It’s rare that a modern-dance concert hits all the right notes: a good length (leaving you wanting more but still feeling that you’ve got your money’s worth); well-crafted pieces presented in a sensible order; alert, engaging performers with great technical skill; dances that show humor and drama in equal measure; and accessibility. (That last can be tricky—to some, “accessible” indicates a dumbing down in order to draw an audience, but it is really about engaging and involving spectators.) The recent performances of Keigwin + Company, at the Joyce, hit those notes, and were accessible in the best sense.
Larry Keigwin, a longtime performer, created his company in 2003, and has purposely sought to capture audiences with wit, a theatrical sensibility, and, mostly, terrific dancing. Twelve dancers make up his troupe now, and the opening and closing works on the program were for the full company. First up was a première, “12 Chairs,” in which the cast shared the stage with twelve metal folding chairs. To a throbbing electronic score by Jonathan Melville Pratt, the six men and six women began with minute, pedestrian gestures as they sat slouched on the chairs, facing the audience; as the piece gathered strength, they began moving in unison groups, or in rippling waves, and their movements became more elaborate, eventually involving big attitude turns and assemblés. The chairs were often the objects of tasks, as the dancers moved them around in geometric paths, arranged them, folded them up, and slid them along the floor. But the chairs were also partners, and the dancers relied on them for support, whether they were letting their bodies drip over them and onto the floor or using them to launch themselves into the air. At times, it was a frantic ballroom dance, in which half the participants were inanimate.
Moments of stillness allowed characters to emerge, and what at first seemed to be an antic, gimmick-centered work evolved into something graver, a study of isolation and alienation, in which small conflicts between dancers broke out and resolved in the blink of an eye. In a rehearsal of “12 Chairs” in May, this sense was difficult to discern; the dance was still unfinished, and there were the typical distractions of a rehearsal: harsh lighting, memory lapses, lack of distance. At the Joyce, the dance had come together, and the passages in which a still individual was contrasted with the busily moving group were poignant. When Aaron Carr, spotlit in the upstage left corner (Burke Wilmore did the evening’s lighting), sat sideways on a chair as the others moved about, he seemed gripped by existential angst. Then he snapped out of it, fixing his hair, and rejoined the fray. Keigwin had mirrored real life, where everyone and everything is constantly trying to fit in.
A piece like “12 Chairs” is a great way to start a program—it’s big, complicated, active, clever. “Trio” and “Contact Sport,” occupying the middle of the program, showed Keigwin’s talent for working smaller. “Trio” featured Carr, Kile Hotchkiss, and Emily Schoen—the men bare-chested and Schoen in a close-fitting top, all of them in short, dark-bronze pleated skirts—moving to Adam Crystal’s “No. 6 for Piano, Marimba, Cello, Violin.” Starting with a simple circular walking pattern, in which each seemed to be sizing up the others, the three broke out into phrases that beautifully melded a crisp, balletic quality with a light casualness, as in one repeated motif, a little sauté with a flicked right leg. What the dancers were doing was nonchalant, but strong intent lay behind it; they floated through space but at the same time carved it up. When they turned, their skirts lifted and revealed a bright-pink lining, a detail that seemed to match the dance itself, whose apparent sobriety hid a carefree side. (Liz Prince designed the costumes.) In the heart of the piece, the movement became juicier, and intertwined partnering—the men lifting Schoen and spinning her around, Hotchkiss hoisting Carr—signalled an atmosphere of coöperation. But there was always a sense of determination, of quiet purpose, and this matched Crystal’s music, which at times sounded like water flowing over pebbles. At the end, the trio dropped suddenly out of a phrase and picked up their circular walking again and the lights faded—an abrupt end that somehow seemed right.
Keigwin brought humor to the evening’s other première, “Contact Sport,” a quartet for Matthew Baker, Brandon Cournay, Gary Schaufeld, and Carr, set to four songs sung by Eartha Kitt. The men, dressed in Marion Talan’s costumes of white button-down shirts and ties, with gray shorts (Carr wore gray pants), were brothers, or buddies, plucked out of some sixties preppy world. As the piece—with its big, boyish movement, what you might call roughhouse modern, and plenty of partnering and clowning— progressed, it was more like “My Three Sons” meets the Keystone Cops. While the tone verged on the shticky, Keigwin never overreached, and kept this a dance piece, not a burlesque act (even though Cournay got pantsed at one point). The “contact” part of the proceedings seemed to be dance-bound, too: lined up shoulder to shoulder, the men reacted to one another’s motions, and it looked for all the world like a contact-improv session—a feeling that recurred throughout the work. The standout of the foursome was Schaufeld. In a great bit, he propped himself up on the shoulders of the guys next to him and swung his legs back and forth in the air, gazing into the distance with a wistful, angelic expression.
What followed was an interlude of extravagant and gleeful delirium. “Megalopolis,” from 2009, had all twelve dancers in shiny, sparkly futuristic costumes (though it was more a “space age” future as envisioned in the nineteen-thirties). Keigwin used an odd musical mashup that worked surprisingly well: Steve Reich’s “Sextet/Six Marimbas” and excerpts from M.I.A.’s “World Town” and “XR2.” When Reich’s minimalist music played, “Megalopolis,” with its weird costumes, seemed like a spoof of one of Paul Taylor’s goofy creature dances—or like that kind of dance done superbly. When M.I.A.’s numbers came on, the stage became a full-on dance party, less futurism and more Gaga.
The movement was non-stop; dancers entered and exited in flurries, in groups and in long lines, often in unison—a crotch-forward strut with the hands clasped overhead, a frantic up-up-down-down skitter—keeping rhythm with the urgent beat. And the dancers sold it completely, strutting campily on their tiptoes, working the crowd with club-kid abandon while reminding us that they are seriously talented, giving us tours en l’air, pirouettes, and cabrioles in the midst of the prancing, voguing, Euro-disco madness. Even when the Reich appeared again, the energy stayed high, and Keigwin’s dancers made sure of it. Ashley Browne exhorted us to give in to the controlled mania, and Carr, in a short-short silver-lamé leotard, was a kind of Tinker Bell provocateur; midway through, he came on holding two lights and did a spectacular, virtuosic solo, showing us the possibilities of believing in this dance. Later, when he spun to the floor at the end of another such solo, the lights went out, the music stopped, and the dance was over. At thirteen minutes, it was the longest piece on the program.
I realized that I was grinning. I looked around at the crowd standing and applauding around me, and saw true joy on people’s faces. Keigwin had given us four solid works, performed by sharp, youthful dancers, and did it in a brisk sixty-two minutes, without an intermission, hitting our pleasure receptors over and over.
Photograph by Matthew Murphy.