Taking Up the Modern Dance Cause

Robert Battle’s company excels when the drama is abstracted

Dance Theatre Workshop is not known for showcasing traditional modern dance, but Battleworks is the unexpected exception. Choreographer Robert Battle, who performed for many years with David Parsons, has taken up the mantle of Modern Dance and his lineage to Paul Taylor is threaded through his choreographic choices, the scores he selects and the drama of his dances.

In the first piece in his recent run June 29 to July 2, “Overture,” dance borrows from history and delineates an evolution of movement, with some slamming battle action. The music by Bach, the stage design and rich blue ballroom costumes by Mia McSwain were so surprisingly traditional making the work feel as though it were was out of the past. The dancing was also filled with hints of a Graham-inspired inner turmoil, but no parody was intended. The piece was non-narrative, but proto-Shakespearean, a Renaissance play with no words, filled with lots of dramatic lighting effects by Burke Wilmore.

“Strange Humors,” a duet choreographed in 1998, had a much more contemporary quality. Two topless, sinewy male dancers—Samuel Lee Roberts and company co-founder George Smallwood—moved beautifully and with brash masculine energy and emotion. Their movements were powerful yet soft at the same time. The music by John Mackey was intense and complemented the dancers’ brisk movements.

The premiere of the evening, “Promenade,” featured live music by Mackey performed by an ensemble of clarinet, cello, violin and piano. The live music worked very well and was a nice treat for the audience. In this octet, the dancer’s movements resembled many non-human things. They looked a little like wind-up ballerinas, circling in pairs around the center of the stage, cycling out of the cog from time to time. This piece worked well because it did not take itself too seriously. It was funny and entertaining and the dancers looked beautiful in the handsome, gauzy yesteryear Sunday bests by Fritz Masten.

“Unfold,” was the finest and most gratifying work on the program. A duet for inverted vertebrate Clare Holland and the extreme dancing of Kanji Segawa, it featured a simple concept in movement, with Holland starting the dance literally bent over backwards. She folds up her spine as Segawa melts, then hurls and twirls and crashes to the floor, out of control but precise as hell. It’s a powerful contrast that plays over an ambient soundtrack by Gustave Charpentier. You can feel their pain and also their release.

The final work, “Flock” depicted Smallwood as a kind of preacher-sinner to a group of supplicant followers, who crouched and scratched at themselves as any rat would do. Like the first work of the evening, the aesthetics resembled those of Martha Graham or Jose Limón, but this piece from 2004 seemed dated, like a restaged or reconstructed work. The tunics and long robes by McSwain made it look like an episode of the original “Star Trek” series, but this was supplementary to the melodrama in the dance itself. The live music for piano, percussion and marimba composed by Minoru Miki and John Psathas were similarly severe, theatrical and corny.

Battle is a skilled choreographer and he has an excellent troupe, which includes Elisa Clark, Tyler Gilstrap, Jennifer Mabus, Jason McDole and Erika Pujic. He also seems to have a vision for his work and it is an idiom with which he is comfortable working. Judging from this performance, his dances seem to work best when the drama is distilled in the body in an abstract context, rather than in characters or neo-stories. Maybe he just needs a good dramaturg.

Tyler Gilstrap dances in “Promenade,” a premiere debuted by choreographer Robert Battle’s troupe Battleworks at Dance Theater Workshop earlier this month.

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