Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Harkness Dance Festival Week Two: Christopher Williams Presents Excerpts and Other Mumbo Jumbo

By Sara Murphy

REVIEW- The Harkness Dance Center at the 92nd Street Y is continuing a legacy more than 75 years in the making as the home of American modern dance by presenting choreographers such as Christopher Williams as part of their annual Dance Festival.

Other than perhaps a church, Williams couldn’t have asked for a more fitting space than the Y’s Buttenwieser Hall to display a collection of excerpts inspired by medieval art history and thirteenth century texts from his decade of work on Friday, February 25, 2011. The New York based choreographer seemed to be channeling the biblical stories depicted on the ornate painted ceiling of the hall as it was almost fathomable his dancers somehow magically came alive right from the historic murals. Commenting on his choreographic process in the brief Q&A following the hour and twenty-minute program, Williams shared that his wildly creative imagination was spawned from reading children’s stories and fables. “When I was a child, it was never enough for me to just read the words on the page, because the story seemed dead. But, if I got up and acted the words out physically—experiencing what it actually felt like to be a unicorn—the story was more fulfilling.”

Williams’s fascination with fairytales led to his exploration and use of puppetry in his choreography, however he specifically left his puppets at home for this weekend run at the Y. Purposely selecting excerpts from past evening-length works including Virgo Genitrix (2003), the Bessie award winning Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins (2005), The Portuguese Suite (2006), The Golden Legend (2009) and Hen’s Teeth (2010), they, in his words, showcased the most “dancey” sections of his body of work. Though his intention is to create theatrical worlds on stage, these excerpts revealed the flaws and cracks imbedded in his lack luster movement vocabulary. For someone who is so talented at engulfing an audience in a Renaissance atmosphere, he fills the space with ordinary, recycled Cunningham movement.

However, dancing in a Williams work is not an easy task. As a dancer, you must be willing to perform naked, wear risqué costumes and fabric prosthetic breasts, and execute slow, balletic adagios (which were often beyond the dancers’ technical capabilities). The sequences were screaming for a groundedness that was never achieved, and instead a plethora of wobbly arabesques magnified the performers’ weaknesses.

In all fairness, Williams’s M.O. is not the dance, but rather everything around the dance. His costumes have craftsmanship worthy to be called haute couture, and his use of live musical accompaniment for this program for only two pieces—featuring a harp, viola, recorder, a mezzo-soprano and baritone—displayed a commitment to transport his audience.

The world premiere, Mumbo Jumbo, is a duet for two men to music from the Bollywood film, Raja Hindustani and Indian artist, Kishore Kumar. Though it was a departure from the vibe of the rest of the evening, simply titling a dance “Mumbo Jumbo” doesn’t pardon a disjointed mash-up of ideas. Perhaps par for the course in a dance referencing “cultural confusion,” the inspiration and text in the piece came from the children’s stories Little Black Sambo (1899) and The Tar Baby and Other Rhymes of Uncle Remus (1904).

The dance opened with Raja Kelly in blackface dressed in a harlequin-esque jacket and bowtie. Reciting text from the literature and confronting the audience with his close proximity, Kelly’s character immediately set a playful tone. The audience is then introduced to what appears to be Kelly’s twin played by Paul Singh, dressed identically to Kelly and also in blackface. Singh’s movement included Indian dance motifs such as moving his shoulders up and down rhythmically to the Hindi music. The idea to re-examine Little Black Sambo—a story that is widely thought to portray an African American boy, but is in fact about an Indian boy—is at the very least, ambitious. Written at a time when “black” was used as a general term for non-white or “Other,” Williams’s desire to explore how images of black males in performance has changed over time using nineteenth century literature is an interesting concept to explore using dance. As the piece went on, it was unclear just exactly how these two characters fit together. They giggled, spoke in verse and even kissed, but the concept depicted in movement was a bit too confusing. Long, messy and in dire need of editing, cultural confusion is no doubt chaotic, but Mumbo Jumbo was not the perfect storm.

All in all, there was never a dull moment, and Williams’s inventive take on Christian saints and medieval music cleverly evoke times long past submerged within his own queer experience in contemporary dance. You can catch Christopher next when he hosts an “Informance” at the Performance Garage in Philadelphia March 12, 2011.

Week three of five of the Harkness Dance Festival premieres on Friday, March 4 with Patti Bradshaw and People, Places and Things.
WEEK FOUR: jill sigman/thinkdance March 11-13
WEEK FIVE: Jawole Willa Jo Zollar Curates (Maria Bauman and Souleymane (Solo) Badolo) March 18-20

For tickets visit or the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center located at 1395 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10128.

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