By Rory Winston
For all his flaws, Sergei Diaghilev was the quintessential impresario. Beyond scouting out the most exceptional talents of his day, he inspired them to traverse what were otherwise strict boundaries. He created interdisciplinary collaborations that brought diverse artists the likes of Stravinsky, Nijinsky and Picasso under one roof. Whether or not Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Art Center (BAC) is capable of catalyzing paradigm shifts to the degree that has been ascribed to the legendary Ballet Russes is too early to tell; but, what is evident is that it operates under a laudable ethos – one that places the growth of the respective artists over the demands of their creations. While Baryshnikov shares Diaghilev’s fervor for odd juxtapositions, he never pressures his residents into turning out ‘marketable products’.
In fact, Misha’s strategy is quite simple: take an innovative up-and-coming artist with a high level of enthusiasm and allow him/her the freedom to team up with an artist from a different discipline; then give them time to work things out, the space to rehearse, and the venue to stage their project. The sensibility is one of nurturing nuances and hybrid forms; it is rooted in the idea that talents from disparate disciplines can advance one another’s scope. There is no predetermined goal. In short, the BAC is a laboratory – a bastion for process. It is hard to think of two emerging companies more worthy of such an experiment than Dance Heginbotham and Company Stefanie Batten Bland.
As a longtime member of Mark Morris Dance Company who has danced in both John Jasperse and Pam Tanowitz productions, Jonathan Heginbotham was granted residence at the BAC. With a cartoonish sense of humor, a love of electro-music, a video-gamers attention span, he seemed an obvious choice. As a choreographer, he runs the spectrum from classical ballet to modern dance, often toying with eclectic motifs from folk and mime. Although both Closing Bell and Twin incorporate eccentric asides, Twin has less of the art student’s ‘throw-everything-you-know-into-a-pastiche’ about it. Set to the music of Aphex Twins (Richard D. James), Twins shows six characters struggling to keep their idyllically buoyant state despite being subject to constant harassment by uniformed thugs who attempt to superimpose structure from without. The focus oscillates between this ongoing battle and a lone crepuscular figure – unseen by all the others - hovering on the periphery, presumably, in search of his other half. Whether this figure represents Apollo’s brother Arthemis, Romulus’s dead Remus, the evil twin of Zoroastrian lore or simply a Marvel comic doppelganger, the effect is eerie. It works. We get the distinct sense that the restless soul would like nothing better than to reunite with its twin and join the tussles of the living.
When it comes to tackling demanding subject matter, there are few choreographers as intellectually ambitious as the 35 year old Stefanie Batten Bland - a former dancer for the likes of Bill T. Jones, Pina Bausch, Lar Lubovitch, and Julie Taymor. What Batten Bland may lack in settled style with signature movements, she amply makes up for in narrative drive, powerful imagery, and the ability to tackle difficult themes. Her apercu into newsworthy topics is uncanny. In Terra Firma (set to the music of John Adams), Batten Bland explores migration through six characters draped in black plastic garbage bags. The group is set adrift amidst a world of vibrant colored Cocoon-like panels. They are the jetsam of humanity - the discarded beings who envision foreign shores in prophetic if naïve terms. Despite their hardships, the safe haven of their imaginations still boasts all the ‘streets paved in gold’ fanfare even if gold comes in shades of avocado, blues and browns. As the garbage bags perpetually mutate into ever newer costumes, the colorful panels turn to sails and the characters go from a floundering fish-like beings into a crablike existence (as they scuttle haplessly towards shore), ending in a fully articulated human form – complete with petty jealousies, rivalries and altruism. When one character finally proclaims, “we’re wearing garbage bags, you guys”, the viewer gets the distinct impression that it has less to do with an author’s self-referential theatrical posturing than with her character’s disposition. Shame is a luxury afforded only to those who have found a temporary refuge from annihilation. The proclamation is biblical in nature. It is the by-product of an imagined Eden. It is hope.
Batten Bland’s second piece, A Place in the Sun is a well-articulated dialogue between dance and sculpture on the subject of an oil spill. Once again, it is six dancers on stage. But this time they are ensconced within an unwieldy array of white feathers – each trapped within an outer ovular wooden frame sculpted by Benjamin Heller. As erratic writhing gives way to jolts and contortions, the death dance turns into a final lurch for survival. Working with and against Karol Szynanowski’s choral composition Stabat Mater, the dancers move from undulating minimalism into more fluid circular patterns stopping occasionally in what can only be described as several freeze framed moments. After the brief tableaux vivant, motion starts anew, giving way to a new pattern. We are asked to witness the tenacity of adaptation – the passion to carry on in whatever way is available to us.
Whether A Place in the Sun sustains the necessary level of dynamics throughout is debatable; but its interdisciplinary approach is as undeniable as was Nijinsky’s Jeux when for the first time in dance history ‘ballet confronted the body language of sports’. Was the latter a lost masterpiece, while this former is no more than a contrived exercise? For Baryshnikov, any answer would be moot. He is as easily impressed by zeal and artistic aspiration as he is unimpressed by critical acclaim. For the BAC, it is solely the development of those like Batten Bland and Haginbotham that matter. Still, as an audience member situated in a given space and time, I can’t help but get the feeling that Diaghilev would have been proud.