Performance

A Mashup of Ballet and Postmodern Dance

Rashaun Mitchell and Sara Mearns performing in a Platform 2015 Dance Dialogue at Danspace (all photos by Ian Douglas)
Rashaun Mitchell and Sterling Hyltin performing in a Platform 2015 Dance Dialogue at Danspace Project (all photos by Ian Douglas)

Dance is a curious thing: an art form that both defies and relies on genre distinctions. Sometimes, these are necessary on a functional level — we rely on connotative language to understand, say, the difference between ballet’s verticality and postmodern dance’s grounded nature. But sometimes the real-life implications of these words back their genres into lonely, limiting corners. Writer and critic Claudia La Rocco’s curation of Platform 2015: Dances, Buildings and People in the Streets for Danspace Project ushers us out of those corners into a shared space — literally, St. Mark’s Church, the central container for the month-and-a-half-long series, and symbolically, the collaboration of ballet and postmodern artists on new performance works that were created last fall for their premieres this month.

Sara Mearns and Rashaun Mitchell performing in a Platform 2015 Dance Dialogue at Danspace
Sara Mearns and Rashaun Mitchell performing in a Platform 2015 Dance Dialogue at Danspace Project

At a recent Platform performance titled starts and fits, no middles no ends: 8 unfinished dances, I was drawn in by the casualness, the feeling of a testing ground defined by non sequiturs. The players were New York City Ballet Principals Sara Mearns and Sterling Hyltin, former member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and choreographer Rashaun Mitchell, and choreographer Jodi Melnick. In this second set of three “Dance Dialogues,” as La Rocco calls them, Mitchell and Mearns were paired alongside Hyltin and Melnick. Each couple developed a set of movement ideas as a unit but then combined their efforts to build this particular performance. They presented eight unfinished dances strung together with titles as random as they were evocative of the entire grand experiment. “Sleepwalker session with multiple deaths,” which saw Hyltin coach Melnick through melodramatic ballet choreography, and “Cubic Zirconia and the Glamour Shadows,” which was loosely (and humorously) inspired by George Balanchine’s ballet Diamonds, seemed especially to come fresh off scribbled, worn notebook pages.

The dances were, as La Rocco wrote in a program note, meant “to spin around themselves and each other undisturbed.” Those words stayed with me as I watched the performers navigate where one section ended and another began, as it was rarely obvious. This is not to say everything was blasé in dynamic or performative effect.

Sterling Hyltin and Jodi Melnick (click to enlarge)
Sterling Hyltin and Jodi Melnick performing in a Platform 2015 Dance Dialogue at Danspace Project (click to enlarge)

Mearns’s intense, grounded nature and her generous emotiveness were engaging but never overpowering; there was a grandness to everything she did, but she had enough of a handle on it to reel it in when necessary. Hyltin possessed a magnetic drama coupled with beautiful calm, especially in the moments she shared alongside Melnick. They engaged in a call-and-response of fluidly linked movement in “Jo/Sterling 7-ish minutes,” punctuated by quick-witted gestures that suggested an intimately developed language between two close collaborators. Melnick melded density of movement with an exactness that was all-consuming to witness. Her body displayed the inner workings of an innate, hungry animalism that came to the fore when called for but just as easily blended into the backdrop. And I will not soon forget Mitchell’s uninhibited and joyous dancing to a song by rap artist Azealia Banks. He was boundless and daring while still in full possession of his container.

The performers brought an exploratory boldness that seemed to derive from the newness of their collaborations. There was a sense that trying was more important than achieving, each body fully aware that these are not the things they’re “used to” or “known for.” It was a performance in which Azealia Banks carried as much weight as George Balanchine, happy to reveal its influences but refusing to commit to the boundaries of any one form. Nothing seemed to be off limits and, by virtue of that, nothing seemed out of place.

Sara Mearns performing in a Platform 2015 Dance Dialogue at Danspace
Sara Mearns performing in a Platform 2015 Dance Dialogue at Danspace Project

The occasion seemed ripe for ingenuity — an intense collision of four very different dance artists who are considered some of the best in their fields. More rehearsal time would certainly have delivered a further developed set of vignettes. And though there’s something to be said for the charm and experience of these dancer-choreographers shielding the less refined compositional aspects of their performances, it was never quite apparent whether one dancer was attempting to assimilate into another’s style or whether they just wanted to freely coexist. This was compelling at moments, but it made the trajectory of the performance increasingly hard to follow.

Still, I recall La Rocco’s directive for “undisturbed” spinning and how all of these elements should simply come as they are. No narrative thread, no lighting cue, no grande finale. How unusual to live briefly in a dance world where form does not exercise such a dominating force on what we see and how we see it. Truthfully, it’s a world I would like to live in more often.

Dance Dialogues: Sara Mearns & Rashaun Mitchell / Sterling Hyltin & Jodi Melnick took place March 5–7 at Danspace Project (St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, 131 E 10th Street, East Village, Manhattan). Platform 2015: Dances, Buildings and People in the Streets continues through March 28.

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