I will be the first to tell you that what is affectionately (or not) referred to as downtown dance is not my usual scene, but when one of my classmates invited me to see Dusk and Melon at Judson Memorial Church, of course I had to check it out. The hour-length piece was born from a collaboration between Franklin Barefoot (BAREFOOTHAUS) and Tara Lynch, both of whom graduated from Tisch School of the Arts Department of Dance (the program in which I am currently enrolled). The work is described as “a retrospective on the presentation of societal roles, human development, and relationship dynamics.” What I saw was an engaging and eclectic work created for four dancers in a way that feels sprawling yet is delightfully compact in the completeness of its composition.
Elizabeth Hepp, Lauren Kravitz, Jonathan Matthews, and Holly Sass are four Tisch alums whose individual levels of wackiness are only matched by just how beautifully they are trained. Both qualities are put to the test repeatedly throughout the piece, from the Cunningham-esque balance series deftly handled by Sass to open the show to the three women decked out in sequined ballgowns throwing themselves around the space and into Matthews like a glamorously deranged version of Macbeth’s witches. The juxtaposition implied here is present throughout the piece: Steve Reich preceding Peggy Lee, linear simplicity against bombastic partnering and manipulations, Strauss followed by Curtis Mayfield, the grandiosity of the space surrounding four humans moving without pretension.
Repetition and accumulation were oft-utilized tools throughout the evening, beginning with what I mentally tagged as the second movement. Angular, weaving walking patterns to the beat of New Paradise’s “I Love Video” repeated almost to the point of uncomfortability. I say almost because the walking, in its simplicity, served to open up the space, drawing our attention to how it seemed to embrace the dancers even as they moved to fill it. It also served to draw attention to the details as the movement became homolateral and gradually increased in complexity.
This repetition, however, was not always accomplished with ease. Much of the work, in contast to the ease in locomotion displayed early in the piece, became a source of obvious physical exhaustion as movements and sequences were performed over and over again. A running leap off a stool set center stage begins as a charming moment of near-flight from Sass but quickly evolves into a compulsory attempt at the impossible as it is repeated by the entire cast, harsh breaths echoing through the cavernous space as they are pulled back to the earth again and again.
What is the task here? Is it to achieve the impossible and take flight? Or is it to exhaust oneself in the attempt? These questions and the tension they created resounded throughout the piece: Kravitz emerges dressed liked a starlet from an earlier era, impossibly and untouchably elegant; Matthews dances a solo in which it seems his body is throwing him around without his consent (his right foot seemed quite determined never to touch the floor). There are moments when the dancers purposefully place each other in space, only to have to continuously return to make adjustments when their colleagues prove less than compliant. One might wonder why they do not just give up on these impossible tasks. The answer, I should think, is the fact of someone watching, more often than not one or more of the other dancers in the piece. Requisite roles and given tasks, whether they can be completed or not, refuse to be ignored, and there is something so very familiar and human about the earnest/exhaustive/unwilling striving these artists put on display. Seducing, flying, walking, longing, falling, colliding. Perhaps, I muse, to be human is to attempt the impossible: fitting into a role proscribed by society, leaping and hoping to fly, becoming exactly what you think another person wants.
Compositionally, the work was lovely. The sections danced in silence were often beautifully rhythmic in a way that can be difficult to make clear to an audience, and the music selections were eclectic enough to keep the audience from taking repetitions of material for granted. I particularly appreciated the reappearance of Sass’ solo from the opening of the piece in the middle and at the very end. The former involved balancing on two stools at center stage, Sass assisted by her colleagues (this was, for me, the most beautiful and interesting section of the performance). In the latter, Sass emerged in a translucent black ball gown. She seemed to be dancing for Matthews, seated in the corner, as she made the attempt and failed and fell and got up to try once more. The dress surrounds her like a shroud after a long moment, from which she emerges exhausted, perhaps defeated, from trying so very hard.
It was funny, disturbing, heart-breaking, and odd in all the best ways. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I wasn’t ever entirely sure of what I was seeing, but the beautiful dancing and composition won me over entirely, as did the striking uniqueness of each individual involved.
(Top image: Jonathan Matthews and Holly Sass; Photo credit: Daniel Stein)