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Buglisi Dance Theatre: Two Premières

by Mindy Aloff
February 10, 2013
The Joyce Theater
175 Eighth Avenue (at the corner of 19th Street)
New York, NY 10011
212-242-0800
www.buglisidance.org

Mindy Aloff, based in New York, is an occasional contributor to Exploredance.com.
In this second of the company's two Joyce programs, on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, the two and a-half hours were jam-packed with five dances. Four were by founding artistic director Jacqulyn Buglisi, a student of Wigman technique and ballet as a child and a former principal dancer with the Martha Graham company, under Graham's personal direction. The audience the night I attended included many dancers from other groups, and the response by the end was vociferously enthusiastic.

Buglisi herself has been a prolific choreographer since founding her company in 1993—and a resolutely feminist one. Most of her dances concern relationships between men and women, the sexual politics of social or cultural situations. However, her new dance, Butterflies and Demons, for seven women and five men, is bluntly polemical, a comment on world politics: Its program note explains that the work, which concerns human trafficking, is dedicated to a young woman in Buglisi's family "who was kidnapped and burnt alive," as well as "to the many who are part of the 800,000 victims of human trafficking enslaved today in the third largest-growing criminal business in the world."

Without question, the "Butterflies" here are represented by the seven women in the cast, with, as the "Demons," the men who manhandle them, upend them, haul them around, and treat them like bags of onions being loaded on and offloaded from trucks, all to the mournful score, by Daniel Bernard Roumain, for what sounded like a grieving bandoneon and various stringed instruments in states ranging from high anxiety to drunken despair. From time to time, brutal lighting cues (designed by Jack Mehler) would drop down gigantic daggers of shadow or make literal the phrase "red light district." As with everything on the program, the dancers, physically gorgeous and rigorously expressive, were astounding in their commitment to the choreography and emotional material; indeed, there were several points during the evening when Buglisi's dances seemed to have more in common with the scalding personal revelations and image-theater of Anna Sokolow than with the percussive technical language and Asian-influenced designs of Martha Graham. Even so, Butterflies and Demons was so generic and predictable that, for this reviewer, at least, it proved the weakest offering of the night. With very rare exceptions (in fact, I can only think of one: Sokolow's Dreams, a relentlessly unliteral example, too) dance doesn't do well by atrocity: The medium is too naturally idealizing for the subject. The most persuasive work of wordless action I've seen about atrocity was a brief solo by a Myanmar performance artist, produced at the Japan Society just about the year that Buglisi founded her company. It consisted of a young man, in street clothes, sitting down in a metal folding chair, wrapping his head and face in bandages that blinded and deafened him, and then, taking a revolver, placing the barrel of the gun in the indentation that was once his mouth, and firing. Performed without designed sound or theatrical lighting, the whole thing took about five minutes, and it has remained unforgettable. Now, that's atrocity.

Although one certainly understands the reason that Buglisi would feel moved to make Butterflies and Demons, her art is powerful in the theater in direct proportion to the amount of distance she puts between her choreography and pre-established messages and to the opportunities she gives for outstanding dancers to be outstanding. I have no idea, for example, what on earth is going on in the 2007 Caravaggio Meets Hopper, which doesn't give a sense of either painter; but to see guest artists Martine Van Hamel (once one of American Ballet Theatre's most engaging ballerinas), Charles Askegard (an erstwhile principal with both A.B.T. and New York City Ballet), and Terese Capucilli (a past principal for Graham and, for a year, co-director of the company with Christine Dakin) mill about anxiously in a stage waiting room, flirt, uncouple, Charleston, or even just walk across the stage with purposeful direction, is a riveting pleasure. So are the performances of Graham dancers Virginie Victoire Mécène and Kevin Predmore, in the 1991 duet Threshold, a kind of prehistoric marriage, in which the woman is yoked to the man in myriad (often bravura) ways as they travel together on a remorseless journey to an unspecified destination. And in what may be Buglisi's presentation piece—the 2000 Suspended Women, for 13 barefooted women, each in a unique Victorian or Edwardian ballgown, and the four jacketed, trousered, and barechested male interlopers who variously menace and court them—the most magnetic elements are the architectural arrangements of the female ensemble and the visual drama of seeing the black-suited men interact with the soft-skirted women. When Capucilli, the apparent leader of the ladies, lets a man's jacket fall through her fingers, it has the resonance of a paragraph by Henry James.

The second première of the Joyce evening was Zjawa, a woman's solo by Polish native Katarzyna Skarpetowska, a Juilliard grad who has performed for David Parsons, and Robert Battle. We never learn what "Zjawa" means in Polish, although a program note explains that the dance was inspired by "Switez," a ballad by Poland's greatest 19th-century poet, Adam Mickiewicz, on the subject of undines or nymphs who live at the bottom of a lake. Performed the night I attended by Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch, a former principal with the Graham company and a beautiful and fluent soloist in old, archival works as well as in new ones, Zjawa requires split-second transitions between emotions and the steps and gestures that embody them, between passages where the soloist is rooted in place, back to the audience, and where she is asked to perform a manège of unspotted chaîné turns. Ellmore-Tallitsch can clarify and then link poses and gestures with both transparency and control. Now, forefinger elevated significantly, she is a phantom-guide for the audience to masses of figures under the water; now, one by one, she is each of those figures. This performance, a tour de force of transformation, also uses gesture to acknowledge elements of its klezmer-kissed score by John Zorn, Tirzah.
As for how postmodern Jewish klezmer music relates to Polish undines, I leave it to you, Reader, to puzzle that out.
Buglisi Dance Theatre in 'Butterflies and Demons'

Buglisi Dance Theatre in "Butterflies and Demons"

Photo © & courtesy of Terri Gold


Buglisi Dance Theatre in 'Caravaggio Meets Hopper'

Buglisi Dance Theatre in "Caravaggio Meets Hopper"

Photo © & courtesy of Terri Gold


Buglisi Dance Theatre in 'Threshold'

Buglisi Dance Theatre in "Threshold"

Photo © & courtesy of Terri Gold

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