The American Dance Festival has presented two small-scale programs this season away from its main series venues of Reynolds Theater and the Durham Performing Arts Center. The first, which I had thought might be arid, was instead subtle and austerely beautiful. The second, which I had high hopes of being waspish and thrashingly sardonic, was instead…not much of nothing.
Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor. Photo: ©Vojtech Brtnicky.
The Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University was the co-presenter on June 17 for Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor‘s reconsideration of Two Room Apartment, a work by all accounts important in the history of Israeli choreography. (Certainly, the commanding, sensuous movement style can be seen in many contemporary Israeli companies, and one thinks especially of Emmanuel Gat.) Created in 1987 by Liat Dror and Nir Ben Gal, Two Room Apartment was originally for a male-female couple, but Sheinfeld and Laor have reworked it to reflect their own life and work partnership. They have used the original music by Ori Vidislavski, supplemented with songs by Elton John (“Yellow Brick Road”!) and Vains of Jenna. (Video teaser here.)
The Nasher atrium provided an ideal setting for this intelligent and wonderfully constructed dance, with a dark rectangle of marley laid down the center and chairs arranged on all four sides. I attended the 7 p.m. show, so there was still ample natural light, but it was augmented by a simple lighting array. Ready waiting in the performance area, and very carefully placed, were two folded jackets (one blue, one green), two folded towels (both white) and two water bottles (identical), and two rolls of wide white tape.
The two dancers appear, one tall, one not. For their ADF debut, they wear similar gray jeans, black tops and scuffed brown boots. Each takes a roll of tape, with which they delineate the two square rooms, side by side, one “wall” shared. The “ownership” of each room is indicated by which jacket is now within its space. They begin to walk around these rooms, each man staying on “his” side.
Tension builds with repetition, as in minimalist music. Speed increases. Small changes–a stumble here, a hair-smoothing there–begin to occur. Then meetings, collaborations, conflicts, transgressions, relentings, rapproachments, and sex and its aftermath are all danced, with a stripped-down dance vocabulary combining beautifully-timed simple movement with subtle gestures and expressions. Sheinfeld and Laor also exhibit a honed sense of the comedic, and offer a right-sized (aesthetically speaking) jolt of nudity. The personal relationship interleaves with the artistic one–through all this, the artists are trying to choreograph a dance. Nesting a representation of dance-making within the dance they were actually making made the viewer feel both the domesticity of the set-up, and the way the domestic, in life, is nested inside of art-making. This is one smart, fully-thought-out work of art by two fine, fierce dancers.
Over the course of the dance, Sheinfeld and Laor cross every boundary, both those on the stage and all the implied and expected boundaries between roommates, partners, lovers and performers (the tall one kept a little flirtation going with a long-legged girl seated on the floor in front of me–apparently there’s someone on the outside in every performance). All that’s left of those boundaries in the end is a discarded wad of tape, and the heady scent of clean male sweat.
After that exhilarating work, maybe 13 Love Songs: Dot Dot Dot (2014) was at a disadvantage. This first evening-length collaboration between 60-something Ishmael Houston-Jones and 30-something Emily Wexler, also making their ADF debut, was presented June 24 and 25 in the PSI Theater of the Durham Arts Council. Supposedly they were to eviscerate the popular love song, but that Hydra has survived this ludicrous conceptual attack.
The ideas were murky, the dancing hideous, the stage craft abominable. The performers talked too much and very little of what they said was worth repeating, although there was one interesting piece by Houston-Jones (I believe that the “authenticity” of his Some Reasons Your Anus is Not Like Everest was supposed to contrast tellingly with the lyrics of classic pop love.) It was boring. And, nothing happened. No, I take that back, there was a good thing where they cut an onion and rubbed it on their faces to generate specious tears, crocodile tears, to accompany some sad song. But so much nothing happened that Wexler had to tell the audience when the show was over.
I’ve spent a week trying to think why ADF booked this and haven’t come up with a plausible reason. It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen in 30+ years of ADF, and that includes the revolting piece in which Miguel Gutierrez hovered his naked butt over an open flame on stage with real time video multiplying the yuck factor (turns out Houston-Jones is affiliated with Gutierrez). At least I remember Gutierrez’ piece. Already the main thing I remember about 13 Love Songs: Dot Dot Dot is how glad I was to burst out the door when its pitiful hour of crime against art was up.
Ishmael Houston-Jones and Emily Wexler in 13 Love Songs: Dot Dot Dot. Photo:©Ian Douglas.