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Alone again: Neil Greenberg.

You Make the Call
By Mae G. Banner

Dance By Neil Greenberg
Skidmore College Dance Theater, Jan. 28

Neil Greenberg makes the audience work at it. His dances are constructions of disparate parts that play elements against each other so that our minds run on overdrive as we try to make sense of what we’re seeing.

In Partial View, a work in progress that Greenberg and his company of four dancers are building during their three-week residency at Skidmore College, the dancers spiral and swerve like separate molecules, each propelled by their own energy. A gestural move—a flexed wrist or a swiveling hand—may pass from one to another dancer, but the timing is random and unpredictable, and each dancer remains alone.

Greenberg never has his dancers touch because that would suggest a narrative, or at least an easily imagined relationship. An alumnus of the Merce Cunningham company, where he danced from 1979-1986, he’s absorbed the Cunningham aesthetic of “all things equal; nothing privileged.” So, he keeps the dancers in separate corners of the stage and leaves the middle empty.

Partial View is a collaboration with John Jesurun, a video designer and MacArthur grant recipient, and also with composer Zeena Parkins, whose quiet, spacey music was as abstract as the dance. Space-shifting lighting was designed by the Dance Theater’s tech master, Lori Dawson. The video coordinator and operator was Ray Roy. Costumes by Liz Prince were street clothes, but of clear, bright colors, the better to catch the video camera’s eye.

Actually, there were three videocams. Two tripod-mounted cameras stood upstage right and left, capturing the close-up of a dancer’s hand or hip, or, when they took a long view, creating distance between the audience and the dancer or even turning front views into back views and the reverse.

The third camera was an overhead, which sometimes showed a foreshortened and distanced view of the dancers that focused on the tops of their heads and sometimes showed Jesurun’s projections of a breaststroking swimmer, a 1920s flapper in a feathery white swan dress, or a quartet of helmeted Nazi soldiers marching up the concrete stairs of a public building.

The effect was dizzying. If you believe live action is always better, more honorable, than television, you’re mad at yourself when the video images seduce your eye away from the dancers and you have to force yourself to watch the “real” thing instead of the TV “distraction.” If you’re of the TV generation, you may miss the live dancers altogether.

Adding the video dimension is a first for Greenberg, who founded his company in 1986. The cameras underscore one meaning of the dance’s title: that whatever one sees, it’s always a partial view.

Construction with Varied Materials (2001) has no video, but does use projected lines of text to label sequences as “Hopscotch Material” or give other clues to the originally improvised sources of the movement.

Like Partial View, Greenberg’s Construction confounds us with snatches of music (a smooth duet by Ray Charles and Betty Carter, high-culture ballet music by Tchaikovsky, and a low-down rant by Sister Sledge) that start and then stop just when we’re getting into them. There’s lots of silence accompanying this dance.

Also, the lighting design by Michael Stiller sometimes creates depth onstage and sometimes destroys it, bringing the dancers forward by erasing perspective. Again, Prince’s costumes are street clothes, this time in browns and tans.

The dancing itself is deliberately awkward and graceless (which takes a lot of control on the part of these finely-trained dancers, including Greenberg). I got the impression of ordinary people inspired by the idea of movement, trying to be graceful, tipping off balance, but continuing, undaunted.

The “Hopscotch” part was danced big, with feet wide apart and flat-footed jumps. The “Wrist Material” was extravagantly beautiful, making traceries in the air even while the dancer’s feet went off-balance.

Greenberg entered, dancing fast, imperious, taking up heaps of space in a solo to Tchaikovsky that he had originally made for Baryshnikov and the White Oak Project. Then came Colin Stilwell with huge “ta-da” arms and balletic jumps and beats to the side (called cabrioles, or goat steps) followed by elaborate deep bows.

The dancing was more dry than lush, its roots in improvisation clinging to the dancers’ bodies. It was formal, but not elegant. The dancers, Greenberg, Stilwell, Justine Lynch, Paige Martin, and Luke Miller remained in their own orbits. Were they responding to each other or (in Partial View) to their images on camera? Or, were the dancers initiating movement that the cameras reflected?

Greenberg is saying, “You choose.”

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