Friday, September 22, 2017

Invoke and provoke: Ben Pryor's new series at Gibney Dance

Jess Pretty in FIVE
at Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center
(photo: Scott Shaw)

Invocation Proclamation Manifesto--described by Gibney Dance Center's new programmer, Ben Pryor, as "a three-week micro-festival of short works from choreographers and performance makers wrestling with the urgency of being a body at risk in 45’s America"--launched last night in the notoriously micro-confines of Gibney's Studio A.

First off, aside from Studio A's size and the tiny capacity audience of 30 folks lounging on puffy body pillows, nothing much seemed "micro" here. I wanted to give Diego Montoya (decor designer) and Asami Morita (lighting designer) a standing ovation for the lavish magic they worked with a Mylar fringe curtain, deliciously variable colors of light and a disco ball--a gently dazzling backdrop and atmosphere spanning all three dances. That all seemed hyuggge and bold to me in such an intimate setting, a visual metaphor for the way American artists do a lot with a little. Publicity for the series quoted Justin Vivian Bond's call for Glamour As Resistance!--no argument from me, Mx. Bond--and Montoya and Morita went to work. Jonathan Johnson's pop music tapestry for the final piece, Untitled (Duet in A), and the unidentified, impressive score Jess Pretty used for her solo, FIVE, were also opulent ingredients.

(photo: Scott Shaw)

The choreographers--all of whom performed their works, two solos and a duet--took on the other mission of "casting off, tearing down, and blowing up that which holds us back, denies the truth, and champions regression." So, about that description of these piece as "short works." I didn't time them, but I didn't get the impression of anything micro or mini or short. All three seemed to be big chunks of provocation and not only more than long enough but also capable of continuing to resonate beyond their formal end. Elena Rose Light even concluded her solo, NEUTRALDANCINGBODYMYASS, by having a helper pass out a little white booklet (Tarot inside joke...sorry, I had to drop that for my Tarot peeps) that we could study at our leisure and informing us of the date and location of the next session of her MADATDANCE critical investigation of whiteness in Western body culture and dance training. It's tempting to go.

Her solo invoked, for me, the nightmare of getting stuck in someone's idea of how your body should look and move, and it's coded with dance history and aesthetics that dance artists will recognize. Basically, she shows us the jaw-locked, closed-mouth tension and fakeness of someone directed by authority figures and laboring to fit in and, even if you are not a dancer, you'll get it. We're all under this particular gun, just in different ways. The experience of the Western dancer--in its insularity and insecurity--here stands in for the experience of anyone who just wants to breathe.

Jess Pretty clearly wants out from under, too. A relationship gone bad? A religion of promises that might or might not be kept? I enjoy the way she silkily strides, flows and then swirls and curlicues through the limited space of Studio A in the initial moments of FIVE. She seems to claim the breath and have the self-possession that eluded Light even though one exhortative song--and this could just be my interpretation--appears to signal trouble in the past or even ahead.

She changes up when she coyly hides herself behind the Mylar curtain, advancing sideways across the space in ways we can track only by watching the slow advance of her white sneakers at the base of the curtain. She gradually abandons them. As she emerges, shoeless, one of the things she does next strikes me as particularly vulnerable. Still moving to that shouting gospel voice, she swings her arms around as if jumping rope. In the game but at an eager, younger age.

I know Pretty is thinking beyond this being a subtle character piece, but I actually like its elusiveness and how it offers a personal journey as a metaphor for tackling and surviving and towering over a wider oppression.

Carlo Antonio Villanueva and Miriam Gabriel,
choreographic and performing partners, in Untitled (Duet in A)
(photo: Scott Shaw) 

Time to confess that I have never--no, not ever--watched any televised dance competition shows, but I think Miriam Gabriel and Carlo Antonio Villanueva created my fantasy of one in Untitled (Duet in A). Described as focusing "within and against the hyperstimulation of a volatile pop landscape," it appears to be a long, intricate, meaningless dance routine that the partners dutifully and skillfully perform, side by side, before gradually increasing the groundedness, determination and looseness of their attack. It might not mean anything more to them--or us or, at least, me--at that point, but they have grown more alive and more themselves and more relatable than ever before.

This first week of Pryor's interesting three-week series continues through Saturday with performances at 8pm. Space is extremely limited. For information and ticketing for this and upcoming weeks, click here.

Week Two:
Kenya (Robinson), Alexandra Tatarsky
and Eli Tamondong
September 28-30, 8pm

Week Three:
Angie Pittman, Kristopher K.Q. Pourzal
and Ashley R.T. Yergens
October 5-7, 8pm

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

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