RoseAnne Spradlin’s beginning of something

RoseAnne Spradlin’s “beginning of something.” Dancers pictured (left to right): Natalie Green and Rebecca Serrell Cyr. (this and following photo by Ian Douglas)

RoseAnne Spradlin has been making performance and dance work in downtown New York since the mid-1980s. Her piece beginning of something first premiered in May 2011 at the Chocolate Factory, located in Long Island City, Queens, and very quickly became a much-lauded production; critics responded positively to it, and tickets sold well to eager audiences. One of the dancers, Rebecca Serrell Cyr, was nominated for a Bessie for Outstanding Individual Performance (the Bessies are the New York dance world’s equivalent of the Tony awards).

This year the dance is back, looking a bit more polished, at the New York Live Arts space in Chelsea (formerly Dance Theater Workshop). The performance area and audience are both located on the theater’s deep and wide stage, with a large glittering curtain enclosing the space so that the traditional seating area can’t be seen. As in the previous performance, the stage that the performers dance on is a raised and painted platform about a foot and a half off the ground, with half the audience sitting on cushions on the floor and the other half sitting in folding chairs behind them. A small, separate stage is visible in the wings on one side, housing the musicians who provide live accompaniment for parts of the show.

The dance itself takes place in two parts, both of which reference each other through the repetition of some movements and gestures — long walks up, down, and around the stage; trios performing lifts, menacing holds, and hurling and spinning movements toward and away from one another. The four female dancers who undertake the athletic, hour-long piece also spend much of the time dressing and undressing themselves with an air of both defiance and deliberateness that prevents the work from devolving into a kind of burlesque.

RoseAnne Spradlin’s beginning of something. Dancers pictured (left to right): Rebecca Serrell Cyr and Rebecca Warner.

For me, beginning of something evoked a handful of things, most particularly the fashion world: with the raised stage, audience sitting all around, women’s bodies moving through space in various states of undress, and their faces wearing protective expressions in front of a glaring audience, the parallels with runway shows were unmistakable. At times, the piece evoked drag performance as well, in the sense that there was an acknowledged mis-fit as each performer donned a new outfit or removed one — a putting on of a persona or a suit of armor, whether it be the clothing or one’s own skin. And of course, too, there were clear themes around female identity, female bodies, looking inward, and the gaze of others.

But unfortunately, despite having evoked all that, the work just didn’t offer enough to chew on. Some of the performances were quite good, the production was put together well, and I can see why it has garnered a lot of praise, but it didn’t seem to go very much farther than a surface level for me. As I understand from reading about Spradlin’s work, her process with the dancers is quite physically and psychologically intense, and she is interested in bringing many different, non-Western dance traditions into her work. So my sense is that there are things that took place in the making of this work that may be richer for the artists than for the audience — which, though it’s not written about often, is extremely common in the arts. Still, if you’re open to it and want to know what’s happening in the New York dance world these days, beginning of something is a piece worth catching.

DD Dorvillier’s Danza Permanente

DD Dorvillier’s “Danza Permanente.” Dancers pictured (left to right): Fabian Barba, Nuno Bizarro, Naiara Mendioroz, and Walter Dundervill. (this and following photo by Paula Court)

“What if?” is a question that artists ask almost constantly. It’s often the beginning of a new work or the start of a new line of research. What if I try this same technique but apply it to an entirely new medium? What if I take that song structure, break it down into parts, and reorganize them? What if I could literally alter the landscape? And on and on.

In her new piece Danza Permanente, choreographer DD Dorvillier engages in a new vein of artistic research, as she often does in her work. Here she’s decided to try to find a way for four dancers to transpose a musical composition into physical movement and gesture. In this case, she’s working with one of Beethoven’s string quartet’s (“String Quartet #15, in A Minor”), and she’s enlisted composer Zeena Parkins to help in the process of determining what kind of movement would best stand in for the notation in Beethoven’s score.

But as with Spradlin’s work, there’s an interesting divide present — for those who have read their program and are invested in Dorvillier’s research process, there is likely an entirely different experience than for those who come fresh to their seats. Neither position is better than the other — I reject criticism or commentary that wants to present a right or wrong way of experiencing an artwork. But with work that is so intensely invested in the research that led to it, it’s interesting to think about the notion that some portion of the viewers will experience it without background knowledge.

DD Dorvillier’s Danza Permanente. Dancers pictured (left to right): Walter Dundervill and Fabian Barba.

What’s unique about Danze Permanente is that I suspect both types of audience members will notice the same thing — the strange, entrancing, and completely impenetrable logic of it. The dancers undertake intensely intricate movements that draw them together at times and then pull them apart, that have them dancing in sync for brief moments and then shuttling past and circling one another in syncopated rhythms or related movements that seem to call up earlier movements in part, but not in full.

This mysterious system that operates within the piece, considered with the title, Danza Permanente, as well as the name Dorvillier gives to the company of dancers she works with, Human Future Dance Corps, sent my brain drifting off into thoughts about the desire for logic in life, the desire to see order and sense and repetition when, in fact, events usually occur in their own time and space. Each dancer, twisting and moving within the machine of the work, represented a through-line that at times seemed to want to believe it was driven by individual will, but was clearly enmeshed in something larger than itself — although, as in life, the meaning of that something else, or the form of it, was utterly elusive.

There were moments when my attention flagged, particularly in the final two of five movements that make up the piece, because the intensity of the piece’s logic and my brain’s desire to bring some understanding to it wore me out after awhile. But I was fully invested in the first three movements. I suspect that this is not among the best of Dorvillier’s works, as she’s a brilliant performer and her choreography is often rich in content. But this work gives viewers a glimpse of her process and her ongoing line of inquiry into what constitutes movement and gesture and art, which, to my mind, has an important value of its own.

RoseAnne Spradlin’s beginning of something continues at New York Live Arts (219 West 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through September 29. Tickets and performance times can be found here.

DD Dorvillier’s Danza Permanente runs at the Kitchen (512 West 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through September 30. Tickets and performance times can be found here.

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Alexis Clements

Alexis Clements is a writer and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, NY. She recently started a podcast, The Answer is No, focused on artists sharing stories...