Menschheit,' 'Imbalance,' and 'Frequencies'
August 21-24, 2002
-- Mandell Theatre at Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA
Phrenic New Ballet's new
program is an ambitious program of three taut premieres--Christine Cox's
"Ashen," Matthew Neenan's "Die Menschheit," Jessica
Lange's "Imbalance," and a mini-dance street documentary by
Tobin Rothlein. Phrenic has set such a high standard artistically that
is not surprising that there were some over-reaching moments. But for
the most part, the choreographers knew that they were working with a technically
versatile cast that was ready to deliver the goods.
Many in the cast are Pennsylvania Ballet colleagues of Phrenic's artistic
directors Amanda Miller (who just quit PAB), Neenan, and Cox. All three
works had brittle moments that could be chalked up to opening night, but
there was no mistaking that this was a great modern dance program.
Earlier this summer, Christine Cox, who danced joyously all year with
Pennsylvania Ballet and Phrenic, choreographed "Rasa" for "Shut
Up and Dance" with doubts and didn't want to make a work for Phrenic
if it was forced. As it turned out, the world atmospheric "Rasa"
was one of the highlights of the benefit, and she proceeded with the difficult
theme for the Phrenic work about the impact of 9/11. Rarely does docu-dance
work on a grand scale, but Bill T. Jones did it with his AIDS drama, "Still/Here,"
and Cox does it here. Beginning with a movement dance-scape of pedestrians
moving around to a patchwork score "re:Building" by New York
composer Doug Maxwell (who was in attendance), Cox creates a group portrait
of international urbania of accidental camaraderie and alienation.
As the music suddenly rushes into a concussive depiction of the planes
crashing into the towers, Cox's nine dancers fracture into horrific clusters
then bloom into entwined expressions of the human spirit. There are moving
break out solos by many of the dancers, notably by Tara Keating, Miko
Doi-Smith, Erik Wagner (late of San Francisco Ballet) and Anne White.
But the whole cast gave themselves to this work by baring their souls
through dance and creating an indelible statement.
Tobin Rothlein's comic film "Playground Dance" documented ballet
dancers Matthew Neenan and Amanda Miller brushing up on the finer points
of street dance by the talented students of the Morrison School. The image
of the on-pointe 6'4" blue-tutued Miller had ten year-olds fleeing
from the schoolyard. The hilarity continued as the kids tried to fit the
fluid hip-hop moves onto the concrete positions of the ballet dancers.
Next was Matthew Neenan's "Die Menschheit," German for "humanity,"
scored to excerpts from several Wolgang Amadeus Mozart string quartets.
The cast of eight attacked Neenan's overlapping duets, trios and quartets.
Neenan tried to rhythmically phrase Mozart's droll airiness with that
fine neoclassical line--his specialty, as well as the aesthetic purpose
Amanda Miller possessed her three male partners--James Ilde, Neenan, and
Wagner as they flung her around, and in one moment she was spread-eagle
(on pointe) on the shoulders of Neenan and Wagner, then clamps them together
with her legs. Neenan returned to ballet classicism sparingly, framing
it with playful intimacies between the dancers. Even though this ballet
allowed for some unusually hazy transitions, this work contained all of
the unexpected strength we can expect from Neenan. Unfortunately, the
finale that had the ensemble in razor-sharp jetes which were marred by
a skipping audio disc, but the group flew thrillingly right through.
Jessica Lange's "Imbalance" is a ponderous narrative about the
loss of childhood innocence and playfulness. The dance arena is a modular
cubic seesaw attached to jungle-gym bars. The apparatus is positioned
behind white drapery that has diary entries projected on it as well as
claustrophobic film images and "pen and ink" animation. At times
the seesaw is hidden behind these images so the dancers appear suspended
above the stage; for instance, Miller stunningly seems to burst out of
a blooming red flower.
There is a floating narrative about playground friends and the lovers'
playground, underscored by Peter M. Wyer's score that segued from ambient
rock to a luscious Spanish ballade. There is a lot of annoying running
around in the front half, but when Lange starts to use suspension to move
and pose the dancers to complete a visual story, it works. The ending
moonlit segment had a delicious feel of a deco painting, and Rothlein's
vision of infusing dancers "live" in film is very effective.
After Phrenic's stunning revival of "Frequencies" at the DanceBoom
Festival in January, it is a measure of their vision that they were able
to devise such a strong follow-up that suggests even richer work. Neenan's
quirky and fantastical phrases are flowing interplays between modern and
classical dance in a redemptive modern fable. "Frequencies'"
three angels' statue-like poses punctuate an engrossing visual narrative
of universal themes of myth, spirituality, and the joy of movement in
all of us. Loosely based on "Jacob's Ladder," the angels' allusive
gestures and combinations in the leading segments of "Frequencies"
bring an earthy, ethereal quality to the piece in the same way that George
Balanchine told the story of "Apollo" for all generations. It
is apparent with this latest work from Neenan that he doesn't have to
rely on the usual formations and back-up patterning from either classical
or modern vocabulary. His vision for Phrenic as a modern classical
dance company is fully realized in "Frequencies."
Edited by Lori Ibay
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