New Dances to New Music: Rovaco Dance Company and Mannes School of Music Present 7:1

Mariel Harris, Nico Gonzales, Hannah Seiden, and Sean Roel Nederlof in "A Kindred Spirit." Photo by Chelsea Robin Lee, Courtesy Rovaco.

Mariel Harris, Nico Gonzales, Hannah Seiden, and Sean Roel Nederlof in “A Kindred Spirit.” Photo by Chelsea Robin Lee, Courtesy Rovaco.

New York, N.Y. 7:1, an interdisciplinary collaboration between Mannes School of Music and Rovaco Dance Company, was conceived by choreographer Rohan Bhargava and composer Alexander Chadwell. The goal: to create an opportunity for young music makers to try their hand at creating for dance and budding choreographers to produce commissioned work with bespoke music. One choreographer, seven composers, and four months to collaborate: If it sounds like an ambitious, even audacious, project, that’s because it is. And unfortunately, with the four-month time constraint in place, Bhargava, who created a dance piece for each of the seven new scores that were presented on May 13th, bit off rather more than he could comfortably chew.

The issue here is not one of talent, nor of a lack of ideas: Bhargava is a highly musical choreographer who possesses a singular ability to imagine whole other worlds and weave them vividly through movement, and the works on display here reflected that, each wholly distinct while carrying Bhargava’s choreographic fingerprints. Yet the majority felt more like incomplete drafts rather than fully-realized pieces—hardly surprising, given the magnitude of what this choreographer was attempting to accomplish. Four months to create seven new works to pre-existing scores would already have been a stretch; adding the collaborative component to this compressed timeframe seems a recipe for an undercooked, uneven showing despite the impressive efforts of all involved. It’s a worthy project, and these are all worthy artists: more support, which would allow for more time, is both crucial and deserved.

Nico Gonzales, Jared McAboy and Mariel Harris in "Triple Helix." Photo by Chelsea Robin Lee, Courtesy Rovaco.

Nico Gonzales, Jared McAboy and Mariel Harris in “Triple Helix.” Photo by Chelsea Robin Lee, Courtesy Rovaco.

The performance opened with Triple Helix, a trio for Nico Gonzales, Mariel Harris and Jared McAboy set to a cello sextet by Michael Spiroff. The dancers are huddled together, embracing, their faces hidden, as the lights come up; they replace a hand, roll their heads, drape their arms as one. Slowly they begin to pull away and retract as individuals, then break apart as a unit. Meanwhile Spiroff’s score creates a strange, driving soundscape, one with rhythmic lines which Bhargava visibly delights in pulling apart and playing inside of as the intensity steadily ratchets upward. One memorable moment sees Harris catch McAboy’s leg when he flings it to arabesque; he slowly rotates until his captured leg is extended in front of him and drapes his upper body backward toward the ground, Harris and Gonzales supporting him and rocking him gently side to side. The effect is of an alien world, one in which the unfathomable rules somehow translate to precisely modulated hand gestures and broad strokes of athleticism.

Jared McAboy and Hannah Seiden in "Pendulum." Photo by Chelsea Robin Lee, Courtesy Rovaco.

Jared McAboy and Hannah Seiden in “Pendulum.” Photo by Chelsea Robin Lee, Courtesy Rovaco.

Next on the program was a kitschy duet for McAboy and Hannah Seiden called Pendulum, set to Yufei Chen’s score for erhu, cello and piano. A silly take on on the “Will they or won’t they?” trope, the characters are cartoon-like, Seiden in a little red dress and McAboy in overalls, their heads bobbling as Seiden perches sweetly on McAboy’s knee. The relationship unfolds through coy looks, delivered between bouts of rapid-fire playacting and during pauses midway through impressive partnering feats. Though McAboy and Seiden are both charming performers, the choreography places too much of its success or failure on their ability to ham it up and ultimately feels too disingenuous to register as truly humorous.

 

Alexander Chadwell (upstage left) and Nico Gonzales perform "Dream Myself." Photo by Chelsea Robin Lee, Courtesy Rovaco.

Alexander Chadwell (upstage left) and Nico Gonzales perform “Dream Myself.” Photo by Chelsea Robin Lee, Courtesy Rovaco.

Dream Myself, in which both the choreography and music were improvisatory, marked a distinct change of pace. Gonzales, a singularly compelling performer when given leave to shape the space in his own time, stands at center as Chadwell (on electric guitar) and vocalist Caitlin Mead frame him at opposite corners. Gonzales begins with a stationary gestural accumulation that takes on an air of ritual, adding speed, intensity and rhythmic complexity to Chadwell’s smooth, haunting soundscape. Though Mead ran into issues with her microphone levels, I nevertheless found that I would have followed these three performers further down this particular rabbit hole.

Mariel Harris, Sean Roel Nederlof, Hannah Seiden, and Nico Gonzales in "Kindred Spirit." Photo by Chelsea Robin Lee, Courtesy Rovaco.

Mariel Harris, Sean Roel Nederlof, Hannah Seiden, and Nico Gonzales in “Kindred Spirit.” Photo by Chelsea Robin Lee, Courtesy Rovaco.

The most affecting of the works was A Kindred Spirit; also, not coincidentally, the piece in which it seemed that the work of Bhargava and the composer, Justin Rosin, was at its most cohesive. Seiden, a soloist in a blue-gray dress, floats across the stage supported by three dancers (Harris, McAboy and Sean Roel Nederlof) dressed simply in jeans and black t-shirts. When they release her, they don’t go far; it is as though her movements create the wind in which they are tossed, drifting in her wake. Sometimes the opposite seems to be true. They surround Seiden and gently manipulate her movements; Gonzales rests his head on her arm to bend her elbow, causing them to melt together, heads pillowed on one another. At this, Seiden backs away from them, though soon enough she is stirring the air again as the trio links with her in an unexpected diagonal. She finishes a phrase in an arcing penché and reverses her path into a partnered sit spin before the trio glides her across the space in a reference to the opening image. She is something vital, but perhaps also fragile; when Nederlof cradles her and sets her gently to the ground for the others to cover with their hands, the sense is overwhelmingly one of caring.

Mariel Harris in "What did you say?" Photo by Chelsea Robin Lee, Courtesy Rovaco.

Mariel Harris in “What did you say?” Photo by Chelsea Robin Lee, Courtesy Rovaco.

The opening of What did you say? is promising, Harris reacting with razor-sharp precision to the notes emitting from the marimba onstage (score by Brian Denu, performed by Jeffrey Kautz). But for all of Harris’ powerhouse technique and easy, forthright confidence, and for all that Kautz’s onstage awkwardness in between bouts of virtuosic playing comes across as endearing, the work ultimately reads as trite and unimaginative. The music and movement on their own are entertaining and well-executed, but burdened as they are with the tired, “Look, the performers are having a conversation through their respective art forms!” concept, the work is reduced to the sum of its weakest elements.

Jared McAboy and Sean Roel Nederlof (lifted) in "Training in Love." Photo by Chelsea Robin Lee, Courtesy Rovaco.

Jared McAboy and Sean Roel Nederlof (lifted) in “Training in Love.” Photo by Chelsea Robin Lee, Courtesy Rovaco.

The duet that followed, Training in Love, ran into a related issue: The arc of the relationship between McAboy and Nederlof, here playing two soldiers who, apparently, fall in love during basic training, is not matched by the emotional arc of Zachary Catron’s score. At first they are separate, showing their strength in single unison movements; later they fall into marching order, manipulating each other’s hands and arms into mesmerizing geometric configurations. Suddenly a switch seems to have been flipped, and the two men are more intimate in their contact, flowing through lifts so seamlessly that gravity sometimes seems to have shifted. While as dancers the pair are phenomenal together, their straight-laced performance personas overshadow any emotional link they may have had; this issue was not helped by the later scoring for the B flat trumpet, which did more to alienate the audience than to sweep us inside of the moment (something of which the instrument, used well, is more than capable). There are the bones of a wonderful, important piece here, but first it needs fine-tuning and time.

Rovaco Dance Company in "Labyrinth." Photo by Chelsea Robin Lee, Courtesy Rovaco.

Rovaco Dance Company in “Labyrinth.” Photo by Chelsea Robin Lee, Courtesy Rovaco.

Labyrinth, the only piece that features all five company members, begins with a cascade of sound from composer/performer Stanislav Fridman’s virtuosic score for solo piano. The dancers ride the melodic waves, soloists emerging then retreating, traveling as a pack with purpose but changing course mid-thought. There are unison sections that showcase Bhargava’s knack for making simple, clean hand and arm movements seem unbearably exciting (Harris’ unmannered specificity was particularly engaging here), and still others that were unfortunately less than clean. A traveling line splits in two, the women threading themselves back and forth between the men in unison; they begin to reorganize and lapse into controlled chaos until they figure it out, clasping each other’s’ hands and untangling their bodies to fall to their backs in a straight line as the piano rings in the darkness. Have they found the center of the labyrinth, or somehow unwound it? The journey made is unclear, but they certainly reached its end together.

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

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