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Photo by Noel Valero
Neville Dance Theatre in "53 Movements"
Dixon Place, 161A Christie Street
June 1, 2019
Reviewed by Barney Yates June 1, 2019
Neville Dance Theatre's "53 Movements," set to Terry Riley's musical masterpiece "In C," was well-attended on Saturday, June 1 when I saw it at Dixon Place. The venue was well-chosen considering the piece's experimental nature. Artistic Director Brenda R. Neville made an introduction, explaining it was a collaboration with all the dancers because of the improvisational nature of the score, which drives the entire project.
Riley is a great maestro of minimalism. In his compositions, musicians improvise through a series of modal figures of different lengths. His "In C" was groundbreaking, consisting of 53 separate modules of approximately one measure, all in the key of C, each with a different musical pattern. One performer keeps time with a steady rhythm of Cs on the piano. The others--their number and instrument are not prescribed--play the aforementioned modules following a few loose guidelines, interlocking them in various ways.
The music we hear in this concert is Bang On A Can All-Star's 2011 live performance recording. Neville's company dancers (eight in number, plus one apprentice) take up the challenge of improvising to it. OK, you got me so far. Now what?
The piece opens with the dancers, clad in nice athletic wear (all different, all handsome), soft ballet shoes on their feet, keeping time with their toes as projections of the music dance behind them. I think, they have to be counting the beats to stay in sync. What I'm hearing is like a fugue of pulses.
They start in a line and later spread across the stage. Mostly, I see thrusting movements; then they line up and crouch to the floor. It feels geometric and designed. The projection behind them looks like blobs changing on your computer when you play music in Windows Media Player. It's like a moving Rohrschalk. There is no perceptual individuality or character. The dancers take to leaping across the stage balletically. There are no gaps in the choreography, but my focus changes as the teams change. Duets form. My notes say, "Is it good? Yes, it's very good."
Pairs spin and exchange the stage. There is only one man in the company, but he is not overused. (There might be a tendency to place him in the center, as he stands out among the female dancers.) The light does not change, at least not visibly. Hand gestures creep in: I make notes of a sideways chop. The movements, as repeated, seem to get more interesting. A kind of "follow the leader" pattern emerges. As a trio of girls moves s l o w l y across the stage, I think: they all must be tired by now.
The music feels metronomic. Well, I think to myself, I won't go out of this one whistling the score. Amazingly, I don't--at this point--see the improvisation in the dances. It just looks like ... dare I say? ... dance.
A new section starts, with each dancer picking up movements from the dancer on their right. Now we watch from behind as they are positioned downstage looking upstage. They re-enter from upstage right in slow motion. The room, I surmise, has been kept cold to keep the dancers from getting too sweaty in the exhausting movement.
Looking closely upward, I notice that the projections are numbered. They're showing us sections of the score: the 53 measures which are printed in the program. I theorize that the projectionist, too, must be pretty challenged to keep up with a nearly monotone score. The projections, I notice, go back and forth, but not sequentially to their numbers.
Yes, there's a drama in watching such a performance. It's the challenge of whether you can analyze the improvisation before the clock runs out and the show is over. Critics are supposed to do stuff like that, right?
Well, finally, I begin to perceive a pattern in the improvisation. When somebody passes down a movement, they can all improvise on it. All the movements are in the same vocabulary, but they stay generally balletic. Am I right? It took me this long to reach this little discovery. Well...maybe. I will admit, I was having too much fun watching to be very analytical.
At the end, a single dancer, with foot flapping, reminds of of where we started.
I join, enthusiastically, in the rousing ovation.
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