Mae G. Banner
Teaching Museum and Gallery, Nov. 17
If dance is a verb, Debra Fernandez’s multilayered Balls
is an unabridged thesaurus. For starters, try: slither, twine,
roll, gyrate, bounce and bend.
That’s part of the action a full house saw from many vantage
points at Skidmore College’s Tang Museum Sunday. Fernandez,
a Skidmore dance professor who also has choreographed off-Broadway
and at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, split
her dozen dancers into high-contrast groups, starting with
her own solo, then adding a lizardlike duet for professional
modern dancers Melissa Ngirailemesang and Julie Gedalecia,
and finally multiplying the swirling effect of the piece with
two student quintets, one group resembling a Busby Berkeley
synchronized swim troupe and the other evoking a chorus of
is an apt example of what the 2-year-old Tang Museum was created
to do. The place is aggressively multidisciplinary, with exhibitions
that blend visual art and science; that blend genes, geography
Fernandez made Balls in collaboration with Brooklyn
painter Paul Henry Ramirez. Also involved were the mesmerizing
frame drummer Glen Velez (he’s worked with Steve Reich and
the Paul Winter Consort), jazz pianist Carl Landa, costume
designer Kim Vanyo and filmmaker-photographer Stacey Fox.
The color and shape of the dance is a response to and reflection
of Ramirez’s installation, Elevatious Transcendsualistic,
which can be seen at the Tang until Jan. 5. Specifically,
Balls translates Ramirez’s soda-fountain colors of
strawberry, cherry and chocolate into striking costumes, and
translates the painter’s frame-bursting splooshes and plops
into multilayered movements that wind or explode all over
the museum’s atrium, up the stairs to the gallery, and out
the doors to the vestibule.
And, yet, both the installation (14 paintings, each 2 feet
by 8 feet, that spill over onto the museum’s floor and walls)
and the dance are perfectly planned and orderly, their wildness
organized in repeated passages, their howling comedy tamed
with moments of sobriety.
The hourlong work began and ended with manic or meditative
solos by Velez, who strode around the floor and vocalized
as he played a large frame drum or a tambourine. He beat polyrhythms,
ran his finger around the drum’s rim, or scratched its skin,
creating a spectrum of percussive effects.
Into this aural environment, Fernandez came slowly down the
stairs, a hip-shifting goddess in wide-legged black pants
and long slit overskirt. She danced directly facing the drum,
her whole body contracting in powerful shudders of torso and
arms, literally exchanging power with the throb of the instrument.
Next, Ngirailemesang and Gedalecia snaked through a door on
their bellies. Their symmetrical duet was elastic, magnetic,
utterly hypnotic. Costumes that echoed the purples and wines
of Ramirez’s paintings had a lot to do with the duet’s hold
on the eye. The paintings are punctuated with bull’s-eye
balls of color; Ngirailemesang had a black ball at a crucial
spot on her tailbone. Both women wore shiny black tights from
ankle to mid-thigh and black skintight sleeves from wrist
to biceps; these echoed the wide “gripper” stripes with which
Ramirez outlined certain paintings.
The duet gave way to a series of romps by five dancers in
white bathing suits and black rubber caps. They were the deadpan
comics who rolled, bounced, sat on or lay back upon a set
of 75-milimeter white exercise balls. When the dancers carried
the balls overhead, they caught arcs of neon pink, reflected
from the theatrical light strips of Ramirez’s installation.
In contrast to the bathing beauties, a quintet of priestesses
in chocolate-brown gowns and with high frizzed hairdos tamed
by wide black bands circled in. Holding hands, each twisting
to her own rhythm, they made a skewed, winding frieze.
All the while, an electronic score by So Takahashi moaned.
Landa, hidden behind a block of audience members, improvised
at the keyboard. Fox, at the top of the stairs, filmed the
action, while her earlier film, which included footage of
Ramirez installing his work, was projected on a flat plasma
The audience, seated in two blocks at right angles to each
other, was encouraged to get up, walk around (some took the
elevator to the upper gallery) and view the event from many
perspectives. At one point, I looked up to see a row of people
leaning on the shiplike gallery rail above me and staring
down at the group of bather/dancers cavorting in the vestibule
behind me. This row of audience members became part of the
composition. They looked like dancers in their stillness and
Does all this sound like a choreographed muddle? It was anything
but. Something odd, beautiful, or compelling was going on
wherever I looked. Still—like the chaotic, yet formal shapes
of Ramirez’s paintings—the dance and music may have threatened
transgression, but always, the performers maintained utter
If you missed the live event, you can still get some flavor
of it. Fox’s edited video, which includes the opening and
closing dance duet, will continue to play on the atrium wall
throughout the Ramirez exhibition.