Female Body’s Emanicpation

Gina Gibney’s gorgeous “unbounded” gets an encore at Danspace

Legend has it that the shade of Peter Stuyvesant patrols St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, home of Danspace Project. If so, Pete might have been startled to come upon spectral intruders one night when two hazy apparitions suddenly loomed across the sanctuary’s wall. But what appeared to be a haunting was only a video projection of dancers Jenni Hong and Mariangela Lopez flitting through the air.

Thus began “unbounded,” an abstract, hour-long quintet by acclaimed choreographer Gina Gibney, which premiered at Danspace last October. The performance space, wrapped in a translucent “skin” of scrim–craftily transformed by Kathy Kaufmann’s lighting and Anja Hintzenberger’s video–suggested a body brimming with restless energies and urges.

“For ‘unbounded,’ I resisted working with a set designer,” Gibney said in an interview at her Studio 5-2 office in the Flatiron District. Instead she experimented with wrapping the sanctuary’s columns with a scrim that would contain the dance, support its enigmatic imagery, and reveal its shifting moods.

“I wanted something organic—not screens, not boxes, but something that would have the feeling of being part of the space. The impetus for the dance was the idea of boundaries inside ourselves that keep us from doing things, boundaries that we create or obliterate as we connect with other people, and also the connections we do or do not choose to maintain with someone who may no longer be present in our lives. The ‘skin’ is a metaphor for connection.”

“I’ve long been a fan of Gina’s craft,” said Laurie Uprichard, Danspace Project’s executive director who invited Gibney back to present “unbounded” in a rare encore season. “She’s a serious artist whose work has evolved slowly and carefully, not one who hit young and exploded. This group of dancers is her strongest ever, and the partnering in ‘unbounded’ is gorgeous. It’s frustrating to watch artists work hard on a piece for a year or more and then have only four shows.”

Gibney creates multi-layered, richly textured dances that invite personal interpretations. Within the confines of the vulnerable enclosure devised for “unbounded,” Gibney’s fledglings—Hong, Lopez, Alethea Adsitt, Courtney Drasner, and Kristy Kuhn—test the uses and limits of gravity’s pull while yearning for release. A furious tension between downward and upward movements often bursts into lunges and thrashing but also finds momentary resolution in fleet, horizontal forays, and silky-smooth, circular motions. There’s physical risk and human passion in these solos, duets, and ensemble movements yet, choreographically speaking, not a hair out of place. A master formalist who prizes both structural beauty and expressionism, Gibney aptly described her work as “juxtaposing order against a kind of wildness.”

For “unbounded,” designer Naoko Nagata’s delicate costumes–as translucent as the scrim–enhance the choreography’s poetic qualities. Their slightly tattered look, eccentric wrapping, and uneven hems offer a wealth of association— molting feathers, disintegrating cocoons, unraveling shrouds, birth cauls, peeling skin, bandages slipping from wounds that have healed. Ryan Lott’s musical score–his first evening-length composition—invents a spacious and lucid environment for Gibney’s dancers, one that, in the choreographer’s view, “brings out the emotional arc of the piece.”

At times the dancers engage in compulsive, repetitive movements underscored by music that suggests the relentless drive and whirr of a factory or beehive. For Gibney, these intense passages show how we become hypnotized, seduced, and trapped by the demands and minutiae of daily living.

“We want to affix ourselves to this known, finite world—my little desk, my mundane tasks, the interactions in our material lives,” she said. “But there’s also a whole other layer of existence when you just look away from all that and let it go. We’re fascinated–if also frightened—by the infinite and by what we don’t know.”

Launched in 1991 with dancers of both sexes, the company became an all-female ensemble in 1997 when Gibney reaffirmed commitment to women’s art. She observed that women had lost ground–trailing behind male colleagues in levels of economic support, fielding fewer performance opportunities—in an art form that great female forerunners had labored to pioneer.

Mothers of modern dance like Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and Hanya Holm are never far from Gibney’s mind, and comparisons can be drawn between Gibney’s and Duncan’s artistic preoccupations—sophisticated, expressive music, nature’s powerful forces, social justice, and above all the emancipation of the female body.

“I love big, weighted, raw, natural movement,” Gibney said. “I look for dancers with a natural sense of their bodies in motion, a level of awareness and freedom about how they move and choose to move.”

If Duncan were alive today, she’d surely recognize her kind in Gina Gibney Dance.

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