This long-lived festival exists because of the tireless energy of Jonathan Hollander, artistic director and founder of New York's Battery Dance Company. Over the past several decades, Hollander has brought together a variety of dance traditions from around the globeâ€"sometimes working to import dancers to New York from as far away as Asia and sometimes cross-pollinating traditional court or folk styles with modern dance in his choreography for his own company.
This summer, the festival that the Battery Dance Company sponsors annually presented 16 companiesâ€"most of them based in New York Cityâ€"which performed in two different venues over six days. Among the traditions represented at the performance I attended were Humphrey-Weidman-style modern dance; post-postmodern dance; neoclassical ballet; Kathak, the court dancing from Northern India; and Bharata Natyam, the leading classical dance of Southern India. Not one of the companies used live sound, a big disappointment. However, the three-and-a-half-hour program did offer a few truly charming performances by children, some excellent grown-up dancers, and several choreographers who were, for me, wonderful discoveriesâ€"in particular, Susan Slotnick, artistic director of The Figures in Flight Dance Company, a modern dance group of teenagers and young adults, from upstate New York, and Elie Lazar, director of and choreographer for LazarBallet·nyc, a company of remarkable professional ballet dancers. Slotnick's multilayered and sculptural Ryuichi Sakamoto Dance Suite is a treasure of formal invention for a large ensemble; and Lazar's suite Jacaras, to voluptuously melodic Mexican guitar music from the 17th and 18th centuries and performed by four couples with the women on point, is a real ballet, marked by both exquisite step invention and classical decorum. When I think about all the mediocre modern dances and ballets I sit through in auditoria and concert halls, and for which audiences pay large sums to see, and then compare them to work of this quality, presented free, outdoors (with all the distractions of an outdoor venue), with expertly rehearsed and dedicated dancers, in one case amateurs and in the second case pros. . .I'll never understand the art world. (Full disclosure: there were no intermissions during the entire afternoon, and, after three hours and ten minutes, I couldn't sit anymore, which meant that I watched two of the day's last three dances from the side while standing. I was willing to stay at that vantage point for the third danceâ€"the final one of the afternoonâ€"but when I saw that it was going to be, at least in part, a moderne-movement study of women beating each other up, I bailed.)
The festival performance also offered, as a centerpiece, Ocean of Light, a multipart memorial-tribute to the devastation caused in Asia by the tsunami and to that caused in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. Its Bharata Natyam-based sections for the tsunami, which opened out with the space-gobbling appetite of Western modern dance, were performed with discipline and composure by professional dancers from Southeast Asia, New York, London, and India. Its Hurricane Katrina sections were performed by members of the post-postmodern Happensdance group from New Orleans, whose comparatively loose and shambling numbers, costumed (by Patricia Gorman) in layered neutral shades, alternated with the tightly pictorial and geometrically-patterned ones of the Bharata Natyam group. Those taut pictures and intricate geometries for Asia, costumed (by Viji Reddy) in deeply saturated shades of green and blue, were choreographed by Dr. Sanjay Doddamani, who conceived of the entire collaborative project, which was, as Mr. Hollander explained, "a year in the making" and which was commissioned through grants from The Christensen Fund; Skadden Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, LLP; Cyrus D. Mahta Associates, PLLC; Government of India Tourism; and Air India. (For the "Thillana and Scat" finale, Happensdance made tentative efforts to introduce the Bharata Natyamers to the mysteries of Contact Improvisationâ€"the only true theatrical commingling of the two dance approaches.)
Musically, Ocean of Light was all over the place. The composers whose works were used for the Asian section, David Liebman and Sanhita Nandi, produced a listenable and functional score, a portion of which, according to the program, was inspired by verses from the Rig Veda. "Bourbon Street Story," a laboriously detailed and yet curiously eye-glazing long solo in low-heeled shoes by Jeanne Jaubert, choreographer for Happensdance, to a stream-of-consciousness facsimile of an oral history by one elderly denizen of New Orleans (recited in an ear-glazing monotone by Jessica Radcliffe, accompanied on the tape by guitarist Martin Simpson) provoked cheers from the audience of 70-100 individuals, many of whom stayed on the bleachers for the program's entire three and a-half hours.
Another Happensdance section that prompted audience acclaimâ€""Water, Wind, Speed. Water, Wind, Speed. Water, Wind, Speed."â€"used a recording of the Kyrie from Mozart's Mass in C minor (musicians and singers uncredited) as a backdrop for movement so grotesquely inappropriate to it that I can't get some moments out of my head. You haven't heard the Mozart Mass until you've seen it staged for people who crouch down and chug, as if their rear ends were being poked by thistles, or lift one another so that the person lifting has his nose positioned above the open crotch of the liftee, whose legs are spread wide in a second-position split. While these events were taking place I had to force myself to watch; after all, we weren't seeing the actual disaster, only symbols of it, and the Mozart was being appropriated to grant those threadbare symbols a mantle of legitimacy and prestige. Still, in retrospect, it is possible to appreciate the extreme misery that might coordinate one of the most unearthly and consoling musical compositions of Western civilization with visual suggestions of how ignoble a human being can appear in the midst of torrential distress. By force of will, it's possible to look beyond the tangible choreography to the emotion that generated it.
In the event, my own reactions don't much matter: Ocean of Light had found its audience, and even if, in my estimation, the artistic side of the event had its low points, the motivation for doing it at all was pure of heart.
A note, too, about the locally based Kathak Ensembleâ€"a group of professionals and students, founded in 1978 by Janaki Patrik, its director, principal dancer, and, if I read the program correctly, principal choreographer. Although musically exact and marked by a shy charm, the company, costumed in amethyst, lapis, and gold, didn't quite snap into focus until its concluding Tirana, when, suddenly, a towering young woman of great personal beauty joined the ensemble and it became impossible to look at anyone else on stage. Without seeing her for longer than five minutes, I wasn't able to tell if she is a virtuosa as well; however, if this company were to showcase her in a program, I'd recommend that you try to attend. She certainly exerted the command of a superstar.
Interpolated among the guest companies were three modern dance works by Hollander, performed by members of his Battery Dance. Hollander's choreography can be quite sly, as when he slips figures from Asian dance techniques into Used Car Salesman, a quizzical, Daniel-Nagrin kind of character duet for Bafana Solomon Matea and Sean Scantlebury, which showcases their virtuosity and their charm as performers. Soloist Stevan Novakovich apparently worked with Hollander on the choreography of Solo Project; like the duet, it tenderly presents the dancer at his best, although, also like the duet, it doesn't seem fully shaped for theatrical presentation to an audience. My favorite of Hollander's offerings was a crisp and stylish folkloric trio for a woman and two men in Notebooks, to a lively, pulsating score by Frank Carlberg. It wasn't about the dancers. It was a dance for the audience, and a lovely one, real.