Published Attitude: The Dancer’s Magazine Winter 2010

It’s rare that one art form forces you to take the measure of another, but such was the case during the February engagement of the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company at the Joyce Theater.  It was a question of jazz: Lubovitch presented an evening of pieces set to works by John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck and a suite of standards by Kurt Elling, and the combination of a potent musical genre and this choreographer’s particular way with space and time made the audience murmur with anticipation.

What is jazz?  A friend once called this American-born idiom “a meditation in time.”  Such descriptions speak to its inherent essence, though technically it’s much more, containing elements that coalesce as they do in no other musical form.  The dissonant notes, the heady layering of polyrhythms, swing, syncopation and especially improvisation often collide with melodies the listener might recognize from a plethora of other musical genres—classical works, pop standards, folksongs, and even showtunes—to create a sound that’s often shorn of all but traces of the original.  For many, the mechanics are irrevelent; the ruling stereotype of jazz as the messenger of black and white cool as represented on film (check out Let’s Get Lost, a dark-night-of-the-soul documentary about the visionary trumpeter Chet Baker), or in a smoky club poised on the edge of Backstreet U.S.A., stills rules.

Immediacy is a hallmark.  So is sensuality, which makes it perfect for dance, and hopes were high that this work would be yet another pinnacle for Lubovitch, known for giving visual life to works that range from Barber to Steve Reich.  His jazz trilogy opened with Nature Boy: Kurt Elling, a work previously entitled Love’s Stories.  Jack Mehler’s lighting created a sense of infinity on the Joyce’s notoriously shallow stage; we watched dancers emerge from the shadows before spilling forth in a Lubovitch signature: waves of cloudlike movement flowed in wide curves before Christopher Vo, dressed in white, began to slice the air like a benevolent cyclone.  Throughout Nature Boy, Vo’s solos, a series of swiveled kneelings and balances—at one point his entreating arms shook like trumpet riffs—rang out like dispatches to all who’d dare enter the valley of love.  A triumvirate of dramatic pairings followed: Charlaine Mei Katsuyoshi and Jonathan Alsberry brought a playful precision to “The More I Have You.”  There was sizzle in the slithering, nuanced “Prelude to a Kiss,” as Brian McGinnis and Katarzyna Skarpetowska swung, spun and intertwined in a bit of sexual provocation barely suitable for a group of adolescents who sat in the front row the night I attended.  Love’s heartbreak, pitched with anger and resignation, was movingly realized by Nicole Corea and Reid Barthelme in “Everytime We Say Goodbye.”  A roundelay with only the women and Vo left the soloist spent as his body folded in on itself like a private conversation, a Cupid powerless to mend that which only lovers can heal.

The Lubovitch waves reappeared in Coltrane’s Favorite Things.  Program notes spoke of Lubovitch’s aim to create ribbons of movement that connected not only to Coltrane’s “sheets of sounds” but especially to this work’s looming set, a reproduction of Jackson Pollock’s 1950 canvas Autumn Rhythm (Number 30).  He achieved that to an academic fault, but this dance failed to land for reasons that had as much to do with choreography as with mood.  More than anyone Pollack and “Trane” represented the myth of their era’s moody atmospherics, its recklessness and risk; to go against it, as Lubovitch deliberately does here, is a touch perverse and the audience reacted viscerally.  Occasionally the steps rose up to match the setting: a quartet traverses with an eddy of bent over walks.  Later, we got flayed upper bodies punctuated by laybacks, and leg scoops with a hint of a Susie Q.  Whenever dancers Alsberry and Skarpetowski appeared to shake up the smile infestation with a dash of grit (arms flung skyward, their stomps in one section elicited the only applause) what was missing became clear: a sense of spontaneity, and the dangerous frenzy that lived in the works of Bob Fosse, another artist from that period.  The miscalculation in costuming didn’t help—who could dispense even a modicum of cool wearing rehearsal sweats?

The ghost of Fosse also crept around the edges of Elemental Brubeck.  The music, Brubeck’s “Iberia” and “Elementals” from his album Time Changes, contains a range of shifting colors and tempos that culminate in the kind of orchestral jazz redolent of Vegas and television variety shows.  It cried out for a splashy, pull-out-all-the-stops approach to match the hothouse lighting and costumes.  Lubovitch emptied his showbiz toolbox, and re-introduced an idea from Nature Boy (a red-clad soloist Attila Joey Csiki) for results that often felt like homage: to the great show choreographer Jack Cole, to Astaire and his revolving door of female partners, and 50s-era musicals that climaxed with big dance numbers where couples peel away from the group for showoff turns ala West Side Story.  Gamboling on the fault line of virtuosity and irreverence, Elemental Brubeck seems the kind of piece administers tout to their subscribers to show how accessible dance can be.

This isn’t to say it’s bad.  While its quality never descended below a certain level—and the dancers brought to it a soulful commitment missing from the Coltrane piece—it’s a mystery and a miracle that the choreographer manages a conversation with Brubeck’s vision, especially in the “Elementals” section where the music escalates from a slow, insistent pulse to a blaring jazz waltz explosion (Favorite Things is also in waltz time).    As Lubovitch’s customary sculptural shapes receded, what emerged was something that still retained the power to enchant, though its relationship to jazz was minimal.  Somewhere in the universe Trane and Dave are shaking their heads, exclaiming “that joint is squaresville, man.”