Choreographer Gabrielle Lamb speaks with her entire body, gesturing primarily not with her hands but with her position in space, tucking long legs underneath her and frequently readjusting her posture. I find myself mimicking her, sitting up straighter as she describes the piece she’s begun at the National Choreographers’ Initiative (NCI), a program that gives four choreographers three weeks and sixteen dancers from around the country to create a piece with no limitations or requirements. For choreographers used to working within the boundaries that usually accompany commissioned work, NCI offers selected artists a unique opportunity to take risks and experiment with new ideas.
Lamb’s piece was initially inspired by the life and work of the composer Erik Satie, but she plans to use music that was either influenced by his work or a cover of it–something familiar, reimagined. Satie interests her not only because of the stirring quality of his music, but because of his unique way of working: rather than typical performance directives, he pencilled notes into his sheet music that said, “Behave as if a monkey is watching you.” This is just one, though perhaps the most eccentric, of a long list of such directives, from which Lamb has built movement.
I had the opportunity to watch rehearsals during the program in Irvine, CA, one week before the NCI’s well-attended final showing. Lamb explained to me that the rehearsals were shorter than she was used to, and it had taken her a few days to get into the rhythm of getting started right away. But on this day she dove in, working on a short solo section for a female dancer, Diana Peters. I was impressed by the substantial amount of time Lamb spent getting each detail exactly correct, both choreographically and in terms of the dancers’ execution. “How does that feel?” she’d ask, favoring a natural quality despite the challenging sequence. Onstage one week later, this snippet sped by in under ten seconds, and a carpet of other dancers filled the space as Peters slid and turned past them, seeming to extricate herself from her own limbs.
Lamb mentioned that at NCI she felt the freedom to try something unusual for her, and so she ended up going in a somewhat darker direction. The other three dancemakers must have felt similarly untethered, for each of the pieces presented at the Irvine Barclay theater this past Saturday seemed to emerge from rather shadowy depths. For instance, in the final piece of the evening, created by NYCB veteran Philip Neal, a love scene escalated into a fearsome sextet in which dancers hung by their ankles from their partners’ necks and were hoisted by their inner thighs into geometric, insect-like configurations; there was a scream; and at the end, a female dancer choked her male partner in a musical flourish and final flash of light. At first, my mind backpedaled to the movie American Psycho, by which I’d recently been horrified, and I almost dismissed the work as too dramatic for my taste. Then I realized that it was as Lamb had said–given the freedom to take risks, the choreographers took wise advantage.
From my point of view, these risks resulted in pieces that had varying levels of success as finished works. There were sections in each that lagged, elicited questions, or veered towards the cliche; in three weeks with less than three hours of rehearsal per day, perhaps this is to be expected. There were also parts I thoroughly enjoyed: Garrett Smith’s pacing and detailed gestural imagery, not to mention the clear commitment his dancers gave him. Neal’s exacting musicality, Barry Kerollis’ use of space. Lamb’s thoughtful, nuanced movement vocabulary and concept (and her use of bright orange socks). Having caught glimpses of each piece in rehearsal, I was reminded–and delighted by–what a difference lighting can make to bring a work to full production value. Smith, especially, utilized the lighting designer Monique L’Heureux’s talents.
Many works incubated at NCI go on to have lives of their own after the program’s end. I spoke to Molly Lynch, the program’s founder, earlier this Spring by phone; she said that choreographers often return to their pieces, setting them on companies nationwide after their NCI experience–and that this isn’t required, but it’s a happy side effect she hadn’t initially intended. One imagines that the works, revisited, would have the added value of a second look; that more time could be spent and that they would be refined. Regardless, the program’s laboratory feel is certain to have a lasting effect on those who participate, whether it’s a fortuitous meeting between the dancers and dancemakers involved, the opportunity they’re given to pursue a particular concept they’ve saved for later, or the development of new steps or instincts that can only be culled from process.