A little after eight o’clock on Friday night, I received my ticket for the Spring Dance Festival and fought my way through the throng of latecomers into the last available seat, slyly offered up by the crabby woman at the front desk. The Berlind Theater was packed throughout the weekend, which was, as far as I gather, unusual and likely due to the larger troupe of dancers performing in this recital. Upper-level dance students from the fall joined those working with the five guest choreographers in the varied, entertaining showcase.
This year’s festival demonstrated a dramatic break from the standard modern and post-modern repertoire of the dance department through its incorporation of ballet fusion compositions. Susan Jaffe, the former principal ballerina of the American Ballet Theater, choreographed the premier number of the evening, _Pulse_. Her twenty-year reign at the ABT, as well as her worldly sophistication—she (almost) literally danced across Europe, you know—shone clearly through the four movements. The dancers performed on point, and with explosive vibrancy. The tinny start-and-stop action cadence of Donald Knaack was deftly complimented by the flexibility and grace of the dancers. Working with the Madonna of the ballet world was thrilling for those who know her work, and the other four guest choreographers of the festival were no less impressive.
One such choreographer is Twyla Tharp, known for her incorporation of pop, jazz, and classical music into a new style, named cross-over ballet. She arranged one of her classic numbers, _The Fugue_, in 1970, and now, a full forty years later, helped to restage the piece for eleven Princeton dancers. This was the only number during which I longed for resolution. At some point I must have accepted my fate, that each time the dancers marched offstage another more fully recuperated batch would replace them. One of these professionally outfitted dancers would inevitably count or pat the beat aloud, reestablishing theseries of eruptive movements that carried the piece. The twenty-count theme was the central leitmotif, and if there were pleasure to be found in _The Fugue_, it was in tracking the series of spasms across the stage. Each dancer followed the series in one way or another, performing it backwards, forwards, and, at times, all jumbled up. Each dancer also had to learn everyone else’s part, which, along with the dress pants, likely impacted their opinion of the dance (for the worse, I imagine).
_The Fugue_ was impressively long, and impressively loud given that there was no musical accompaniment. The program explained that “the original, female cast presented one woman as bass, one as alto and another as soprano, in choreographic tone,” meaning that the individualized stomping onstage provided the sole source of musicality in the piece. In later productions of Tharp’s seminal composition, all performers were male, which altered the composition’s tenor. Princeton’s version was co-ed, which, to follow this reasoning, likely produced the greatest possible range of tones onstage. The piece was slightly cerebral, but interesting enough, especially in that the tone established by the dancers’ dress—slacks and a business shirt—and demeanor seemed competitive and slightly impartial. This is either an intentional directive of the choreographer (which subject was humorously addressed in Hannah Rich’s _That’s Just Not It_), or the result of the thorny process of memorizing the disconnected movements so common in the Tharpian oeuvre.
Mark Morris’s _Polka_ displays physical comedy at its best. Morris has a long history in folk and ballet dance, and has collaborated with such notables as Mikhail Baryshnikov, a luminary of the ballet world, and Yo-Yo Ma. The polka’s whirlwind cycle of clapping, slapping, and scurrying in circles premiered in 1992 at the Manhattan Center Grand Ballroom and was performed in the festival by twelve dance students. A fellow observer claimed that she spent half the piece trying to determine whether the frilly upper garment would be considered a dress or a shirt. It was not until she made her decision (a shirt) that she noticed the two males sporting them among the crowd of dancers. Just like the much-loved polka of every wedding and bat mitzvah ever (i.e. the Chicken Dance), the building intensity adds a flair of hysteria, one resolved in this case by a discordant last note and a sheepish bow. _Night Blooms_, choreographed by the student dancers and Rebecca Lazier, was like watching Fantasia’s “Pastoral Symphony,” by which I mean it seemed like the most fun conceivable. The mismatched cabaret garb and whimsical desires of the cast, as well as the floating lanterns that opened the piece, created an ambiance of playful celebration and sexual mischief.
Student choreography ranged from the alternately turbulent and graceful _Fáh Mái/New Sky_ and the decidedly charming and eccentric _Habit_ by Eva-Marie Walsh and Sarah Simon, respectively. In _House_ two lovers—Jeff Kuperman and Ariel Trilling—exchange seemingly comfort- ing physical contact—an arm around the shoulder—that becomes a manipulative struggle for control, while Yael Nachajon loses an epic battle with a stool. _That’s Just Not It_ performs a fantastic reversal as the dancer receives instruction in front of the drawn curtain, only to turn away from the audience when it’s finally opened, pushing us backstage as she emerges to perform her newly perfected composition.
My overall impression after the show was one of muted awe. That we have talented dancers on this campus is no surprise, but the artistry of the compositions was novel, as were the ambiguities in tone. Often in dance performances, I am told what to feel through overt displays of sentimentality, sexuality, or some other concept noun ending in -ality. Certain compositions in this show left me with questions of what it all means, what purposes these pieces, free of real-world applicability, are to serve—_l’ art pour l’ art_? The Spring Dance Festival was a smarter, more challenging show than many other student productions in that its intrigue hinges on these nuances in tone. The show was a pleasure, to be sure, and is one I plan to attend at the end of this semester.
Just one word of advice for the choreographers next time: don’t _Fugue_ it up.