Dormeshia Sumbry-EdwardsDownstairs at the Museum of Arts and Design on Columbus Circle rests a cozy theatre adorned with red velvet seats, an undulating cloud of metal coins, and, on February 22nd and 23rd, another installment of their riveting dance series called “Dance Under the Influence.” 

Over the course of five dance pieces from four established choreographers, we the audience left exhilarated and transformed in our understanding of movement as a complex physical conversation among the elements of society, including relationships to ourselves and others, and of course, nature itself. 

The night began on the urban streets, where tap phenom Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards set her golden (yes, literally golden) shoes ablaze with striking precision and diversity. Occupying a simple raised platform no more than six feet across and one foot high, as well as a fashionable pair of jeans, her interactions were strikingly emphasized. After an introductory solo, a bassist began to accompany her — or rather, she began to accompany the bassist, her raised status instituting a fascinating hierarchy which kept the music as an element of her experience, rather than sharing her importance as the focal point. Next, a drummer entered holding his instrument, a new force to be considered, and sat beside the bassist. Her lips never opening, her breathing masterfully controlled, Edwards gracefully then ferociously informed their conversation. 

A balancing of forces played out before us, with Edwards allowing her musical counterparts to infuse her energy with atmosphere and challenge her steps, often illustrating the manner in which we all must acquiesce to the influences surrounding us as we walk the streets. 

For the next piece of the series, we are transported into the tense dramatic struggle of a would-be bride scorned by her lover. With three dancers of various body sizes, shapes, and ages, Zach Winokur’s “Triptych,” synthesizes such artistic works as Francis Bacon’s painted triptychs, Jean Cocteau’s “La Dame de Monte Carlo,” and the writing of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who has expounded on Bacon’s paintings. 

As the piece progresses, we witness each facet of the woman’s introspective journey through each individual dancer, conversing with a traditional wedding gown in movement. First the dress is worn fully, then the woman sheds the dress completely in the throes of love, and by the end only half of the dress covers the woman. The dress begins as a ghostly entity, a separate energy from the would-be bride, and in each stage of her relationship she inhabits the artificial skin differently.

Leandro “Alegria” Silva, founder of the Silva Dance Company, was a last-minute replacement for choreographer Molissa Fenley who was recently injured in a performance. Silva bounded onto the stage clad only in shorts, his muscular tattooed chest and torso a fine complement to his organic, undulating piece combining elements of the Brazilian martial art Capoeira and Afro-Brazilian ritual movements. His sweeping motions, gyrating hips, pulsing abdomen, and air-whipping inversions spoke to us about our relationship to the force of gravity, how it enables us to soar and yet is unforgiving in letting us fall.

 The first of movement composer John Heginbotham’s pieces featured himself in a solo, integrating the “Air Mail” dance convention created by the late choreographer Remy Charlip in 1971. Air Mail dances are created by a unique conversation between a choreographer and a previously drawn series of figures enacting various poses and actions. Heginbotham donned a casual t-shirt and pants, yet his movements were notably regimented into set stretches, jumps, and bends, a nod to both the utility of the Air Mail convention and his joy in reconfiguring the distinct pieces of the original skeleton. His infusion of Pauline Alpert’s piano-roll piece “Dream of a Doll” was a delightful choice in adding a further layer of metaphor to the pose-rooted composition.

To finish off the evening, Heginbotham’s second composition featured a male and a female dancer in an ever-shifting pas de deux across musical styles and genres of dance.  

The two emerged first as separate people, enacting a cartoonish display of ancient Egyptian inspired posturing against a background of electronic music that brought to mind a conversation between robots.  

The pair wore modest 40’s attire, tinged with a hint of futurism in the man’s aluminum tie and the woman’s similarly hued dress bow. Beneath the casual interplay of the couple, their inhabitance of opposing time periods exposed an underlying theme of restricted desire. Society touted a carefree approach in the 1940’s to promote the post-war mentality of relief and rebuilding that led to the “Baby Boom.” However, this return to normalcy was also marked by a heavy burden for the citizen to be a well-behaved part of society. Within the piece, the woman has a solo during which she flails from one part of the stage to another, spinning ecstatically as if submitting to her own desires. The man is positioned offstage, but each time she nears his area of the stage his hand comes up to stop her. His outstretched arm becomes the metaphor for society’s restricting grip on the creative and sexual urges of its members, all desperate to promote themselves as the “Perfect American.” 

After the performance, the audience was treated to a talkback session with Valerie Gladstone, guest curator of the series, as well as all of the choreographers and performers. With personalized answers to our questions and reactions to our comments, we were able to engage on an even greater personal level with the performance. Within a short time, “Dance Under the Influence” casts a cultural spell both undeniably broadening and far too bewitching to resist. 

 

Next in the “Dance Under the Influence” series: 

ABT Studio Company, Decadence Theatre, David Neumann and Basil Twist

March 22 and 23, 2013, 7:30pm

$20, $12 MAD Members and Students

 

Photo of Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards courtesy of MADMuseum.org