David Neumann and Jodi Melnick Join Forces at Jacob’s Pillow
Dance review by Bess J.M. Hochstein
Photos: above, Julieta Cervantes; below, Cherylynn Tsushima
Is it downtown week at Jacob’s Pillow? In the Ted Shawn Theatre, Trisha Brown, enduring icon of the Judson Church dance days, marks her company’s 40th anniversary in a program that travels through the decades. Concurrently, two of-the-moment NYC-based choreographers present a joint program in the Doris Duke. It’s an insightful pairing, as it can easily be argued were it not for Brown neither Jodi Melnick nor David Neumann would be there.
The argument is clearly defensible in the case of Melnick, who worked with Brown as an assistant director and has danced with Brown’s equally iconic and influential peers, Twyla Tharp and Sara Rudner. Even without this knowledge, you can see Brown’s imprint all over Melnick’s precise, elegant, cerebral choreography for Fanfare: loose limbs seemingly initiating movement phrases; arms and legs swinging from shoulders and hips – not flung, but rotated with intention; spine held straight but not stiff. The movement, asymmetric and off-balance, is imbued with meaning that’s difficult to discern.
Melnick performs alone until near the end, on a starkly high-drama set (by renowned artist Burt Barr) with a pair of shiny, double-sided oscillating fans that reflect focused light and cast large, animated shadows on a white projection that resembles two walls forming a corner on the theater’s back curtain. Melnick also casts shadows as she determindely walks to a spot on the stage, executes a phrase, then walks to another spot where another movement sequence spills from her lithe body, all the while exhibiting remarkable stage presence and tremendous concentration with an impassive but soft face. As she casts her gaze out along her extended limbs, or a pointed finger, or off to the wings, the audience is practically compelled to follow her eyes.
There’s a jolt when the noise of a steam radiator hisses on, and Melnick, facing the audience, feet planted, repeats an almost-pedestrian sequence with, arms in constant, nervous motion while her gaze travels sideways, upward, along the sweep of her hand. The noise repeats, too, subtly altered each time. It goes on and on, and we get the feeling Melnick is waiting and looking for someone, until after an uncomfortably long time Dennis O’Connor appears from the wings. The projections disappear and the mood shifts. His arrival seems to ground her, emotionally and literally; they dance together, eventually ending up on the floor, adjacent but not touching, repeating an intriguing folding-and-unfolding sequence in unison as the light fades.
Neumann provides comic relief from Melnick’s solemnity with Tough the Tough, a work of slapstick existentialism, in which Neumann is cast by an unseen, omniscient narrator as an everyman named Steve, Steven, or at one point Stefan - a stand-in for all mankind. You can practically hear the narrator whispering “Poor schmuck” under his breath as Neumann preens, scratches, runs and paces, riffles through his jacket, carries, trips over, and sets up a bunch of folding chairs, and performs other pointless actions in response to the voice from above. Lo and behold: one segment in the middle could have been ripped right out of Trisha Brown’s playbook.
The comic tone is maintained in Hit the Deck (Studies and Accidents), which opens with a woman (Carol Wong) balanced sideways on a folding chair. Impassively, she rights herself and strides to the piano at the rear of the stage, takes her seat (on another of those folding chairs), and begins to play only snippets of classical compositions as four dancers strive to make their moves. She’s like an uncooperative accompanist in the rehearsal studio.
Big discrepancies in the bodies of his performers add humor to the exaggerated stop-and-go choreography. The comedy is further heightened by what seems to be a recalcitrant stagehand, a rotund figure (Timothy Fallon) who wants to get in on the action. First he drops a chair with a huge clatter, drawing attention and upsetting the dancers’ flow. Later he practically jumps into the piano, strumming its strings like a harp and joining in on the keyboard. There are antics requiring split-second timing with chairs tossed on and off the stage – but not too much; it’s not overdone. Finally there’s an extended pas de deux between ostrich-like Kennis Hawkis—whose hair-bun exaggerates her long-and-lean physique—and Will Rawls before Fallon returns, emphatically plants himself mid-stage rear of the stage, and begins to sing like an angel. Petite Natalie Agee executes an equally angelic solo, concluding with a nod of appreciation toward Fallon.
The evening ends with July, a lulling duet between Melnick and Neumann commissioned by the Pillow, which elicits a gasp from the audience when a scrim is removed to reveal a most striking backdrop: barn door open, evergreens behind the theater illuminated in the night’s darkness. In this world premiere of coupling and clever weight transference, we see that despite their differences in style and demeanor – Melnick’s sobriety and Newmann’s silliness—the two don’t have to look hard to find common ground: keen intelligence plus an eccentric movement vocabulary born in the Judson Church days which is strung together in a successful collaboration that’s both somber and warm. But for the bucolic setting, it would look perfectly at home in a downtown performance space, either today or in the 1960s.
Jodi Melnick and David Neumann/Advanced Beginner Group
August 10 - 14 @ the Doris Duke Theatre
Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, MA