“12 Chairs,” “Trio,” “Contact Sport,” “Megalopolis”
Keigwin + Company, The Joyce Theater
June 12, 2012
By Michael Popkin
Copyright © 2012 by Michael Popkin
Moving blocks of dancers around the stage with infectious rhythm is Larry Keigwin’s gift. When he stuck to it his show at the Joyce was fine indeed. “12 Chairs,” and “Megalopolis,” the opening and closing pieces had the packed and enthusiastic audience dancing in their seats to strong techno and hip-hop beats, but the two middle dances in a more conventional contemporary style were unremarkable.
“12 Chairs,” brand new for the evening and opening the show, was a driving stomp for the entire company to a techno synthesizer score (“Flexus”) by Jonathan Melville Pratt (all the music was recorded). The folding chairs were as theatrically handy as Vaudeville props, and twelve dancers formed groups that moved against each other with the strongest visual rhythms. Seated in a row when the curtain rose and looking about, they established the pulse of dance by slouching down in unison, and then every other performer either rocked forward or back, looking past their neighbor. The piston drive of six versus six continued until, by dividing into still smaller groups, more subtle rhythmic syncopation entered the design.When the dancers got up and switched places, they reminded you of riders on the subway or kids playing musical chairs. One dancer slouched with a hand to the mouth (in a pose of hassled frustration from everyday life) while a second stretched his or her neck in what looked like an effort to release tension. Despite their impassive expressions, you noticed each dancer’s unique individuality throughout the piece just the way you experience other people’s attraction in impersonal (yet intimate) urban spaces like the subway.
Don’t let the chairs in the title fool you into thinking of this as static. The movement scope was big, with the dancers charging through the work, stacking, spinning, and jumping over their seats. The company’s resident lighting designer, Burke Wilmore, projected cones of light directly from above that waxed and waned, while Dane Laffrey’s costumes had the dancers barefoot in casual street clothes of muted colors, relieved by an occasional splash of red or pink.
If “12 Chairs” felt like the “All Dance” routine at the end of a Bollywood movie, Keigwin’s 2009 “Megalopolis” (originally a Juilliard school commission) felt like a romp through Lounge-Lizard-Land or trip to the World’s Zaniest Nightclub. The cast again included all twelve of the company’s dancers, and the score interpolated Steve Reich’s “Sextet-Six Marimbas” with brief hip-hop excerpts from MIA. Men in silver lamé entered like Las Vegas showgirls, while women came downstage for brief virtuoso break dance solos to spontaneous applause.
Full of brio and appealingly individual, both these dances showed Keigwin to possess a choreographic voice that you wouldn’t mistake anywhere. What then happened in the middle portion of the show?
In “Trio” (originally named “Balloon Dance” when Keigwin first staged it last year for the Guggenheim’s “Works and Process”) three dancers did an innocuous modern dance to Adam Crystal’s “No. 6 for Piano, Marimba, Cello and Violin.” Liz Prince’s costumes clothed both the men (Aaron Carr and Kile Hotchkiss) and the woman (Emily Schoen) in silver, pleated skirts – with the men bare chested and Schoen in a costume that exposed her back. The strong rhythm of repeated passages where all three dancers walked the stage in a sinuous line, their footfalls right on the music, brought the piece occasionally to life. Otherwise, while the men looked good in skirts, the work reminded you of Paul Taylor but without Taylor’s gifts for creating original movement or cultural irony.
“Contact Sport,” the second of the show’s premiers, was more ambitious. Like “Megalopolis,” it had a nightclub setting, here a backdrop of hanging silver and purple tinsel. Four men did a series of vignettes to recordings of Eartha Kitt songs that included “Easy to Love” (Cole Porter), “Monotonous” (June Carroll and Arthur Siegel), “It was a Very Good Year” (Ervin Drake) and “C’mon to My House” (Bagdasarian and Saroyan). The dancers camped it up. Marion Talan’s costumes dressed them as boys, with three in socks, shorts and summer shirts, while the fourth wore slacks, shirt and a tie. In one sequence, three dancers hoisted the fourth repeatedly sideways to a horizontal position. In another, they pushed each other’s heads down as if they were dunking each other in a swimming pool. One of the boys got his shorts pulled down by the others and stood briefly in his underwear miming “Ooh . . . I’m so embarrassed;” and so on – a different shtick for each song.
The program notes said the work was intended as a portrait of a family with four brothers. Keigwin has explained to the New York Times in 2011 how he comes from just such a family. Implicitly a sendup of Martha Graham’s “Deaths and Entrances” (which is a portrait of three sisters), it was neither consistently funny nor conveyed much about the family. Oddly, in contrast to “12 Chairs” and “Megalopolis” where every dancer was individual without the choreographer seeming to try, none of the characters here came alive or made a personal impression. The Eartha Kitt songs added little but atmosphere.
Keigwin has an identifiable style that uses hip-hop and break dance forms in a theater setting and, when he sticks to that palate, he’s one of the most appealing young dance makers around. Rhythm is his gift. With recent commissions from Juilliard, the New York Choreographic Institute and the Guggenheim’s “Works & Process,” he’s emerged from the pack and made his name. The company he founded in 2003 has annual spring seasons at the Joyce Theater followed by regular festival appearances like Fall for Dance. Yet, what’s his “brand” going to be? Breaking free of the conventional modern dance compositions that compromised the middle of the program, can he do more of what he’s best at? The Joyce program suggests that he’s still not sure what that is.
Photos by Matthew Murphy: 1. Company in “12 Chairs;” 2. Justin Dominic and Kile Hotchkiss in “Megalopolis;” 3. Aaron Carr and Emily Schoen in “Trio;” 4. Matthew Baker, Aaaron Car, Brandon Cournay and Gary Schaufeld in “Contact Sport”