in ecstacy: Battleworks Dance Company.
Mae G. Banner
College Dance Theater, Feb. 11
A portrait painter may ad- just a subject’s shawl or tilt
her chin; a theater director may encourage actors to make
their own choices. But, only the choreographer has the luxury—and
the risk—of working with living, sentient bodies who provide
a constant give and take with the dancemaker’s ideas.
Robert Battle is fortunate in his eight dancers, most of whom
have been with him since he founded Battleworks in 2002. The
dancers’ intelligence and commitment to the choreography shone
through every work in the company’s concert last Saturday
at the Skidmore Dance Theater. Battle made the steps; the
dancers gave them an extra measure of life.
This was most thrillingly so in the climactic Flock
(2004), a big ensemble work that ended the program. Samuel
Lee Roberts was the fevered preacher who strode in and out
among his congregation, now humbling them, now exhorting them
to ecstasy. He was, by turns, stern and possessed.
Roberts is a commanding figure, tall, thin, handsome, and
amazingly agile. As he whirled, his long, earth-colored frock
coat (reminiscent of the preacher in Martha Graham’s Appalachian
Spring) caught the air like a sail.
If a body could speak in tongues, Roberts’ body did. Moving
to deliberately incongruous marimba and drum music, he leapt
over the heads of the kneeling congregants, even did a full
somersault in the air.
There was a constant push and pull between preacher and flock
as Roberts whipped each sinner into line by force of his steely
eye. They moved with hands clasped, often behind their backs.
Some got the shakes or beat their hands in time, signifying
they were saved. At last, preacher and flock clotted together
in a sculptural shape with arms pulling in and out at all
angles in a final struggle for souls.
Then, alone on stage, the preacher was stirred to a set of
magnificent jumps and rolls with his crossed ankles up in
the air. He had a final convulsion: He stared at us, but he
was seeing the spirit.
Battle’s choreography is in a humanistic tradition that draws
from Graham, Jose Limon and Paul Taylor. Ensemble sections
suggest a community with an undercurrent of shared emotion.
When a soloist breaks out, it’s as if the group emotion has
overflowed. In Overture (2005), set to music of J.
S. Bach, Battle’s design contrasted stillness with wild activity.
Two groups of four dancers each played off against each other,
drawing our eyes from foreground to back, center to rim. One
woman rolled offstage like a tumbleweed, bridging two musical
In an exciting solo, Kanji Segawa, a small, swift mover, spun
like a whirlwind, did tiny jumps in place, and repeated falls
to his knees with one leg angled out behind.
A group circle, holding hands, broke and slowly left the stage
to one woman, whose distressed solo was weighted with bends,
contractions and falls. To the music of Bach’s Air on the
G String, she flowed upstage, while the others moved forward
in a line of affirmation. Everything else had built to this
The program included two duets, Strange Hu mors (1998),
an exciting dance in which Roberts and George Small wood,
bare-chested, wrestled and grappled, fell and rose with yogic
flexibility; and Unfold (2005), in which Shanti Guirao
and Segawa moved together, transported, to an operatic aria
by Gustave Charpentier. Guirao, a fluid, lyrical dancer, was
elegiac as the two danced in the dark beyond the music’s end.
Battle showed a manic humor in Promenade (2005), a
skewed square dance to original music by John Mackey, whose
compositions drive many Battle dances. Animal motifs abounded,
as the dancers made their hands into claws or pawed the ground
with their feet. Little shivers and flat-footed jumps were
set to Mackey’s jittery, chuffing strings, with an unaccountable
tango stuck in the middle.
With a cry of “aargh,” a woman leapt on a man and bared her
teeth as if to eat him. Dancers beat their fists on the ground
in a moment of mad disport. Men lifted women high, letting
their legs swing up and out, then dragged them briefly across
the floor, and even sniffed at their tails. So, the square
dance, that bane of many a grade-school gym class, was thoroughly