BECKET — If dance is a kind of knowledge, what kind of knowledge is it? That's one of the many questions that dancer/choreographer Netta Yerushalmy raises in her "Paramodernities" project, the completed version of which end its five-day world premiere engagement at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival Sunday afternoon. Yerushalmy has been putting her "Paramodernities" project together for a couple of years but in a way it's been evolving over the course of several centuries.
The work is composed of six segments, each of which involves one to five dancers who perform "deconstructed" or "de-enacted" steps and phrases from iconic works by some of the choreographic legends of (mostly Western) concert-stage dance. They are accompanied almost entirely by text rather than music. Indeed, though dance is often considered an eloquent language that can metaphorically speak volumes, in "Paramodernities" the extensive verbal text — spoken, and in one segment, occasionally yelled, by historians/scholars/writers well-known in the field — almost literally does speak volumes.
For the majority of the performances, viewers could see one of three segments: Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, and Bob Fosse; or Vaslav Nijinsky, Alvin Ailey, and George Balanchine; or Nijinsky, Fosse, and Ailey. On Saturday afternoon, an "encyclopedic" series was offered: This is the one I attended, a three-and-a-half-hour tour (more for those who stayed for discussion afterward) of all six.
Each features mined material from specific works as a point of departure: Nijinsky's 1913 "Sacre du Printemps/Rite of Spring;" Graham's 1947 "Night Journey;" Balanchine's 1957 "Agon;" Ailey's 1960 "Revelations;" Fosse's 1969 film "Sweet Charity." (Several Cunningham dances are quoted from.) In the same way that philosopher David Kishik's text, in the Nijinsky portion, is composed of his own words as well as others', so too, Yerushalmy suggests, is she able to use this choreographic material in this jumbled way. Although I believe it's with tongue deeply embedded in cheek, ownership is challenged. Who is the author of what text? Who is the choreographer of what dances? Is the dismantling a dissing? Or is the restructuring a respecting?
In theory, there's no issue with Yerushalmy's dissections here — precisely because she is making it clear whose original work it is. "Paramodernities" coyly toys with these questions to dig at deeper thoughts about what the "legacy" of our complex, sometimes ugly dance history, the big figures and the iconic dances, what it all can, should, might mean to us. One question that pops up in "Paramodernities'" gnarly puzzle is that other kind of pernicious "borrowing" in art, that of appropriation.
In one way, the thrillingly familiar (to many dance-goers) choreography from the above dances is almost beside the point, or points, that Yerushalmy and her performers/contributors present. Sex, death, racism, physical disability, commodification, politics, objectification, liberation (of slaves, of women) and trauma (of the body, of the mind) are all on the table. And yes, it's about dance, too.
No, it's not a light evening at the theater, but the work it takes to take in "Paramodernities" is often deeply pleasurable. First and foremost is the dance, which, fractured or not, is brilliantly executed by the dancers. Along with the lucid Yerushalmy, they are Michael Blake, Gerald Casel, Marc Crousillat, Joyce Edwards, Brittany Engel-Adams, Stanley Gambucci, Taryn Griggs, Magdalena Jarkowiec, Nicholas Leichter, Jeremy "Jae" Neal, Hsiao-Jou Tang and Megan Williams. They are a gorgeous array of colors, heights, ages, and they slip in and out of the traditionally male or female choreography, regardless of gender. This assemblage offers a clearly optimistic answer to another in the series of questions (that are projected onto the back of the stage at various times), "Who has the right to dance what?"
In addition to DeFrantz and Kishik, there are Julia Foulkes, Georgina Kleege, Claudia La Rocco, Mara Mills, and Carol Ockman. Some of the scholarship is based largely in dance studies but this group and their texts also bring a wide-ranging breadth of knowledge that spans across the centuries of art, literature, philosophical, political, and social history.
Among the other questions are "when can choreography shock us into thought" and "what do staged bodies signify," and "what are the power relations between a moving body and a speaking body?" It's indeed shocking to see Ockman briefly, but violently, brutalized by Yerushalmy; do the bodies in the Fosse section represent a liberated sexuality or a grossly imbalanced exchange?; what about those dancing in the Ailey section? Do we see free humans celebrating "faith" or ancestors of people who were subjected to the necessity of being "freed?"
"Paramodernities" is not humorless — La Rocco and Ockman are particularly funny — and it's often beautiful. Crousillat is both poignant and powerful in the Nijinsky; he and Engel-Adams (who appears to be a person of color) just kill it in the Cunningham section (making the moment when we learn that there were never any female black dancers in the Cunningham company particularly bitter). The moment in the Balanchine section, in which Casel and Jarkowiec perform a bit of one of "Agon's" trios with the sight-impaired Kleege is both heartbreaking and beautiful. The wit and loveliness are perhaps more so alongside the necessarily serious parts of "Paramodernities." The tension that builds as DeFrantz stalks about the stage, in the Ailey section, shouting (it's subtitled "The Afterlives of Slavery"), is rightfully painful, but at the same time, cathartic, as the melange of dancers turn and jump and create one glorious image after another all around him.
Janine Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.