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Ellen Cornfield/Cornfield Dance: “Close-Up” (2017)

A Merce Cunningham acolyte’s latest ballet makes clear that his artistic legacy is intact.

Ellen Cornfield/Cornfield Dance in a scene from “Close-Up” (Photo credit: Steven Schreiber)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

Ellen Cornfield danced in the Merce Cunningham Company for a number of years and her “Close-Up” (2017) is clear evidence that his style of movement and choreography is ingrained in her.  Her company, Cornfield Dance, performed as part of this season’s edition of the Soaking WET dance series at the West End Theater.  “Close-Up” was impressive in a quiet, elegant way.  The 50-minute dance went by in a dreamy way, helped by the proximity afforded by the tiny theater space.

The five dancers—Pierre Guilbault, Vanessa Knouse, Ruth Howard, Logan Pedon and Joshua Tuason—wore colorful, tight-fitting costumes with prints of faces and abstract designs on them and danced among three standing sculptures.  Costumes and artwork were designed by Andrew Jordan.  The music, which varied from rhythmic tooting to scratchy sounds to quiet, moody melodies was composed by Andreas Brade and played by Welf Dörr.

There was a mysterious coolness about “Close-Up” which, according to a program note by Ms. Cornfield, was meant to delve into the personalities of her five dancers, doing this by assigning very particular gestures—touching the face with a finger, holding a palm to the forehead, quivering hands, mimed pouring, nods—and facial expressions like appearing to laugh or shout to each dancer.  She called these intimate, non-dance details, “zoom close-ups.” These quirky bits were additions to sleek, catlike movements that included lunges, low leg circling and the kind of balletic movements that were the centerpiece of Cunningham’s choreographic output.

Ellen Cornfield/Cornfield Dance in a scene from “Close-Up” (Photo credit: Steven Schreiber)

The dancers also interacted with the three sculptures which were like upright flames, but in the cool colors of white, blue, turquoise and black.  They were moved about to make various spatial effects on the stage, sometimes actually hiding the dancers’ movements, their limbs and eyes peeking out from behind.

There was partnering, too.  The dancers pulled off each other and leaned on each other and did simple lifts.  Often one dancer stood still while others moved on the other side of the stage area.  A trio was pitted against a duet.  This was how Ms. Cornfield kept the stage pictures flowing.

The luxuriously stretched out movements were nimbly performed by the dancers who were totally in synch with each other and with Ms. Cornfield while displaying individual personalities—the nimble one, the dramatic one, etc. They are all beautifully trained.

Lighting designer Jay Ryan’s pools of light made the most of the small performing space.

Soaking WET Dance Series

Ellen Cornfield/Cornfield Dance (May 18-21, 2017)

West End Theater, 263 West 86th Street, 2nd Floor, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 800-838-3006 or visit http://www.brownpapertickets.com

Running time: 50 minutes with no intermission

Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (229 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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