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Well-Tempered Chaos
By Mae G. Banner

Tang 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 Egyptian priestesses.

Balls 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 and gesso.

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 TV screen.

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 unified concentration.

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 discipline.

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.

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