To talk about landscape is to talk about desire—for the horizon, ever out of reach, and for more immediate surroundings, out of focus in their sheer proximity. Landscape as concept is something we are particularly attuned to in New York, where space measures clout and calm, and the vertical buzz of the skyscraper replaces the majesty of other topographies, say, for instance, the Alps. In this context, when choreographers take on landscape, they not only go to the heart of dance and the materials from which it is made, they also push our own not-so-latent want buttons. But towards what end?
Beauty, knowledge, redemption? Landscapes of every kind preoccupied choreographers this past season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in dances as discrete as the Australian company Bangarra Dance Theater’s Bush, in which the sacred and the profane merge in the sacred Aboriginal site of Arnem Land, and Pina Bausch’s For the Children of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, a study in scale as told by a set whose walls expanded and collapsed, and by a company pursuing such childlike pleasures as making a giant castle of sand. Two works, though, are especially telling about the moving body’s role in conjuring something akin to but far less marketable than want.
John Jasperse presented California, a postcard reflection on the state as dream and detritus. Concise, compact, loaded with information, the dance looked apt amid the faux ruins of the Harvey Theatre in its portrait of a doomed urban wasteland. This time out, Jasperse anchors each corner of the stage with four grand pianos, all manned by a pianist and a foley artist—those film industry specialists credited with the production of ambient sound—to create Jonathan Belper’s minimalist scatter-stone soundscape. But I loved best the excellent plane-wreck sculpture by architect Ammar Eloueini, which hung suspended over center stage. The work is sonically and visually stunning: From the silver polycarbonate panels of Eloueini’s sail-like sculpture to the gray flight suits that served as costumes, California unfolds as if in some airplane graveyard, opposing industry with leisure, commerce with landscape, culture with nature.
In California, dancers push and pull, remaining in constant contact with each other. They move with tremendous force and precision. They determinedly refuse air. And there are strong images, such as when dancers move the sculpture, using portable leaf-blower machines, and when the sculpture moves autonomously, collapsing finally at the work’s end with dancers caught beneath, still moving slowly in tandem. More ghost in the machine than cog in the wheel, the dancers present highly original movement in what is ultimately a critique of California’s gold rush history, the Hollywood marketplace, and eternally frenzied optimism. It’s a critique that comes quietly, in form, or what I like to think of as impure movement. Yet the message of how we destroy and are destroyed by landscapes, though urgent, seems misplaced; within the context of California, it only repeats the most familiar stereotype we hold of the West.
Far more satisfying is Jasperse’s movement vocabulary, which remains determinedly earthbound, though not in the ways we generally associate with the term. If the movement demonstrates groundedness, it has less to do with round shapes and human form—ideals highlighted in modern dance and other African-influenced styles and techniques. Instead, this is Intermediate Anatomy: the head, the neck, the spine, the arm, the feet, fully used and presented in sharp relief. Indeed, there is a single moment where Jasperse slowly articulates his neck and spine, like some alien creature stretching and about to shed its skin. It was a reminder to me that so much of choreographic history’s invention comes from the charged, idiosyncratic movement of a single remarkable body.
In “Come Home Charlie Patton,” Ralph Lemon writes a densely layered travelogue, moving across form, genre, perspective, and, yes, landscape, with speed-of-light ease. For instance, the soundscape brings together the Smiths and Verdi, a recording by James Baldwin, and a reading of a short story by writer Arna Bontemps. Videotape offers scenes of Lemon visiting and improvising at significant sites across America, from the clubs and homes of early bluesmen to the scenes of lynchings and civil rights demonstrations. Here, dance meets performance art, literature, history, and anthropology, as Lemon maps a set of stories that swoop and veer to chart the nefarious paths of racism in America.
Lemon has spent the last decade conducting research in Africa, Asia, and, in this case, the American South, to make his monumental three-part work about cultural migration, entitled Geography. “Come Home,” his final installment, had me on the edge of my seat, as much for the extraordinary beauty of the dance itself, a deconstructed spin on the vernacular—think of a broken-down Lindy Hop or buck dance, reassembled with a difference—as for the knowledge it seeks to present. Dancers turn, drop, rise, wrestle air; they slow it down, they speed it up, building scenes that creep up on you, delivering a tremendous emotional wallop that belies both the complexity of style and the implications of altering such a profoundly “American” form—jazz. Meanwhile, an installation of ladders by Nari Ward conjures attics and garages, those underconsidered rooms where history is often packed away.
In “Come Home,” Lemon unpacks, and we see the inanimate come to life in ways literal and metaphorical. Microphones slide sideways, leaving the attendant singer—and the audience—smiling; or else, a table suddenly moves, becomes animal, a mechanized horse. Then there was designer Roderick Murray’s dazzling play with light, whether cooling dancers in warm pools, playing with notions of spectacle via showman spotlights, or confronting audiences directly with full-throttle floodlights that promise to expose every detail. Safe haven, or scene of a crime? Either way, his work thoughtfully met Lemon’s idea that home exists elsewhere. And, indeed, so does history; as we watch Lemon’s characters endure grief of every order and survive, as character and dancer identities merge through the most potent mixture of story and gesture and time, the past stepped up to meet the present in a way that, oddly, left me smiling.
Together these works offer a view of how dance renders landscape in ways that are inevitably shaped by politics. If Jasperse points to the failure of imperialist dreams, in a dance whose central mode of expression comes in its encounter with other dancers and an evocative landscape, Lemon demonstrates the proximity of history, via a dance that takes hold of expression by any means. If Jasperse shows us a vision of apocalypse, made hopeful by its aestheticized beauty, Lemon shows us another kind of hell on earth, made hopeful by its understanding of history as nonlinear, nonprogressive.
Lemon ends his dance with the following comment by the great James Baldwin (I paraphrase): “People pay for what they do. And they pay, quite simply, by the lives they lead.” Lemon’s work turns that statement into a far more troubling question.