To quote Whitney Houston, “I believe the children are our future.” And after sitting through two grin-inducing, inspirational performances choreographed by dancers between the ages of 6 and 23, I believe this even more, particularly when contemplating a new generation of movement creators. It seems to me that the current downtown dance scene is littered with performers who offer puzzling theatrical think pieces. And while dance can deal with political issues, explore technological innovations, and present works that question gender, I find it striking that so many of these kinds of works proffer little or any actual choreographed movement. Case in point: The Kitchen’s most recent Dance in Progress concert. While the works presented here are often experimental, one was an incoherent piece of performance art that contained only one 30-second stint of actual dancing. For the remainder of the work, the performers watched a bag of popcorn expand in a suspended microwave, ate the popped popcorn, changed their clothes, and, with faces painted on their backs, engaged in a dialogue of sorts.
So lately I’ve asked myself whether dance should be the chief component of a dance performance—the Judson’s boundaries-breaking aside. Why choose to perform work under the auspices of dance if you’re not expressing anything through that specific artistic medium? It’s like calling nonfiction fiction. And why do dance venues agree to commission and present the work of these dance impostors in the name of edginess? There are true and talented dancers and choreographers out there, and apparently, they’re younger than you think.
In late January, Danspace Project presented Food for Thought, a three-evening, canned-food benefit whose performances support food distribution programs in the East Village. I attended the Young Americans performance, curated by Miguel Gutierrez, the well-known and well-received downtown choreographer. All seven choreographers were under the age of 23. Each presented original work spewing with anger, frustration, humor, and freedom. In his part of presence: space, Chase Granoff, with body upright, twitches and shudders in deep concentrated motions. He places his arms in front of his body, shaking. He joggles his head in controlled yet ostensibly involuntary shifts. Then he falls to the ground. As his convulsions grow in amplitude, he slams his torso onto the wooden floor. The impact intensifies the live John Cage-esque music composed by Jon Moniaci. Granoff soon gives up, jerking to a fetal position, his body lying beaten and limp.
Scriptura, choreographed by Isabel Lewis, contained movement suggestive of John Jasperse’s influence on this generation. Limbs flail and dancers move as if they’d abandoned centers of gravity. Throughout, Lewis and her two dancers execute complete, proficient dance phrases. They move in a heavy unison that holds the power of a herd of wild animals and then drop to the floor, resuming their individual selves through lazy yet organized movements. Laura Gilbert’s 19th Century Amusement Park offers something different. With a microphone and a pair of very expressive hands, Gilbert offers bits and pieces of her personal politics and experiences through spoken word. When she finishes, she darts around the space uncontrollably, performing sharp leaps clenched with pain and anger and lofty balances stiff with yearning. Eleanor Bauer tackles the dwindling respect for dance in the ironic ELEANOR! With comical facial expressions and facetious dance movements, Bauer elicits genuine laughs from the audience. Bauer repeats a full-bodied, dynamic dance phrase, adding a bit more gusto to each repetition until the entire performance has become farcical. A hilarious, competent, and dead-on piece of work, ELEANOR! makes obvious the smart humor we can expect from this burgeoning generation of dancers. But it was Michael Helland and Daniel Linehan who stood out with their co-choreographed and performed Precious Little Something. Helland and Linehan manipulate their bodies, moving like puppets. They playfully scrunch and stretch their faces, bark, squeak, hoot, and partner each other with sophistication. Sometimes reminiscent of Tere O’Conner, the duo merges humor with dramatic emotion and cute, silly gestures with skillful technique. The pure artistry exhibited in this piece is enough to give me hope for a future furnished with dancers who love and know what it means to dance.
Also in late January (and early February), Dance Theater Workshop (DTW) presented Dances by Very Young Choreographers, a performance directed by Ellen Robbins, the resident dance teacher at DTW. The program was made up of thirteen original pieces choreographed and performed by dance students between the ages of 6 and 18. Abounding with novelty, spirit, and especially courage, these young dancers displayed an acute understanding of movement and performance. The energy in the dancers’ steps, the creativity in their use of space, time, and music, and the utter fearlessness in their faces and bodies revealed a budding return to non-diluted pure dance, saturated in personal expression and emotion.
After watching these two performances, my uncertainty for the prospect of dance has begun to fade away, and my steps have acquired a fresh sense of vitality and verve. This new generation of dancers has bloomed; let them lead the way.
Jen Weiss is the director of Youth Speaks NY. She is co-author of Brave New Voices.