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Deborah Slater and LAVA Offer Different Visions of Inspiration and Realization

This March saw the New York premiere of The Desire Line, from San Francisco-based Deborah Slater Dance Theater. Inspired by the subtle tensions in Alan Feltus’s paintings, depicting subjects—often in pairs—caught in quiet moments, The Desire Line expands these tableax into high intensity dance dramas.

Feltus describes his images as “about many things and at the same time about nothing but painting itself.” Indeed, to me they seem to suggest rainy Sunday afternoon reflection, swirling thoughts in time suspended. For Deborah Slater, whose expressive dancers gasp and contract violently, hurling themselves at and over each other, the paintings must represent the calm eyes of melodramatic storms. Her title refers to an architectural term for the path people take, rather than the path the designer intended. I cannot help but feel that this refers to the choreography as well, with Slater inclined toward anguish and turmoil in spite of Feltus’s understated art.

The cast of six moves skillfully through the work, each dancer distinct in movement and emotion. Kerry Mehling bears more than a passing resemblance to Martha Graham, with her long steely frame, deep hinges and sharply flexed feet. Breton Tyner-Bryan is rounder, in body and movement, carving juicy spirals in space, while Shauna Vella is compact but projectile—even her gestural movements appear to explode from her core. The men, while also full-bodied movers, are most remarkable to me as actors, fusing dance and drama without distracting affectations.

Slater takes a cue from Feltus, discarding narrative so that relationships in The Desire Line shift from scene to scene, a bubbling stew of emotions rather than a traceable story. A vital ingredient is Jonathan Segel’s score, with additions by Anouar Brahem and Elmer Bernstein. Plucking sounds over sustained strings add a claustrophobic tightness and keep up emotional momentum in the slower passages. Allen Willner’s amber light and the earth-toned Weston Wear costumes contribute a sense of weight and a visual continuity with Feltus’s paintings, which are projected onto the back wall in three panels, often a full image accompanied by two detailed close-ups.

The acrobatic elements of the show, which drew me to the Joyce Soho for The Desire Line, were blended so smoothly with the dance language as to be indistinguishable. Aided by a partner, Mehling arcing through the air with mermaid grace was not so different from her flowing, draping movements alone or over a chair. A trio of men literally catapulting over each other’s shoulders was the culmination of an increasingly violent confrontation, evolving naturally from more grounded movements. A few weeks earlier at the Brooklyn Lyceum, however, a very different sort of dance acrobatics was on view with LAVA’s premiere of we become.

LAVA, a company of women based in Brooklyn Heights, is driven by a commitment to collaboration and female empowerment. In we become, their movements are taken largely from tumbling and trapeze, with a healthy dose of pedestrian behaviors “observed on NYC sidewalks.” As a viewer, I’m smitten with their values but frustrated with the results. Their physical strength, especially in their upper bodies, is inspiring, and there are truly wonderful moments, such as two women rope climbing, swinging easily and clearly enjoying the rhythms and motions they are creating. These flashes of delight, of obvious corporeal experience, were too few and underdeveloped, which seems odd given LAVA’s mission. Many of the performers do not appear to have considerable dance training, nor do they need it in this context, but why should that inhibit them from devouring space? A tall confident posture and fully extended limbs are not simply tools of oppressive male ballet directors—these are powerful stances, both to witness and to experience physically. Many of LAVA’s performers looked less than comfortable on the stage, with lowered glances and dropped ribcages, leaving me discouraged.

Singer/songwriter Toshi Reagon created an original score for we become, working closely with the dancers, but the pairing of her rhythmic music–with husky vocals and sensuality to spare–and the stilted movements fell flat. Further, precious passages of movement invention and delicious embodiment were diluted with successions of dancers repeating the same tumbling sequence over and over, giving a look-what-we-learned-in-class-today effect.

Perhaps I am missing the point. The piece is, according to the program, about dynamics of opposition and collaboration, the urban tension between defending your own path and contributing to the group. LAVA’s art is particularly close to life—less concerned with structure and harmony than process and discovery. Costume designer Jocelyn Davis has been a LAVA student for two years (their studio offers classes to men, women, and children, and acts as a community center, partnering with local schools and artists), and Nancy Brooks Brody, the visual artist whose dazzling tape starburst was the backdrop for we become, has collaborated with LAVA since its inception. Most of the audience seemed to know each other, and pretension was refreshingly absent. There’s a vibrant and compelling community surrounding LAVA, clearly no traditional dance company. Still, when it comes to performance, a stronger editorial hand would have gone a long way toward realizing its aims.


Mary Love Hodges


The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2009

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