Review: NobleMotion Dance, Rovaco Dance Company, and NVA & Guests at the Dance Gallery Festival

Jessica Alexander, Eric Berey, and Shelby Jane Terrell in Le Mass. Photo by Michelle Lim Photography, Courtesy von Arx.

Jessica Alexander, Eric Berey, and Shelby Jane Terrell in Le Mass. Photo by Michelle Lim Photography, Courtesy von Arx.

New York, N.Y. Now in its 11th year, The Dance Gallery Festival gives NYC dance audiences a chance to catch the work of nearly two dozen choreographers in the course of a weekend. It was with some trepidation that I headed to the Ailey Citigroup Theater on November 4 to catch the “Level Up” performance, an evening of work from three commissioned artists who are selected from the previous year’s participants. But Andy and Dionne Sparkman Noble/NobleMotion Dance, Rohan Bhargava/Rovaco Dance Company, and Nicole von Arx/NVA & Guests provided dances that were as diverse in execution and ideas as they were unified in quality, making for a surprisingly enjoyable evening of contemporary dance.

Evelyn Toh in Fragment. Photo by Andy Noble, Courtesy Noble.

Evelyn Toh in Fragment. Photo by Andy Noble, Courtesy Noble.

Andy Noble’s Fragment, the evening’s first premiere, can best be described as two duets in two movements: the first between Evelyn Toh and the refracted images of herself created by a live video projected onto a screen upstage, the second between Toh and Wesley Cordova. The risk of multimedia works such as this is always that either the dancing or the video becomes incidental. Noble, however, balanced their purposes beautifully in a way that expressed a relationship and a character, instead of caving to the gimmick-laden traps presented by the technology. We first see Toh kneeling downstage, her hands carefully covering the lens of a video camera set up on a tripod. Slowly she peels her hands back, framing a single eye, then both, conjuring a box and then swirling her wrists and fingers to highlight her face, gestures that are amplified on the screen behind her as they gain breadth and fluidity. She looks back, then quickly covers the lens again and stands. She dangles her arm, elbow to fingertips, in the camera’s line of sight as she moves upstage, watching the way the flick of a hand ripples like so many reflections across a pond. She grows bolder, swaying through already familiar gesture sequences while adding syncopation that reverberates out from her center, lunging and sliding in and out of the light and the camera’s view with more swiftness and precision than thought. When she pauses to look over her shoulder, a line of her refracted selves do the same in canon. They follow her closely, just behind real-time, as her movements grow agitated; a silky smooth attitude turn is closely followed by her flinching away from her own hands. She finally lands on her knees, grabbing her hair and writhing, face inches from the camera, until she falls into a blackout.

When the lights return, the video projection is gone. Instead, there is Cordova, watching cautiously as Toh rises. He places a careful hand on the camera, powered down but nevertheless a significant presence, before he joins her. He steps behind her and slides his hands around to grasp her wrists; they breathe together, the movement growing in waves until it snaps into fluid, off-kilter lifts. Cordova catches her around her waist and she hovers midair as though caught between two runs; he lowers her and Toh embraces him strangely, head tucked in next to his ribcage where he cannot see her face. She finds her way to a crossed arabesque, spins in his hands, drops into a hinge that’s only caught by his hand on her neck. When he falls, she looks to the blank screen; he steps into her line of sight and she doesn’t seem to register his presence until his wrists touch her neck, the pair breaking into a contrapuntal give-and-take that grows into an expansive sequence in canon. Her hands carve a box across his back and he falls to his knees. Soon after he interrupts her walking with an abrupt lift as she carries another invisible shape, but as he lowers her to the floor he collapses onto his side and stays there. Gingerly, Toh disentangles herself to kneel just behind his prone form. She glances back, then faces us, returning to the framing gestures that haunt the piece, indicating to us what the camera would see, as the lights go dark. Somehow, Toh seems more real to us that Cordova ever does, as though he, too, were as ephemeral as the projection.

Wesley Cordova, Brittany Thetford Deveau, Seth McPhail, and Jared Doster in Ziggurat. Photo by Lynn Lane, Courtesy Noble.

Wesley Cordova, Brittany Thetford Deveau, Seth McPhail, and Jared Doster in Ziggurat. Photo by Lynn Lane, Courtesy Noble.

Cordova and Toh returned in the second work of the evening, this time as part of a larger ensemble. Andy and Dionne Sparkman Noble’s Ziggurat was the only non-premiere on the program, but it quickly became clear that it is a work where practiced assurance from the performers is absolutely crucial. The majority of the action occurs upstage left, where a metal, pyramidal structure topped by a four-armed windmill parallel to the floor sits. Music that races and builds begins as the first dancer enters and sets the arms of the structure spinning. Another joins him, at first just running with the arms to build momentum, then using them to glide their feet just above the ground, then to soar supported by their arms. Dancers cycle in and out in twos and fours, constantly raising the stakes as they attempt riskier maneuvers, flipping heads over feet, dropping underneath the rapidly spinning windmill and hinging back to keep their heads clear of a dangerous collision. Just as you begin to wonder if they’ll soon run out of ideas, one of the men, now alone, crouches underneath the structure and watches it spin overhead for a moment before climbing inside of it.

Evelyn Toh and Jared Doster in Ziggurat. Photo by Lynn Lane, Courtesy Noble.

Evelyn Toh and Jared Doster in Ziggurat. Photo by Lynn Lane, Courtesy Noble.

We hear a soft click in the absence of music; a moment later it becomes clear that the structure’s arms have been freed from their position parallel to the floor, allowing Jared Doster to shift its axis as it rotates. Toh re-enters and seems to slow time nearly to a standstill as she rides out Doster’s careful steering of the windmilling arms, serenely rising and falling as she rotates around, here stretching into a languid, liquid arabesque, there delicately lying back to watch the stars pass overhead. This is the section that hints that there could be more to the work than visually intriguing stunts, largely as a result of the ethereality of Toh’s performance; she becomes a girl watching the moon from the prow of a ship, or perhaps the moon itself. Another shift, and the angle of the windmill is fixed so the upstage arm is several feet higher than its downstage counterpoint. Another, and it’s back to its original state, but now, for the finale, each dancer only spends a brief, running revolution around the arm before launching themselves across the stage, joyously bursting into phrasework that proves that the cast is not only a group of astonishingly strong and controlled stunt performers, but also fantastically skilled movers. Duos and trios emerge and recede, the ziggurat spinning incessantly upstage, until only two figures remain, one pushing the windmilling arms as the other runs the opposite circle, then rocketing offstage to leave us with one final image of the structure whirring alone in their wake.

Fernando Acevedo and Elise Pacicco (hidden) in Kool Kids 2.0. Photo by Michelle Lim Photography, Courtesy Bhargava.

Fernando Acevedo and Elise Pacicco (hidden) in Kool Kids 2.0. Photo by Michelle Lim Photography, Courtesy Bhargava.

Kool Kids 2.0, Bhargava’s contribution, is another premiere, though, as you might guess from the name, one which has had a prior iteration. Save for the name and aesthetic, however, Kool Kids 2.0 reads as a wholly independent creation, albeit one that might take place in the same universe as the shorter original—that of some seemingly image-driven twenty-somethings who are, for lack of a better term, cool, and charting their various shenanigans. One particularly inspired addition: composer Fernando Acevedo, who beatboxes the score live both on- and offstage throughout the work. It begins in darkness, just the steady build of Acevedo’s voice echoing through the theatre until the lights come up, revealing him standing at center with a besuited figure directly behind him. At first we just see arms, completing crisp gestures on the musician’s behalf (his are occupied with the microphone), but soon Elise Pacicco’s movements grow beyond what can easily be hidden by another body. She orbits Acevedo, jamming and cycling through slick floorwork on her own or gripping his legs with one arm as she suspends herself nearly horizontally above the ground. When exhaustion hits she collapses into a spotlight as though falling into bed after an energetic night out. “Wake up,” Acevedo intones, encouraging Pacicco when her reactive movements take her closer to standing and dramatically crying “Noooooooo” when she falls back into her stupor. The pair’s comedic timing is impeccable, and the offbeat relationship never feels stilted or forced; their final jam session, which sees Pacicco easily matching the rhythmic complexity of Acevedo’s beatboxing until she’s mimed having just a few too many drinks, ends with him telling her, “Yeah, let’s go, we’re done,” and leading the way offstage. Pacicco, on the ground after melting into a puddle from a beautifully controlled hinge, crawls and stumbles her way after him.

Elise Pacicco, Nico Gonzales, Jared McAboy, and Mariel Harris in Kool Kids 2.0. Photo by Michelle Lim Photography, Courtesy Bhargava.

Elise Pacicco, Nico Gonzales, Jared McAboy, and Mariel Harris in Kool Kids 2.0. Photo by Michelle Lim Photography, Courtesy Bhargava.

Pacicco’s solo sets the tone for the work. When the lights return, the rest of the cast (Mariel Harris, Nico Gonzales, and Jared McAboy) have formed a line onstage with Pacicco, who is slumped over, hands braced on her knees. She holds up a finger as if to ask for just one more second; McAboy checks his watch; Harris taps one foot impatiently. Pacicco finally stands upright, straightens her jacket, and sighs; the others pick up on it, a simple, audible rhythm falling into canon, then morphing from there as impatient gestures mold themselves into staccato phrases, simple, everyday movements becoming complex clockwork with an infectious groove made all the more satisfying by how the movement generating it is so recognizable and restrained. When they freeze in the midst of linking arms and shaking hands and the music starts back up, they seem as ready to burst out of their self-constrained boxes as we are. Harris dances a solo in which the others become her entourage that ends with her creating an invisible tiara with her hands, crowning herself as though her sheer awesomeness is so self-evident that she deserves one.

Fernando Acevedo (center) and Rovaco Dance Company in Kool Kids 2.0. Photo by Michelle Lim Photography, Courtesy Bhargava.

Fernando Acevedo (center) and Rovaco Dance Company in Kool Kids 2.0. Photo by Michelle Lim Photography, Courtesy Bhargava.

(She does.) Acevedo returns and all four dancers surround him, react to the sounds he makes as though this beat is the one pumping the blood through their veins. McAboy finds himself the focus of an adoring, annoying posse and throws them off. It all builds and builds until the four are dancing in unison, quoting Pacicco’s intricate floorwork, peeling off their jackets and using them to lengthen and punctuate their connections and Acevedo’s beats until they’re thrown skyward to one final cry of “No!” Kool Kids 2.0 is Bhargava at his best: sleek, intricate, funny, musical—a perfectly paced, self-contained world, conjured with exceptional aplomb by the dancers of Rovaco.

Amanda Krische in Le Mass. Photo by Michelle Lim Photography, Courtesy von Arx.

Amanda Krische in Le Mass. Photo by Michelle Lim Photography, Courtesy von Arx.

Le Mass, the final new work of the evening, brought not only a new choreographer to the table but also a distinct change of pace. It murmured where the other dancemakers shouted, slowed down where the instinct might be to rush. The lights come up on three men and three women; the men sit in a row, facing an upstage corner; the women stand in a small cluster in their line of sight. With the dense slowness of a dream the women look up, then down, curving over to put their hands on their knees. Their eyes follow their wrists, leading them to stand; they squirm as their hands come to their faces. Soon the men tip over in their neat row and find their way to their feet. The two groups stand facing each other for a moment before crossing the short distance to couple off and embrace, knees bent, heads tucked under arms. Connections are made, begin to build, then dissipate; symmetry fractures, energy pulling apart and then centering on a single dancer, a single moment. Amanda Krische swipes the floor away with an outflung leg, then skids to stand, calming as she threads her arms through her center to expand into an angular arabesque line until it, too, fades; Jessica Alexander stumbles across the space slowly, hunched over as though to contain her restless squirming; Tyler Schnese melts through a syrupy slow attitude turn, then flings his raised leg away, trips himself to find a slow extension supported on a knee and a hand, his head tipping back.

Michael Greenberg and Tyler Schnese in Le Mass. Photo by Michelle Lim Photography, Courtesy von Arx.

Michael Greenberg and Tyler Schnese in Le Mass. Photo by Michelle Lim Photography, Courtesy von Arx.

Michael Greenberg becomes a caretaker, or perhaps undertaker, with the rest of the cast onstage, catching them one by one and piling their heavy forms in a corner as Shelby Jane Terrell repeatedly hinges down to the floor, then arches back up into a lunge. Greenberg grabs her, too, adding her to the pile, before returning for Schnese—but when he goes to take his hand, Schnese’s flies away from Greenberg’s as though they are magnets with the same polarity. A duet unfolds without contact, but their connection feels far from tenuous: Greenberg circles at a steady distance like a lonely moon, then crumples into a ball on the floor when Schnese curls his hands into fists. Eventually they make contact, then separate to begin anew. Krische interrupts, and when Greenberg tries to make her hand fly in the same manner as Schnese’s nothing happens; he returns to Krische but their attraction has dissipated like so much smoke, nebulous as every other connection in the work. The group finds themselves in unison, all suspension and flowing hips and arms slicing through the air with increasing speed, then dissolves into familiar patterns—a couple clutching each other awkwardly as they rotate in place, Alexander flailing in reaction to something inside of herself. Eventually Krische is left alone, uncertainly retracing the pathways of an earlier solo, unsteady extensions and feet tripping themselves and familiar balletic shapes skewed into strangeness. She is facing away from us when the lights go dark, a quiet ending to a slow burn of a piece that leaves us with far more questions than answers: Who are these people? What is their world?

Bravo to the artists who presented work on this evening. It was a welcome reminder that contemporary dance still has plenty of room for new voices and fresh approaches, given support.

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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.