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Sacred stratosphere: Elisa Monte Dance Company.

God and the Woman
By Mae G. Banner

Elisa Monte Dance Company
The Egg, Feb. 27

The right choice of music can make a dance unforgettable. The wrong choice can overpower the dance, distracting the viewer from what’s on stage. In last Friday’s performance at the Egg, Elisa Monte Dance gave us one from each category.

First, the good news. Recorded music by the Klezmatics lifted Elisa Monte’s Shekhina into a sacred stratosphere. This new dance, meant to celebrate the spiritual and sexual power of women, rose on currents of soulful clarinets and the ecstatic singing of the Klezmatics’ Lorin Sklamberg and carried me with it into realms of wonder. I didn’t want it to end.

Shekhina is a Hebrew term found in the Kabbala that signifies the female manifestation of God on earth. Leonard Nimoy explored the concept in his book of photographs and commissioned Monte to move it into dance—the third dimension. Her suite of eight rhythmic, mystical flights had its premiere last month at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan.

Women rule, as mothers, lovers, and supernatural forces. In the first section, Nicole Corea, shrouded in a swath of translucent white fabric, is symbolically born from the encircling womb created by the supporting bodies of Marden Ramos and Bafana Solomon Matea. Her legs and arms shoot out like pairs of strong wings, then pull back as she leans out, perilously off-center, testing her power.

In the next passage, three more swathed women get free of their fabric cocoons and rise to dance together, supporting each other, so their legs branch out in many directions. Then, all four women support Fabrice Lamego, who portrays a young Moses in need of protection. Sklamberg sings with a tear in his voice as the women go round and round the precious child until at last he is ready to walk alone. The women part like the waters of the Red Sea, fall and roll offstage, as the man steps slowly forward.

A propulsive, drum-driven section looked like a Yiddish Walpurgisnacht filled with leaping, stamping women. This was followed by Sklamberg’s otherworldly Dybbuk Nign (which the Klezmatics also performed in Tony Kushner’s play, The Dybbuk) in which four men carry Po-Chieh Chen high overhead, then sink to their bellies and creep forward on their elbows to the sound of one plucked cello string.

Chen lifts each fallen man in turn and dances with him, inspiring the men to do their own rhythmic dance to the sound of the dumbek. It is as if her power has possessed them.

A children’s song follows, playful on the surface, but with an undercurrent of danger. The men lift the women, who grip their partners’ torsos with their legs. This dangerous game leads into the final duet between Ramos and Corea. He lifts and turns her, circling, until the others return to wrap her again in the enveloping shroud and raise her high at center stage.

The evening opened with Parts I and II of Via Sacra, (2002) a work in progress set to vocal and instrumental music by members of the Bang on a Can ensemble. Another of Monte’s high-concept dances, it begins with an exploration of mourning and loss, followed by a look at how different colored light affects our perception of the dancers’ shapes.

Ramos leads the company in the first part (Lost Things). He seems stricken, clawing at his body, trying to rid himself of some unseen terror. He leads the ensemble of mourners or seekers in a slow procession, while the recorded voices repeat a litany of losses that is more moving than the dance: “I lost my father, I lost my keys, I lost my business, I lost my home, I lost my mind.”

Ramos falls, tries not to fall. One by one, dancers try to hold him from behind, but he shakes them off, then leads the company out in the flickering dark. They are together and not together. The music is unresolved. The feeling is disoriented, perhaps tragic.

The Philip Glass-like music for the second part (Light Lies) propelled the dancers into quick, twisty solos that sent the panels of fabric at their waists flying out in horizontal spins. Bits of movement—prances, swirls, off-center lifts and carries, asymmetrical meetings and partings—were like colored chips in an abstract mosaic, set almost randomly on different bodies in different corners of the stage.

Ramos moved with the formality of a Balinese dancer, bowing and rolling his shaven head. Even his big moves seemed tamped down, restrained. At the same time, the accompanying voices were urgent, drawing my concentration away.

Monte knows how to build a dance of provocative bits and how to pass an interesting movement from body to body. Her dancers stand out as individuals, yet combine satisfyingly as a group. Now, if she can steady the balance between the dance and the music, she’ll be home free.

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