Abstracting Entertainment: Rovaco Dance Co. at Alchemical Theater

Jared McAboy and Mariel Harris in "Azadi". Photo credit Ezra Goh Photography, Courtesy Rovaco.

Jared McAboy and Mariel Harris in “Azadi”. Photo credit Ezra Goh Photography, Courtesy Rovaco.

New York, N.Y. In their first evening-length performance engagement at the end of April, Rovaco Dance Company presented a diverse yet concise body of work by founding artistic director Rohan Bhargava. The intimate, whitewashed setting at The Alchemical Theater was well suited to the young company’s subtlety and enthusiasm.

The program opened with Collections I, what Bhargava describes as a curated series of short works. The pieces were anywhere from ten minutes in length to a single song, and, though I had mixed reactions to the works individually, as a whole they served as a fascinating introduction to the individuals in the company and an invitation to the audience to react honestly to whatever they were seeing.

Jared McAboy and Rohan Bhargava in "The Wedding". Photo credit Ezra Goh Photography, Courtesy Rovaco.

Jared McAboy and Rohan Bhargava in “The Wedding”. Photo credit Ezra Goh Photography, Courtesy Rovaco.

The first of these, The Wedding, opens with the too-familiar strains of Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major as two men in button downs and suit jackets—Bhargava and company member Jared McAboy—face upstage. The pair turn together to each face the audience, look down at a fist placed over his heart, and straighten to run a hand through hair. Then they break into movement, the pair moving through lightning-fast gesture work that slows into syrupy hesitations, splitting away from unison to eat the space only to catch each other in breathtaking lifts and moments of shared gravity—Bhargava hovers horizontally, inches from the ground, held up by the toes of one foot and his hand clasped in McAboy’s. It would easy to work too hard to meet the sentimentality of the music or to let the music do all of the work; Bhargava has found a shaky yet effective middle ground, letting the more saccharine moments in the score play out with small movements as often as he rushes to fill its feeling of flight. The ending, with Bhargava facing McAboy on one knee, a hand outstretched and head bowed, has the effect of situating the piece both in flash-forward and flashback—a dream of where the couple are going simultaneous with a contemplating of how they had gotten here, to the moment of proposal, to the moment of promising.

Jared McAboy and Rohan Bhargava in "The Wedding". Photo credit Ezra Goh Photography, courtesy Rovaco.

Jared McAboy and Rohan Bhargava in “The Wedding”. Photo credit Ezra Goh Photography, courtesy Rovaco.

Generation Z was another duet, this for the two women of the company, Mariel Harris and Holly Ledbetter. They show off their technical and performance chops in the space of a single song, more than anything else just dancing with each other. The movement was interesting, predictably and clearly organized by the music, and seemed to say that the audience doesn’t have to take everything so seriously—sometimes it’s just dancing.

Shane Larson and Dimitri Kalaitzidis in "Johnny Bravo vs. Johnny Bravo". Photo credit Ezra Goh Photography, Courtesy Rovaco.

Shane Larson and Dimitri Kalaitzidis in “Johnny Bravo vs. Johnny Bravo”. Photo credit Ezra Goh Photography, Courtesy Rovaco.

Guest dancers Dimitri Kalaitzidis and Shane Larson tackled Johnny Bravo vs. Johnny Bravo, a fantastic duet that situates the pair between all out war and helping each other out, all in the name of being cool. The work felt seamless and organic, phrasework and partnering nearly indistinguishable from the moments of character-building comedy. A personal favorite moment came in a silent section, when the pair engage in a staring contest, break it for roughly three seconds of a ‘fight’, and then reset. At one point Larson’s glasses went flying off at the end of a sequence, and Kalaitzidis scrambled to put them back on him as they reset. The dancers’ commitment to the absolute ridiculousness of their antics made for the most engaging work of the evening, eliciting well-earned laughter from the audience throughout.

Hannah Garner in "Black Widow". Photo credit Ezra Goh Photography, Courtesy Rovaco.

Hannah Garner in “Black Widow”. Photo credit Ezra Goh Photography, Courtesy Rovaco.

Black Widow situates dancer Hannah Garner as a kind of femme fatale in red lipstick and a shirt of black netting. The solo traces the slow unraveling of Garner’s character as she attempts, increasingly frenzied, to fulfill the expectations of her role as a deadly seductress, trying on identities as though haphazardly tuning a radio. While Garner’s stellar performance was utterly captivating, the work could use some pruning, particularly in the second piece of music—Garner is a strong enough performer to convince us of her exhaustion without the length of the piece exhausting the audience, too. The payoff of the final image, the light fading on Garner lunging and snapping at the audience like a mad dog, was nevertheless worth the wait.

Rovaco Dance Company in "A Time of Confidences". Photo credit Ezra Goh Photography, Courtesy Rovaco.

Rovaco Dance Company in “A Time of Confidences”. Photo credit Ezra Goh Photography, Courtesy Rovaco.

To close the first half, the four dancers who comprise the main company—Bhargava, Harris, Ledbetter, and McAboy—performed A Time of Confidences, a piece in which the movement was entirely improvised. There is a delicious intensity to watching a work in which the dancers are making it up as they go along, following a score to keep things organized but ultimately just reacting to one another. Not only did the work show off the remarkable range and individuality of each dancer in the company, it brought out a level of fearlessness that is not often so clearly seen in choreographed works. Ledbetter shone here in particular, an easy joy belying the impressively difficult movement she brought to the floor. It also served to highlight just how close-knit this group is, the level of attention each dancer paid to the other palpable in the small space.

Azadi, the longer piece that comprised the program’s second half, explores “notions of freedom prevalent in the hybrid culture of India.” Four dancers line the upstage wall, cooly shifting from gesture to gesture until McAboy explodes forward in a seemingly effortless blend of nonchalant isolations and bursts of floorwork, setting the bar for the other three performers extremely high. Harris answers the challenge with her own solo, her settled technique emerging in a surprisingly sensual flow. At one point Harris collapses backwards, the other three dancers supporting her with her head arching back to nearly brush the floor, a foot stretching towards the ceiling, before they lower her to the ground.

Jared McAboy and Mariel Harris in "Azadi". Photo credit Ezra Goh Photography, Courtesy Rovaco.

Jared McAboy and Mariel Harris in “Azadi”. Photo credit Ezra Goh Photography, Courtesy Rovaco.

From here a duet emerges between Harris and McAboy that is undoubtedly the strongest part of the work. They begin and end in a simple embrace, a circular slow dance in which Harris goes from being a non-participant, arms dangling limply, to someone who is holding on just as tightly. Harris’ non-interest evolves into curiosity through delightful moments of synchronised phrasework, highlighting the highly versatile technical base and breathtaking specificity of these two dancers. Harris kneels over McAboy, seated, the pair intertwining their upper bodies with breathtaking  speed and intimacy.  Later, Harris hinges back to the floor and McAboy catches her, lifting her fully off the floor to press a kiss to her lips without breaking her backbend. At times McAboy’s performance becomes almost combative, at others tender, but never anything but refreshingly honest and human in the midst of the challenging choreography.

Rohan Bhargava (foreground) with the company in "Azadi". Photo credit Ezra Goh Photography, Courtesy Rovaco.

Rohan Bhargava (foreground) with the company in “Azadi”. Photo credit Ezra Goh Photography, Courtesy Rovaco.

As the duet ends Bhargava and Ledbetter join the couple, adding themselves to the entwined couple. Hands snake over heads and between bodies, organically reorganizing the the tightly packed group until it suddenly unravels into Ledbetter pulling away, escaping, recoiling, being tossed away and dropped to the floor. There is floorwork from the group, phrases emerging and dissipating with satisfying moments of unison. There is spatial and dynamic counterpoint, part of the ensemble slowing to a self-indulgent crawl while another cuts their strings to fling themselves through Bhargava’s signature high-speed gestural work. Bhargava dances a solo (originally choreographed for Nico Gonzalez, who was unfortunately unable to perform) that shifts the work to a darker place and is at its best towards the silent ending. Azadi ends on a foreboding note, accumulating manic energy until the four dancers are left to their own devices, spinning and spinning with a catch-step, heads bowed, arms hanging wide, exhaustion propelling them into the dark.

While compositionally the transitions between sections were well-crafted, the ordering of Azadi could use some reorganization with attention to where Bhargava wants to lead audience by the end of the work. The movement material is engaging enough to warrant a second draft; with performers as fascinating as these, Bhargava is certain to have an audience for it.

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Courtney Escoyne is an assistant editor and contributor at Dance Magazine. A recent graduate of NYU Tisch School of the Arts Department of Dance, her writing can also be read in Pointe and on her blog, Thoughts From a Ballet Nerd.