“Their bodies!” whispers a woman next to me as a frame of red lights warms the stage at New York Live Arts on Thursday, January 31st . Statuesque and scantily clad, Armitage’s dancers certainly give us in the audience the eyeful that Armitage herself promised just before taking a seat front and center to watch the world premiere of her Mechanics of the Dance Machine.
This dancework is a moving picture of strength and sensuality that layers visually rich ensemble movement with highly intricate—perhaps improvised—solo phrases and captivating pas de deux. Lighting designer Clifton Taylor’s geometric patterns of white light structure and restructure the stage floor as the dancers move to accommodate their changing environment. Arms and upper torsos writhe, accompanied by selections from urban DJ/composer Gabriel Prokofiev’s “Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra.”
Fifteen dancers progress through deconstructions and variations of familiar, classical ballet movements, most memorably attitude derriere, developpé a la seconde, and what Armitage calls the “Swan Lake” port de bras. As I watch the women repeat multiple, sweeping, en de dans leg fans, I wonder— are these acts of virtuosity, or seduction? And did she just slap him on the…?!? Mechanics of the Dance Machine presents the audience with scenes of humor and vulnerability, and so demonstrates Armitage’s dancers’ genuine trust in themselves and one another.
The performers maintain intense visual focus, reminding me how impactful the use of the eyes can be, and how often dancers forget about this aspect of performance. Megumi Eda, an elegant and thoughtful mover, uses her eyes with remarkable control and purpose. With each undulation of her torso, energy and intention extend well beyond her body’s limits.
Armitage and her work are part of the still-ambiguous movement in dance history called “contemporary ballet.” Mechanics of the Dance Machine confirms this—in it, Armitage suggests through movement at least three paths the field of contemporary ballet might take, and which might be most fruitful. Perhaps, as sections of Mechanics of the Dance Machine suggest, contemporary ballet is a reaction to classical ballet’s approach to gender and sex. While dancers in Mechanics of the Dance Machine still assume traditional, binary gender roles—for example, consistent male-female pas de deux partnerships—their pairings are set against the background of a hyper-sexual performance environment. Might this be the essence of contemporary ballet? Unobstructed exposure of human sexuality and sensuality?
If not, perhaps contemporary ballet is a reaction to the strict boundaries of classical ballet’s codified movements? As Mechanics of the Dance Machine demonstrates, modern day dancers can and do extend beyond traditional balletic forms, at times assuming exaggerated, even grotesque, versions of them.
Or, as a mesmerizing duet between Megumi Eda, and Cristian Laverde König suggests, contemporary ballet could be an artist-guided exploration of the elements of classical ballet that continue to move dance-makers and dance-lovers today. I’m more inclined toward this possibility.
Mechanics of the Dance Machine is currently running at New York Live Arts (219 W. 19th Street, Manhattan) from February 7-9 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $40 ($15 for students and seniors) and can be purchased at newyorklivearts.org or by calling (212) 924-0077. You may not leave the theater knowing what contemporary ballet is, but at least you will have a better idea of what you’d like it to be.