on your level, dancers. Make us feel something. Even, as with Averaging, a touch of seasickness.

But pretty much everything about Averaging feels organic yet odd and out of place in the space, bearing a hint of transgression. With her fellow dancers Talya Epstein, Evvie Allison, Megan Kendzior and Katy Telfer, Azrieli has created an environment of endless shifting, incremental change, that appears to reference how things in nature make their way over surfaces. Undulating, sidling, crawling, rocking, wriggling, flopping, splaying and sloshing while sometimes humming, sighing or moaning. Plainly, it's not so much about the feet or us two-leggeds.

One focal image, though, comes from the decidedly two-legged world of ballet--the arabesque penché, a step where the dancer stands on one leg, tilting the torso forward while raising the other leg in a high, backward lift. There's a lovely serenity about an arabesque penché and a deliberately soporific serenity about its serial deployment here in Averaging, isolated from a typical ballet sequence. According to the work's description, Averaging engages with "the inevitability of being average" and a certain "mediocrity" and "vulnerability," Azrieli sees in the arabesque penché. There's also a lengthy, repeated bit of business drinking glasses of water and making like water dispensers that, to be frank, got on my nerves.

Kinzel's program is the next to the last DoublePlus presentation of this interesting premiere season; next week, curator Bebe Miller presents works by Maree ReMalia and Abby Zbikowski. On Wednesday, December 17, come early (6:45) for a pre-show Q&A with Miller.

Azrieli and Shugg continue tonight through Saturday with performances at 7:30pm. Friday's show will be followed by a Q&A with Jon Kinzel and the choreographers. For schedule information and tickets, click here.

Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis
Performing Arts Center
280 Broadway (enter at 53A Chambers Street), Manhattan

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