Je me souviens

At the Princeton Ballet School faculty concert on Sunday, May 25, I had the chance to deconstruct Susan Tenney’s wonderful “Je me souviens” which I’d seen at its Rider debut in the “I’ll have what she’s having” concert.

Once again Tenney has created a drama with defined characters, made for each of the dancers, but this time they live in a dream world where some things look real and some take a bizarre twist. It’s a 20-minute work, with all-of-a-piece movement themes that make the sections fit together, except when they don’t — and then it turns surreal.

Ashton, Taylor, and Graham come to mind.

Seven-year-old Cynthia Yank opens the dance, “innocence observed,” using a watering can to figuratively moisten the feet of statue-like dancers. Later a mother figure (Clara Coleman), wraps her in a too-big red coat, and she sits on a small chair to concentrate on folding her blue chiffon scarf, just so. No matter what the sturm und drang, she remains composed, calm.

Much of Tenney’s movement is expansive — reaching, extending, running — but two tall women, Anya Kalishnikova and Alexandra Fredas, unfold themselves particularly beautifully. Kalishnikova returns for a hop-skip-and-jump Platonic duet with young Kylan Hillman, one of the two male dancers. Fredas will return as a sort of Lilac Fairy, blessing the characters as they take their leaves.

When Naoki Cojerian hurtles onto the stage, packed with energy, she starts a ball throwing sequence. As if throwing the dice or fixing something delectable, Gary Echternacht rubs his hands together gleefully, a gesture that is sparingly echoed later.

Thumbs in imaginary lapels, the dancers folk-jig in lines, then extend their airplane/eagle wings to swoop in vast curves.

At this point it’s all seeming like a Thornton Wilder play that evokes hidden emotion with every-day scenes. Everyday comes to a halt with a vignette for Echternacht. Solemn women dress the pompous, self satisfied man as if he were Louis XIV. They polish every inch of his attire including his bald pate. Servant-like they dance attendance on him, like a wife waiting on her husband hand and foot. He rises, walks, and, shockingly, falls flat on his face. Whether he’s supposed to be dead, I’m not sure, but he gets himself up and walks off, after a brief encounter with the little girl.

The somber mood continues. As Tenney taps Echternacht’s ability to be arrogant, she gives Yoshi Driscoll a stunningly dramatic vignette. Driscoll seemingly cradles a baby in a blanket, mourning in a long adagio phrase, reaching it out to the audience for a slow 180 degree turn. The blanket becomes the vehicle for her grief, as she stretches it tight in a lament akin to Martha’s. She falls to the floor, and her feet propel her forward in a sobbing rhythm, a stark contrast to the legato. She staggers in side steps, as the matter of fact little girl leads her calmly away.

Hillman and Kalishnikova change the mood, step-hopping and prancing around Echternacht, a puzzled Farmer in the Dell. Brash and young, they hold hands, and their movement is big and wonderfully joyful. Driscoll tries to take Echternacht away but he jerks away to meet the young Hillman. The two men dance together, in question and answer, as if Echternacht is talking to his own youth. They embrace, do a soft shoe duet, then Hillman rejoins Kalishnikova, and Echternacht dances with Driscoll ballroom style.

At the close, the cast walks backward, away from the audience, and the little girl walks forward to the audience. It’s as if the child is rejoining the world, and the other dancers are leaving a surreal dream.

Once again Tenney proves that, with sensitive and appropriate choreography, focused non-professionals, no matter what their ages, can have more emotional impact than many professional troupes. This is a wonderful work.

Tenney’s was joined on this program by the excellent work of other faculty members at Princeton Ballet School, some that I’d seen on March 7 at “Rider Dances,” some I’m going to see this weekend at the Mercer Dance Ensemble concert.

Cheryl Whitney-Marcaud in Mary Barton’s “Sarabande” — the choreographer and the dancer must have had wonderful time working together. Whitney-Marcaud’s long long limbs are an evocative palette for the abstract emotion that the music implies. Whether with a rippling extension, a small, sudden gesture, or a change of focus, she painted the exact picture that she intended.

Barton’s new piece was a charmer for two young dancers, Morgan Heiser and Eric Ham, to Emil Waldteufels’ “Immer Oder Nimmer” waltz. They are a well trained and lucky young pair to have a piece set on them that has the charm (if not the actual style) of Bournonville.

Alma Concepcion contributed three Spanish dances, and I was particularly delighted by the one in 18th century Bolero style, which used soft slippers, lots of ballon, and allegro footwork, to music played by pianist Doug Kramer. And Danielle Sinclair – a professional singer who was in Concepcion’s beginning Spanish class with me some years ago – has kept on with it. She both sang and danced to “Zorongo Gitana,” a Garcia Lorca poem that refers to the famous 1930s performer “Argentinita.”

Full disclosure: I have taken class with half the teachers on this program, a potential conflict of interest that horrifies New York-based critics but is common place outside of New York. One wants to study with the best available.

This was an informal loft-style studio performance. I’m eager to see the works by Jennifer Gladney and Janell Byrne repeated this weekend at the Kelsey Theatre’s Mercer Dance Ensemble concert, celebrating Byrne’s 30th anniversary there. Best of all, I get to see Byrne, Whitney-Marcaud, and Diane Kuhl for the third time in “Elle(s)” It takes me back to 25 years ago. Je me reviens.

Photos are by Elliott Gordon.

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