By Carrie Stern
Alexandra Beller is interested in stories, in memory, in how dancers learn and interpret movement. The show "other stories," seen at Joyce SoHo in mid-April, took dancers’ real life stories and teased them apart, abstracted them and recycled them into imitative, evocative, interpretive movement phrases. Beller describes this work as an “articulation of personal divulgences” addressing how the “interplay of memory and emotion” shape how we tell personal stories.
"other stories" is designed for what amounts to two casts, each charged with a different but related aspect of the overall work. Think melody and harmony. This construction, more than the movement itself, is the key to the dance’s intrigue. The duration of the work has grown since an in-progress version performed in 2010 at Dance New Amsterdam. The evening length allowed Beller to indulge (in a good way) the dense layers of movement and the surprising entrances and exits she favors.
Beller’s company of dancers contributed both personal stories and then, with Beller, created suggestive movements that hint at the meaning in the spoken phrases, often nearly cryptic references to life’s happenings. Having danced with Beller for years, the cast has a shorthand that allowed them to respond to each other, leading to fluid, sometimes-mysterious movement passages. Only some of the original cast performed in the recent production, but traces of their movement and stories remain an important trait of the choreography.
The second cast consists of a slate of guest artists, different each night. Guest artists rehearse with the cast anywhere from an hour to a day, and sometimes not at all, depending on the event — minimal by dance standards. The guest’s role is “structured improvisation, which is then set and developed live during the course of the performance,” program notes explain.
“Guest artists improvisations are caught and translated in the moment by company members” who, in-turn, re-teach new versions of the movement to the guest artist. Taking place throughout the performance, in view of the audience, and this “re-telling” culminated in a guest artist solo based on the re-learned, translated, movement material.
Working against, and with, the company’s performance, guest dancers brought a new presence and different energy to the dance. With a new guest artist in each performance other stories were always in flow, always new and renewed, an ever-changing dancescape.
Netta Yerushalmy, all high intensity, long lines, and snaky movement changes, occupied the guest role the night I saw "other stories." Yerushalmy is a very different mover than the company which tends, either for reasons of the choreography or their natural instincts, to be less full-bodied, stressing individual gestures of legs, hands, head and so forth. The contrast is interesting, but rather than layers I felt as if I was watching two separate pieces. While certainly this is the effect overheard conversation in a public place has, I don’t think it’s exactly the effect Beller is going for.
At Dance New Amsterdam the teaching and improvisation took place inside a scrim-like tent set on one side of the stage. Seen from the outside dancing shadows created their own narrative, acting at times like a chorus for the main stage event. It too, however, became its own show: complicating watching, at times drawing the audience’s eye from the central performance.
Beller seems to have decided that she wants the audience to see less rehearsal. A new set, created by Brian Ireland, alleviated the “too much seen” problem, but created others. The new set resembled a small, beautifully crafted, wooden house on wheels, filled with nooks and crannies. The set gave Beller control she didn’t have before. The cast climbed on and moved inside the set, revealing and hiding activity, enhancing the “stories” by creating a unique framing for each. At the same time this set gives Beller the choice of when to offer the audience snippets of the cast/guest interaction, thereby controlling audience focus, adding mystery but also often muddying the sense of story-telling.
There are strengths and weaknesses in both these sets pointing to a difficulty in the overall concept. I liked being able to see the sequence of events unfold in the tent. I began to recognize the dancers bodies, their unique movement; watching the guest repeat and shape their learned material, bringing the two casts together and creating a whole of the parts. But I also liked the mystery of the “house” set, the way movement appears and disappears peeking out of corners, suddenly domestic, now abstract. If Beller wants the choreographic conceit to be transparent, and I believe it needs to be for the dance to be fully appreciated, then perhaps there is a happy medium, a way to use the strengths of both sets to highlight the “stories” and their reinterpretation.
Sometimes Beller’s choreography dragged; she’s both helped and hurt by her distinctive movement language that is sometimes too much in the extremities to cohere. Beller, whose company is celebrating its 10th anniversary, can afford to be pushed, to explore the edges of the physical language Beller’s created. By experimenting with new approaches, by expanding her language throughout the body I think Beller’s stories will be enhanced. Both she and her dancers are already there, they just need to jump in.
Less resonant than his films for the 2010 concert, Martijn Hart’s (Beller’s husband) film for this concert seemed more background than evocative. Amanda Ringger’s lighting, on the other hand elaborates the set, adding to the hide and reveal that Beller seeks.
I look forward to seeing where Beller’s storytelling takes her next.