Annabella Gonzalez’ Dance Theater Charms in Spring Festejo

Shifting Moods and Open Ended Interpretations

Robust Dancers Accomplished and Personable

Imaginative Troupe Is Enduring Family

Scores of worthwhile artistic events in New York City these days seem to suffer from lack of publicity oxygen, simply because the Times has difficulty finding time or space even to list them, let alone review them. Amid this month’s “feast of riches”, as a Times headline over a Claudio Rocco notice labeled it, one of them that got lost was last night’s Festejo (Celebration), the latest Spring modern dance program of Annabella Gonzalez‘s close knit young troupe, who continue a series of accomplishments this Manhattan art performance choreographer has built up over thirty five years, a troupe survival anniversary more than three times as long as most modern dance companies in New York.

The Times was informed but didn’t list on Friday the three performances they scheduled – Friday 8pm, Saturday 3pm and 8 pm, at the Manhattan Movement and Arts Center at 248 W. 60th, which is far West across Amsterdam just before West End Avenue. We went to the matinee, which was not as well attended as the opening night, possibly because of an unusually sunny March afternoon. Both evening performances were packed, with Bravo!s resounding at the close.

Gonzalez’s Mexican City heritage which goes back to the 16th Century always leads us to hope there will be some sparkling Latin American vein of cultural ore she will mine this time around, especially under the heading Festejo, but whatever mariachi vigor she carries in her bloodstream she currently has tamed in the cause of higher art, preferring to lift matters onto a higher plane, often with advantage.

Thus the second number, My Interpretation, was a 1976 solo tribute to the flamboyant gestures of flamenco, drawn from the 19th Century operatic zarzuela mix which was lighter in character than flamenco proper. With one or two hand claps included, it was danced with graceful poses by Heather Panikkar in a lavish ankle length crimson quasi Andelusian dress with hanging forearm sleeves, the staccato rhythm of castanets and foot stamping quite banished from the imagination by the peaceable Prelude to the celebrated La Revoltosa by Ruperto Chapi, the late nineteenth century Spanish composer.

This calm translation of the quintessential gypsy posturing of flamenco into a more sedate and thoughtful choreography was a relief after the modern dissonance of the introductory Descent/Ascent, where Lucia Campoy, one of Gonzalez’s nerviest dancers, shared marches, jumps and gestural poses in unison with Juan Echazarreta, Marcos Emanuel de Jesus and Jorge Fuentes, in an abstract embodiment of the relentlessly anxious Elegia by Max Lifchitz.

Clouded interpretation

No sooner was Pannikar offstage, however, than we were plunged back into a deeper chasm of angst in the premiere of Cumulus, danced by the guest choreographer herself, Maxine Steinman. Seemingly a relentless series of representations of grief and despair it began under the beat of what sounded like helicopters overhead when we first saw her crouching figure – or was it machine gun fire? – and though it soon segued into Pergolesi’s Quando Sorpus Morietur, it closed with a reprise of the helicopter blades beating overhead, producing a seriously ominous effect.

Judging from the hesitant clapping, we were not alone in feeling the oppressive impact of almost Bosnian level anxiety portrayed so effectively that it was hard to enter into the lively comic spirit of Mozartmania, the next of the four remaining works. We would find later, however, that this darkness of the spirit was an unintended consequence of a lack of program notes for each piece.

For Steinman afterwards explained that in her mind she was concocting three stages of a journey of sorts involving images of cumulus building up and then releasing energy of the earth, “floating freely and then grounded, and then pulling myself away from the earth to this beautiful music,” with the sounds bracketing the Pergolesi intended to be “more of a train sound”. But Cumulus was a work in progress, and not meant to be specifically descriptive: “I’m still investigating the piece, and you are free to get what you want out of it,” she said, laughing at my mention of Bosnia.

Mozart inspired foolery

Set to Mozart’s Six German Dances, Gonzalez’ lively Mozartmania is a satirical play on the uncertainties of partnership in classical ballet corps with mixing and matching among five contenders beset by accidents and fumbles – a hat dropped here, a collision there – replete with comic grimaces directed at the audience, all of which should have felt lighthearted and upbeat as a liberated cock o’ the snoot at classic dancers and their intramural competitiveness and snobbery. But though the plumes in the headbands of Marcus and Jorge struck a jolly note from the beginning, we found Alas! we were too weighted down by the freight of Cumulus and its heavy blow to our equilibrium to readily feel what was intended.

We recognized the source of Mozartmania’s making fun of the arrogance and mutual disdain within high powered corps de ballet, however. More than most companies, the spirit of this little dance group is far from the competitive intensity of ballet corps; it is plainly one happy family, whose dancers have been with it as long as ten years, one whose widely traveled (52 countries) choreographer and mother hen is capable of saying (as she did afterwards when talking of Mozartmania) “we are a family, we love each other and Mozart is my God!”

Liberating audience imagination

A conversation in intermission with the barrel chested singer who was acting a usher raised an interesting point. He said he preferred the open ended interpretations offered by theatrical performance to the firm framework of the story lines followed in movies. From that point of view this dance program was likely to satisfy, since it varied between works with a recognizable theme to ones which aimed at an abstract, open ended and painterly interpretation of the music.

As it happened the next performance was a Gonzalez signature piece, The Fall, part of a series she wrote in 1979 and had just revised, specifically on the story of the Garden of Eden, where Eve is born fully and fetchingly made struggling free from a large red rosy bean bag, dances with Adam in circles and finally rolls a red apple across the stage to him. He takes his fatal bite before they dance off stage.

Treating this as a quasi feminist folk tale rather than a religious parable, Jina Parker and Juan Echazarretta led us through with clarity, balance and vigor in a poised traversal of the narrative sequence, dovetailing smoothly as they complemented each other with elegant integration. Control and a sensitive muscularity seem to be a characteristic aim of the dancers in this company, projecting a robust reliability however slim their physique and serving their choreography well.

Freed from limitations

Gonzales herself soloed next in a reprise of her Window from 1987, a heartfelt acting out of liberation dedicated to all women, rooted in her growing up in a Mexico City where she says “wives were men’s sweet little dolls” and she was told she could never be an artist because “only men create.” Her portrayal climaxed in throwing off her outerwear and hurling her pearl necklace to the floor, as in Get Me Outa Here!

The finale came in the form of the premiere of Pastoral Latino, an abstract account of the Sonata for Two Cellos and Piano most recently given Gonzalez by Seymour Barab, the well known opera composer and teacher. Here three couples (Lucia Campoy, Marcos Emanuel de Jesus, Jorge Fuentes, Juan Echarreta, Heather Panikkar and Jinah Parker) worked through a composition whose artistic meaning remained as undefined and subjective as the usher would have liked, another “work in progress,” according to Ms Gonzalez, but one which nonetheless served again to show how versatile and consistent her performers are in portraying her work. One reason for this sense of successful group integration may be that she tries to work with them like a good director works with good actors, listening to their suggestions and allowing them to include and perform their own ideas in carrying out her plan.

As she put it in her introduction on stage, “we are a family” and this organic feel permeated all of these diverting and solid performances by a group of dancers of considerable accomplishment throughout. – AL

(Click the photos to enlarge. More photos and short video clips at Only Good Photos)

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One Response to Annabella Gonzalez’ Dance Theater Charms in Spring Festejo

  1. Dorothea Tanning says:

    Dance groups arising from the energy and spirit of one creative personality are the best, and the Gonzalez dancers represent the US very well in all the countries they go to. They deserve a full length review of this kind for their remarkable continuing achievement.

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