January 5, 2008
By Lisa Traiger
© 2008 by Lisa Traiger
Ben Levy makes smart, thoughtful dances. His refreshingly uncliched approach with his chamber-sized LEVYdance carries one to other worlds and reflective emotional realms. Levy’s lingua franca draws from a mid-century modern dance aesthetic as much as a contemporary one, eschewing the often casual, cast-off release technique, which lately has become modus operandi of many a rising choreographer. San Francisco-based, not yet 30, his eponymous company returned to Dance Place where last Saturday’s program was sold out, the audience most appreciative.
Photo by Elizabeth Grivas, courtesy LEVYdance
Levy graces his dances with sculptural elements both in the form of set pieces and in his choreographic structures, which sculpt his dancers into sharply defined gorgeous and grotesque shapes. His penchant for collaborating intensively with costume and set designers from the worlds of fashion and visual arts, and composers and lighting designers with an equally broad aesthetic, lends his work a polished sheen, unusual in a choreographer so young. The mix of older works and new ones in his latest D.C. program, his third in five years, shows growing maturity and emotional depth.
The opening solo, “if this small space,” to Winslow Porter’s crackling, crunching score, introduces lanky Scott Marlowe, twitching and trembling, tensely contained in the tight box of light by Gregory Emetaz. The work’s premise, struggling against captivity, isn’t new, but Levy takes a clean, angular, articulate approach allowing Marlowe to glide and slip across the space, but never unleash his pent-up energy.
“Falling After Too,” the oldest work from 2002, featured Marlowe and broader, solid Christopher Hojin Lee in an equal-share partnership. Marlowe would reach to touch Lee’s opposite shoulder, then Lee responded in kind, touching Marlowe’s opposite hip. The gamelike nature of the physical partnership belied the uninflected sense of sentiment. Together the pair tangled, tumbled and exchanged weight, their youthful masculine energy eye catching but, ultimately, restrained.
Just choreographed this past fall, “Nu Nu” winks broadly at the quirks and goofiness that come about when trained dancers take to the club dance floor. Riotous multicolored, multilayerd spandex dancewear and a clownishly small tutu for cheeky Brooke Gessay, along with high-octane music by rapper Fabolous, and an equally high camp rendering of “Is That All There Is?” by Peggy Lee, lead the foursome on a free-for-all. They break into bop, bump and grind without a thought. Levy, dark-haired and oh-so-serious, plays the straight man of the bunch with aplomb, his overstarched club dancing and telescoped awkwardness a double hoot.
The evening’s strongest and most multifaceted work, “Bone lines,” drew from Levy’s Persian-Jewish family history. The compelling back story centers on his parents who left Tehran for a Los Angeles family vacation during the Islamic takeover. The Shah fell and they never returned. Though non-narrative, Levy has adroitly unveiled an intense, palpable sense of loss in the very structural bones of the work. Industrial designer Rick Lee fashioned an oversized mobile built of shards of mirrors that reflect and refract the light and the dancers. Costume designer Colleen Quen’s sheer, sculpted bell sleeves and bottoms, lend an ancient, otherworldly quality to the piece. The stunning opening, as dancers hang from tethers, the mobile glittering above, suggests a mystical, lost world, the dancers tugging against their harnesses, pulled between heaven and earth. A crash to the floor and they seem shipwrecked as they shed their billowy sheer whites for chic black and red fitted slacks and tops. As they tumble into a new world where nothing is what it seems, the piece shifts gears and the new music, recorded by the Kronos Quartet, emits a nervous, fidgety energy. Pairs reach toward and wrap themselves around one another, a hug here, a tangled clasp there. The shifting couples and groupings evolve into an organized line along which a kiss is passed from mouth to mouth. Neither sexual nor sensual, it becomes a visceral evocation of the life force -– the cultural agency -- being passed, from one generation to another. “Bone lines” is, finally, in all its gentleness and discomfiting edginess, a palpable evocation of what one loses in leaving and moving forward, as past and future, old and new, collide and realign.
© 2008 by Lisa Traiger