She’s working on a series of investigations that juxtapose landmark dance works by canonic, paradigm-changing choreographers: Nijinsky, Graham, Balanchine, Cunningham, Ailey and Fosse (also, I’m told, a wild-card artist as yet undetermined) – with contributions by writers and scholars, appearing in the flesh. Her overarching subject: the project of modernity.
If this sounds overly academic or dry, I can report that the three rehearsals I attended recently at BAC were anything but. I left each invigorated, alive in new ways to the clanging dissonances of new building construction (or was it deconstruction?) on 37th Street and beyond, prepared by the mashups I had witnessed in the studio six floors above.
In a studio with photos of Merce Cunningham and John Cage as the only adornment, Netta works on an arrangement of excerpts of Cunningham choreography spanning five decades, rehearsing with dancers Brittany Engel Adams and Marc Crousillat. Netta tells me that for this installment she’s exerting her will on the material, working against the grain of Cunningham’s Zen-related objective to let go of his own will, or at least some of it, through the practice of subjecting many compositional decisions to chance operations. Neither Brittany nor Marc is much trained in Cunningham Technique, yet their dancing belies this. To my eye, both could have performed in the Cunningham company.
Mikhail (Misha) Baryshnikov joins me, an unexpected treat, and together we watch a run-through of today’s iteration of this experiment. The movement, at least at the onset, is immediately recognizable to both of us as unadulterated Cunningham. Too, much of what is danced looks like it could be an arrangement Cunningham himself made. But soon little disruptions poke through this surface. How is it both dancers are now playing with weight and gravity in a most un-Cunningham way? In partnering, Brittany always provides support to Marc, never the other way around, an understated challenge to Cunningham’s more traditional presentation of gender roles. But when the dancers begin to speak aloud, relaying their personal histories and markers of identity, and when they begin to dance with, and then to, Ethiopian pop music, I know I’m not in Kansas anymore.
Netta has told us she’s in no way trying to replicate or restage any of Cunningham’s works. This is clear to both Misha and me. “What he wouldn’t have done,” observes Misha. Yet why is it I feel as if I’ve seen something about the Cunningham movement that has somehow remained otherwise obscured? A section in which Netta has organized movements by types – e.g., pivots on one leg, movement with arches, running moves, triplets, jumps – is particularly revealing. A running phrase from a 1950’s work bumps up against running phrases from dances from subsequent decades. I see the movement and the dancers’ labor anew through this novel, utterly un-Cunningham organization. Too, the transgressions to Cunningham’s choreographic practices, like hearing the dancers speak, makes the more unalloyed sections appear in vivid relief. The movement emerges crisp and fresh (dare I say pure?).
Misha points out that talking while dancing is a trope unto itself, even a cliché, “like in The Turning Point.” It takes a moment for Netta and me to recall the rehearsal scenes of dancers gossiping and flirting while they’re dancing in the now-classic dance film in which Misha starred. Point taken.
Today I see a real mashup – Ailey, Cunningham and Nijinsky walk into a room (sounds like the start of a joke, right?) and are met with a contemporary scholar, David Kishik, reading from an academic essay, “The Work of Dance in the Age of Sacred Lives.” This is my first encounter with the juxtaposition of textual and choreographic language that Netta places as vital to her project. Ailey’s choreography is danced by Stanley Gambucci, Nijinsky’s by Netta, and Cunningham’s by Brittany again. At one point Netta directs the dancers to “turn the volume down” on their dancing during a particular section of David’s text, to avoid “putting pressure on what he’s saying.” I take this as an important clue to the relationship of word to movement – both have agency, even autonomy, here.
Each dancer traverses an independent trajectory alongside that of the essay and essayist, with connections both clearly drawn and accidental. Ah, I think, Netta is employing some of Cunningham’s practices of indeterminacy here, which she avoided in the more overtly Cunningham construction. I catch fragments of David’s text – a meeting twixt Christina, queen of Sweden and Descartes resulting in the libretto for a ballet… Mallarmé’s assertion that the body of a dancer writes a poem… Agamben’s countering that the dancer does not so much write with movement, but instead “reads what was never written” – while I simultaneously turn my attention to the emblematic moves of the dancers. I watch Netta assiduously execute the inner-rotation of her legs that is immediately recognizable as 100% Nijinsky, from his choreography for Le Sacre du Printemps. Soon after David begins relating how Nijinsky worked against the idea of the dancer as a machine for manufacturing beauty, the rupture evident, for example, in the awkwardly inverted legs of the dancers: “like Netta’s,” David points out.
All the while another dancer, Sarah Lifson, studies video of Fosse choreography on a laptop in a corner of the room, periodically bursting forth with shoulder rolls and jazz hands. She’s learning material for another section within Paramodernities, but my eye puts everything in the room together. I’m seeing yet another mashup, with Bob joining Alvin, Merce and Vaslav (another joke waiting for a punchline).
The materials today are more clearly cut from the same cloth, a Graham-inflected tapestry. Netta and Taryn Griggs are working with movement they’ve learned, I’m told, only from the recording of Night Journey in “A Dancer’s World,” the iconic 1957 film of Graham and her dancers that culminates with Graham abruptly exiting her dressing room as if to take the stage to perform the role of Jocasta. Carol Ockman, a professor of art history from Williams College, is reading from her essay "Trauma, Interdiction, and Agency in ‘The House of Pelvic Truth.’" Heady stuff indeed! I hear John Berger and Julia Kristeva invoked, the male gaze and feminine power. I find myself studying Netta and Taryn as they plug away at the demanding Graham movement with all its intended passions, wondering about authenticity: are their contractions real? Soon my query is answered by Ockman, who asks aloud what it means for these dancers to be wrestling with vocabulary for which they’ve not been trained.
I later learn that Netta too has asked this and other questions in her writing about Paramodernities: “Can I be faithful to Graham’s tormented Jocasta as I simultaneously dance the role of Oedipus her son? Is this mere mimicry?” “Is a legacy public?” She asks too about “unavoidable failures,” curious if there might be something generative to be found there.
At one point in the rehearsal Netta inquires if I’ve ever studied Graham. I have. She asks, “Did anyone ever say anything about the vagina?” Dang if I can recall any such reference, except in jest.
It’s clear that Netta is truly experimenting with this project, and not just paying lip service to the idea. She’s stated that Paramodernities project is fueled by reverence and violence. In these rehearsals, I found more of the former than the latter. Parts homage, critique, and update; parts performance and symposium. The results thus far are provocative, timely and, as unlikely as it may seem, utterly lively
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Neil Greenberg is a choreographer, dancer and educator who, relevant to this BAC Story, danced with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1979-1986 and later created two works for Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project. He is currently a Professor of Choreography at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts, The New School and served as dance curator at The Kitchen from 1995-1999. His most recent project, This, continues his quixotic search for an experience of the performance moment in and of itself.