Dance has been heading in the direction of athleticism for quite some time. Today it is not uncommon to think of great technical prowess as the defining glory of the dancer. For an evening that discloses a lot more about the definition of the dancer, see “PARADIGMcabaret (April 22, 2006) at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater at Symphony Space, NYC. The founders of the company, Carmen deLavallade, Gus Solomons jr, and Dudley Williams, are in their 60’s and still energize the dance world on many fronts. The ten other dancers joining them are also stars who emerged out of a very formative generation of New York dance. If you have attended dance anytime from the 1960’s on, then you have no doubt seen these dancers in the companies of: Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Lester Horton, Pearl Lang, Murray Louis, Jose Limon, Donald Byrd, the American Ballet Theater and the Metropolitan Opera, to name but a few.
One thing was incontestable even before the performance began; all of these dancers have mastered their steps by now. Conversely, by the end it was clear that the experience garnered during the career of a star dancer includes much more than athletic facility. The eight well crafted, varied, and exquisitely performed pieces on the program, revealed the vast array of skills essential to mastering the full definition of dancer.
The Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater is an intimate space with a tiny stage, although as Artistic Director Gus Solomons jr, pointed out, it is not as small as Joe’s Pub, another popular venue which is spatially challenging. To adapt to the confines of the space, the company presented dances in a cabaret style with Mr. Solomons as lively host. He introduced each piece, including those that he performed in. His grandeur and charm as the master of ceremonies, as well as his ease in slipping in and out of the role of dancer and colleague was endearing, and it set the mood of the evening.
“Three Oh Three”, choreographed by Solomons, opened the program. The dancers (Stuart Hodes, Alice Tierstein,and Solomons), dressed in tux and tails, did a fairly simply choreographed dance, and yet, it was electric. The steps were merely a vehicle to show off the ensemble’s skill at riding the line between parody and earnestness, innocence and flirtation, and humbleness and skill. They had the audience in the palm of their gloves.
“Verdi for Three”, choreographed by Richard Move, left a very different effect. To the emotional strains of Verdi, Michael Blake, Valda Setterfield, and Dudley Williams stood rooted to the floor while their arms performed the gestures of sign language. They were commandingly moving in their stasis. Though their gestures were the same, they were personally nuanced. It was an aesthetic picture, dancers in formal wear, their arms speaking soundlessly and desperately, breaking through to the audience without the use of their eyes, which were cast downward.
Martine Van Hamel brought her velvet dress to life in Solomons’ “Out Damned Spot”. This was an earthy dance done barefoot in said evening dress, which utilized her long, expressive arms. Woven in, was a touch of humor, as Van Hamel located and cast away an imaginary spot tainting her dress. This could have been a very pedestrian task but she mastered it within the seamless flow of the choreography. At times, when she released her own voice to sing some of the Schumann song she was dancing to, she seemed to become the song, reminding us that she was wearing the music as well as the dress.
Carmen deLavallade outdid herself in, “Willie’s Ladies Sing the Blues”. In it she portrays a woman at a bar drinking away the “blues” while she tells us all about it. She acted Shakespearean monologues bonding with his famous heroines to show how Shakespeare’s women also knew about the “blues”. Her strong acting skills enabled her to move beautifully between the dense theatrical drama of the Shakespeare and the cool wisdom of her more contemporary character. Although the structure was based on character acting, her piece was a dance performed by a dancer. DeLavallade did not separate her speaking from her moving. All of her acting was informed by her body awareness and her hypnotizing physical aesthetic. The long, elegant, dynamic figure in the ravishing red dress was what we were drawn to.
The dancers in Solomons’ “Cold” captured the haunting starkness of the music of Henry Purcell. This was a piece about death, mourning, and ritual. I continue to re-envision the piece’s unforgettable final moment. Just after a figure (Dudley Williams) is laid to rest before our eyes and those of his kin (Michael Blake, Keith Sabado), we watch, as Williams with just one fast, percussive contraction, astonishingly transforms his vulnerable remains into his own coffin.
Ending on a playful note, deLavallade gave us “Sam’s Party” for dancer’s Hope Clarke, Valda Setterfield, and herself. Dressed as life-like cartoon characters in baggy, colorful outfits and huge, floppy hats, the three “hip” ladies danced and partied to the rousing strains of Prince. The hats covered their eyes and most of their faces, and the costumes masked their bodies, but the ladies made it quite clear to us that there was heavy intrigue and gossip going down at this affair.
By the end of the evening I felt that I had come to know these dancers. This was more than an evening of entertainment, spectacle and passion. It was also about communication and vision, thought and commitment, and growth. This was dance.