If dance is a kind of knowledge, what kind is it? Who has the right to dance what? Is a legacy public, and what can legitimately be done to it? What do staged bodies signify, other than mere form?
These are some of the questions projected before the start of Netta Yerushalmy’s “Paramodernities,” a six-part work, nearly four hours long (including two intermissions), that had its New York debut at New York Live Arts on Thursday.
Those are really big questions, and this is an excitingly ambitious work. Each segment takes on a canonical choreographer: Vaslav Nijinsky, Martha Graham, Bob Fosse, Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine, Alvin Ailey. But even to list all those names is only to hint at the enormous chunk of ideas that the production bites off and tries to chew.
It’s not easy to say what “Paramodernities” is. It’s the kind of work that keeps asking the question of itself — not implicitly but verbally, because each section is centered on one or two scholars who deliver something like a lecture. At the same time, there are dancers onstage, and what they are doing is not exactly a demonstration.
We learn — because the scholars or the dancers tell us — that the choreographic material for each part has been taken from a major work by one of the choreographers. (The exception is Balanchine, whose trust denied usage rights.) This material has been chopped up and reshuffled in various ways.
To what extent Ms. Yerushalmy can be said to be the author of the resulting collage is another question the production keeps asking. But certainly she has put together something that holds your attention, surprisingly, even at this length. All the scholars (who include Claudia La Rocco, a former dance critic for The New York Times, and on Friday, Bill T. Jones, the artistic director of New York Live Arts) are smart and engaging. They give you much to think about, whether you know a lot about each subject or only a little, whether you buy their theories or not.
And the cast of dancers is equally excellent and diverse — so much to look at. As wordy as the production is, it’s also intensely physical. The exhaustion of the dancers, their sweat and effort, is yet another theme.
Inevitably, the words and the dance fight for your attention. This, too, is explicit. In the Graham section, which comes second, Ms. Yerushalmy and Taryn Griggs, dancing, crawl all over the scholar Carol Ockman. At one point, Ms. Yerushalmy rips the script from Ms. Ockman’s hand, temporarily rendering her mute.
The section about Balanchine — which expands from a theory connecting the choreography of his seminal “Agon” and the polio of his wife, Tanaquil LeClerq, to broader ruminations on disability and race — offers another angle. The scholar Georgina Kleege, who is blind, asks if sighted people might benefit from improved versions of the audio descriptions sometimes provided to blind audience members at dance performances. Since this section comes next to last, the idea resonates that “Paramodernities” has been doing something analogous all along.
Do the words enrich the experience of the dance or get in the way? Both. I often found my attention divided. As a writer who writes about dance, my loyalties were divided, too. For me, the words won. Ms Yerushalmy’s structural ideas, a grab-bag of postmodern gambits, don’t equal the scholars’ intellectual variety; despite the continually rearranging surface (new combinations of scholar and dancer, new arrangements of where the audience sits, attempts to thread the sections together), a sameness sets in. And so both the canonical choreography and the wonderful dancers, each endlessly deep in different ways, ultimately seem hemmed in, unable to expand in the viewer’s imagination.
One appeal of the production is its tone: wry, ironic. Even when the scholars are citing theorists, the show is never academically dry. Even as it’s taking on sex, death, commodification, the closeting of homosexuality, cultural appropriation and all the evils of capitalism, it keeps a sense of humor.
That tone, however, is also another limitation. The exception comes in the final segment, about Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations,” when the scholar Thomas F. DeFrantz, talking about slavery and blackness, gets angry and nearly unhinged. As much as his words question transcendence, his delivery reaches for it. “Don’t you want to be free?” he yells, over and over. And in a show of questions, a show that in falling short of its crazy ambition gives more than smaller shows that fully succeed, that final question echoes poignantly.
Through Sunday at New York Live Arts, Manhattan; newyorklivearts.org.
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