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Mindy Aloff
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HANNAH KAHN DANCE COMPANY Admirable in Homecoming Performance of Seven Dances

by Mindy Aloff
March 18, 2019
Mark Morris Dance Center
3 Lafayette Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11217
(718) 624-8400
Choreographer: Hannah Kahn
Lighting Designer: Craig Bushman

- "Closing In" (2018), Music: Concerto for Cello and Strings, “Turbulent,” by Dobrinka Tabakova.
Dancers: Danielle Beeman, Kimberly Chmielewski, Skye Cornwell, Joshua Dwyre, Audra Edwards, Melissa May.

- "Orchid" (1979), Music: Mitchell Korn, Costumes: Annabel Reader. Dancers: Kimberly Chmielewski, Skye Cornwell, Christopher Page-Sanders.

- Excerpts from "Constellations" (2001); Music: Troka, Sanna Kurki-Suonio, Hedningarna; Costumes: Russell Etmer. Dancers: Danielle Beeman, Skye Cornwell, Joshua Dwyre, Audra Edwards, Melissa May.
Storm Serenade (2002), Music: Malcolm Lindsay. Dancers: Danielle Beeman, Kimberly Chmielewski, Skye Cornwell, Joshua Dwyre, Audra Edwards, Melissa May, Christopher Page-Sanders.

- "Yonder" (2009), Music: Traditional, Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas. Dancers: Danielle Beeman, Kimberly Chmielewski, Skye Cornwell, Joshua Dwyre, Audra Edwards, Melissa May, Christopher Page-Sanders.

- "Inside Out" (1992), Music: Mike Vargas. Dancers: Kimberly Chmielewski & Melissa May.

- "Possibilities" (2006), Music: Excerpts from Souvenir of Florence by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky; Costumes: Russell Etmer. Dancers: Danielle Beeman, Kimberly Chmielewski, Skye Cornwell, Joshua Dwyre, Audra Edwards, Melissa May, Christopher Page-Sanders.
How fast it takes the streaming hours of lived experience to beach up as irreducible moments. First, you're alive and immersed in the ocean; then you turn around and entire decades have been transformed to a few pebbles and seashells. Take the subject of independent American women choreographing and performing during the Dance Boom of the 1970s and the culture wars of the '80s. Understandably, for most theatergoers who consider this subject at all, each era is likely to be summed up by a small group of visionaries: the brilliant and risk-taking Twyla Tharp, the brainy and elusively charming Trisha Brown, the cool system-stylist Lucinda Childs, the omnicompetent Meredith Monk, who knit together music, dance, theater, and writing. But for those who, in those years, seriously followed dance, especially but not exclusively in New York, the reality was much more crowded and ranging, and even careers apparently headed for the history books could take surprising hairpin turns. My own subjective memories of the women then choreographing and/or presenting themselves memorably in programs by other choreographers include, a partial list in no particular order, Annabelle Gamson, Phyllis Lamhut, Lynn Shapiro, Blondell Cummings, Laura Dean, Yuriko Kikuchi, Dianne McIntyre, Mary Anthony, Margaret Jenkins, Ze'eva Cohen, Beverly Blossom, Sally Gross, Jawole Jo Willa Zollar, Graciela Daniele, Brenda Bufalino, Jennifer Muller, Pilar Rioja, Kei Takei, Senta Driver, Brenda Way, Eiko Otake (who, at that time, performed exclusively with her husband, Koma, in one of the strangest yet most haunting partnerships in American theatrical dance.) Wildly different in age, aesthetics, training, and resources, some of them are still at work, some are retired, and some are no longer alive. Yet all were connected as parts of a densely inhabited artistic ecology, which existed both as an external reality and as elements of an internal world flourishing in each member of the dance scene at that time.

Certainly, another name that would be found on many dancegoers' lists would be that of Hannah Kahn, much admired—loved by some—for her musicality and formal command as well as for her taste in production on limited resources and what might be called her curation of her company—encouraging her dancers to technical strength, nuances of style, and a familial camaraderie. She presented them with considerable sensitivity, orienting them in time and space so that they would look their best. The first time I saw the young Mark Morris perform was in Kahn's company, at the 14th-Street YM-YWHA. A funnel cloud of energy and focus, topped by flying ringlets, he was located within an ensemble but, thanks to the choreography that brought forward each dancer, unmissable all the same.

One element that Morris's own choreography shares with Kahn's is that the dancers in both of their works often seem to function as aspects of the music, optical layers to the sound. Her choreography I knew in the '70s and '80s didn't offer stark or startling imagery of the sort that characterizes the dances of Tharp or Morris, and it didn't leave the impression that it had been initiated by adventures in higher engineering or by intoxication with mathematical structures, like the works of Brown or Childs. However, to this observer, although what Kahn achieved was smaller in scale, it was unique in quality: She made dances that were always precisely calibrated to the tone and emotional temperature of their judiciously chosen music, and they never broke this organic connection—achieving the effect that the music and the dance had been born together. Balanchine, for example, sometimes took issue with his scores, or made choreography that, in an understated way, surpassed them. Music was his inspiration and guide but, ultimately, it was not in charge of the show. In my experience of her work, Kahn didn't question her scores, and that restraint served as a constraint. Still, when she decamped from New York for Colorado, at the end of the 1980s, without announcement, I and others missed her.

What has happened to her in Denver, it seems, is that she has flourished as a teacher and choreographer, with a repertory of 140 dances and an experience of mentoring probably several hundred dancers over the decades. During the March 8 performance of Seven Dances I attended at the Mark Morris Dance Center, she spoke a little to the audience, thanking the staff of the Mark Morris and Morris himself, to whom she also paid tribute in her programming: One of the seven dances, the oldest one—the 1979 trio, "Orchid"—contains one adulatory role for a figure who dances energetically and sweetly with the two framing women but whose part also evokes the thought of a male odalisque. His costume, evocative of harem pants, was first made for Morris, who originated the part (here performed by Kahn's witty company member, Christopher Page-Sanders)

Back in the '80s, it didn't occur to me to analyze Kahn's training as a dancer, though her choreography had a feeling of fall and recovery that suggested Doris Humphrey. According to the program for her March concerts, she performed Humphrey's and Anna Sokolow's works and studied the techniques of their colleagues José Limón and Martha Graham at The Juilliard School. “The practice of Tai Chi has also influenced her movement style,” the program reads. And it explains that, as a child in Ithaca, New York, Kahn studied with the Romanian-born Expressionist soloist Iris Barbura (1912-1969), who emigrated to the U.S., settling in Ithaca, after the War, where she trained such modern-dance choreographers as Beth Soll.

Watching Kahn's dancers now, their performance does suggest the provenance of late-20th-century Juilliard training, with their sculptural gestures, their Limón-like transfers of gravely placed weight, and their explicitly directed movement. (The dances of another Juilliard grad, Lar Lubovitch, a few years older than Kahn, share those aspects of Juilliard's technical training.) All of Kahn's dancers are admirable; petite Danielle Beeman, who brought to mind the ballerina Janet Reed, has the delicacy and speed of a finch. Kahn is careful to alternate simple geometrically arranged lines and circles with solos or a duet that showcases individuals. Entrances and exits are efficient; dance titles, for the most part, are forgettably generic. But the substantial construction of the choreography and the attention to the play between individuals and groups was remarkably maintained throughout the evening's works, from that '70s trio to the most recent entry, the 2006 Possibilities, which uses as its score excerpts from Tchaikovsky's "Souvenir of Florence".

For me, the most astonishing aspect of Seven Dances is that six of them were set to serious tonal music, some “traditional” but most by composers I never heard of, all of whom produced scores that are absorbing on their own and delightfully compatible with Kahn's perspective on modern dance. The Tchaikovsky served as a kind of ideal to which much of the music aspired: songlike, positive in its emotion, its connecting legato filling the imagination as well as the ear.


Photo © & courtesy of Photographer Unknown



Photo © & courtesy of Photographer Unknown

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