On Friday, April 13th I went to see The Brodmann areas, a new collaborative ballet presented by Norte Maar at the Center for Performance Research in Brooklyn. Three stops into Brooklyn and I felt an urgent sense of disconnect to the dance scene than I have in months. Possibly, or rather, most likely, brought upon by the large disconnect between the research presented - via the program - to the audience and the actual performance.
Choreographed by Julia K. Gleich, in collaboration with Ryan Anthony Francis, the musical director for the production, The Brodmann Areas attempted to conceptually explain the "gaps and synapses that define the 52 areas of the cerebral cortex of the brain." And I was looking forward to it, excited by the uncharacteristically 7-page descriptive format of the program, highlighting the research and background effort of the project. The producers urged the audience to understand The Brodmann Areas from their specific perspective, not having to rely on our own abstract, bound-to-happen observations boarding on meaning and emotion. This immediate presentation was at first refreshing, and I was eager to see what I would learn about neuroscience and cognitive movement, and also the effect it would have on my own cortex.
To Phrase or not to Phrase?
Each segment of The Brodmann Areas had a title. The opening, "Prelude" began with a solo by Dylan Crossman, one of two male dancers, who immediately started moving in abundant phrase work. Without rhyme or reason the performance began to unravel and I could never seem to catch up. This began a two hour observance of "segments" that were weak in transition and unclear to the observer. Instead of the dancers and choreography walking us through what, for example, "Hypnosis" is or could be, translated through exploratory movement, the segments came across as languid, unenthusiastic, and been there-done that phrase work, with the hope that the audience would or even could understand what they meant.
In contemporary ballet fashion, the dancers changed between wearing pointe and canvas ballet shoes, minus Dylan who wore beige socks. The performers extended their legs and swirled unruly torsos with the hope that one swift flexing of the knee would signify a change in the brain’s atmosphere, some significant resemblance to what memory is to neuroscientists or…something like that. In comparison, the dancers’ wardrobe had no significant meaning for its sloppiness. The females adorned skin-tight patterned lace that was abruptly cut off by a neon piece of fabric extending from their ribs to right below their pelvis, creating distracting lines and a mish mash of nonsensical color.
Another segment was “Pi” – as in 3.14159… and Michelle Buckley skittered around in a solo onstage pronouncing each decimal with accompanying movement. She must have surpassed over 200 numbers, but I was bored after the 10th decimal. The problem here is that, again, what does this mean for the viewer? I pay to sit and hopefully have a dance company expand my horizons with technologies and theories, but instead have to bear watching a girl hold a second position grand plie en pointe who wobbles between each movement. The entire time I couldn’t stop thinking that she should not be en pointe at all, as her arches are too weak to make anything look fluid. Maybe choreography doesn’t have to have meaning and can just be. But if it’s going to just be, it should in the very least be well executed. Or funny. Or highly sexualized. Or boldly different. Different as in: show me something I haven’t seen! Why is it that the choreographic circle of the New York dance community is so boring and seemingly unmotivated by its dancers? Did they agree to this movement? Did they have a say? If not, were they disappointed or is this what I'm left to believe being a dancer in a New York company means?
Another segment titled, "Multi-Tasking" featured an older hippie-looking man, Lawrence Swan, who emerged from the audience carrying a dice with an “X” on each side. He sat on a bench placed center stage and rolled the dice countless times. Following each roll, a Vanna White-esq figure (Ida Josephsson), who was debuting in her numerical hostess role, would pick up the dice and announce a number, “2!” (…No where to be seen on the dice. Did they forget to number it? Tell me what the “X’s” mean!) She then ran dramatically back to pick a card out of Swan’s hands, whereupon he would read some random quote about the brain. All the while, dancers scurried around upstage repeating movements. They look distracted, appearing bland and bored. Did the dancers signify the transmission of waves through the cortex? Are they the neurons floating through Swan’s brain and connecting speech to emotion to motor capabilities? We can only guess.
Act II opened with “accelerate. mitigation. toil. blizzard” a segment accompanied with video projection and sound by Audra and Margo Wolowiec. Five dancers sat on a bench with their backs to the audience, facing a split while screen. The video projection on the left had two calm hands moving mousy strings in and out of the frame. The screen on the right had black, sharpie-like markings that would change every so often when the strings on the left screen moved. Vanna White stood downstage left, feverishly taking notes on a white pad. Was she observing the dancers observing the strings? Do strings affect humans the way they do mice? All the while a voice over is heard saying singular adjectives matter of factly.
The dancers eventually transitioned to standing by rolling their heads, isolated by their position on the bench yet aware of their shared space. One person on the end of the bench would move and eventually the others would catch up and pose, sometimes connecting with each other, sometimes not. Like a string. To end this scene, Vanna White exclaimed, “Primal oatmeal!” Blackout. Was that a mish mash of thought to resemble the brain as oatmeal? I have so many questions.
“The Emotion Experiment (the duets)” might have been the one segment that was easy to understand by its title. 3 couples, including the choreographer, Julia, danced to classical music, moving through contemporary port de bras and Pas de Deux 101 phrase work. Each couple seemed to have a different demeanor. One was happy and slightly erotic; another was scared and hesitant; and the third came across as desperate with a sense of longing. It was an experiment in emotion; however, the dancers lack of projection was unsettling.
The scenes continued to waver in randomness. Jace Coronado, the other male dancer and by far the most talented in the cast, wore a 3-step foot ladder attached to the back of a black vest and performed as gracefully as possible, leaping and turning with ease. Vanna White came back and ate a sliced orange. Morgan McEwen bourreed on stage in a Black Swan tutu and neon green armbands and leggings. She was interrupted by a contemporary solo by Abbey Roesner. Abbey adorned a secretive smile, however, who knows what that secret is. Maybe she was just happy to dance.
By far the coolest moment of the production was when Jakub Ciupinski brought his Mac laptop on stage and integrated a Theremin into the performance, controlling the sampled sounds on his computer with the proximity of his hands to the contraption. He looked like a sorcerer, adjusting the atmospheric music as the dancers ended on none other than a big phrase, a grand allegro if you will. It was the most technological point of the performance and the most engaging. The dancers finally looked happy and the audiences' attention curiously peaked .10 seconds before it was over.
The Brodmann Areas happens to be the performance leading me to these unsettling thoughts. Why is it that dance companies spend so much time and "process" in rehearsal only to unveil what seems like a half-assed product? If a company goes the distance, working with collaborators to parlay a vision that can be so refreshing, where or when does the disconnect occur? When is that moment when the vision is lost and executive decisions lead the viewer to a black hole of the unknown? I'm trying to climb out of this black hole of confusion and figure that out.