The members of her troupe proved to be not only fine dancers but terrific actors in her two New York premieres, “Soul River/Blues” and “Once You Are Not a Stranger” in which Brenner, collaborating with her dancers, broached such subjects as the hybridization of cultures and the emotional toll of the enforced shifting of populations due to political upheaval.
Wearing pale, simple but elegant costumes with small colorful patches around the hips (designed by Sue Julien and Brenner) the dancers in “Soul River/Blues” entered singly at first up a diagonal, almost as if sneaking on. As the dance unfolded they rolled and paused, looking over their shoulders to a score by Ry Cooder and V.M. Bhatt which was a hybrid of Indian classical and bluesy American guitar styles. One man (Aaron Selissen) and four women (Kara Chan, Ruth Howard, Sumaya Jackson and Kristi Ann Schopfer) interacted in slow lifts and groupings that became ever more complex in their angles and internal relationships.
The program notes use rivers as a metaphor for souls being washed out to sea. Commissioned by the Maya Dance Theatre in Singapore, “Soul River/Blues” never evoked rivers to me, but was more of a constantly changing journey with its formidable, but quiet, vicissitudes. There was an intimacy of touch and total trust amongst the cast as they made their way repeatedly up that diagonal, the work ending, as it began, with a soloist wending her way onto the stage.
“Once You Are Not a Stranger,” the longer and grander work, was danced in shiny costumes in shades of rose designed by Ms. Julien and Ms. Brenner to a commissioned score written and played by Svjetlana Bukvich with vocal interpolations by Ms. Brenner. A hanging set piece, designed by Eva Petric and Ms. Brenner, consisted of many varied pieces of fabric, all representing the origins of the dancers’ ancestors. Two lines of chairs, when used, made the dancers look like students watching their colleague’s danced and spoken stories intently.
There were spoken autobiographies, historic photos, slides combined with simple, but expressive movements, many balletic (like some undulating arabesques) and some looking as they came straight out of an Alwin Nikolais ballet with its odd isolations of body parts. The dance thrummed with understated drama which occasionally led to verbalizations in the form of shouts. The dancers got to reveal themselves as discrete beings from many places who through luck and talent—and the craft of Janis Brenner—joined forces in an organic whole. They supported each other in leans and lifts, touched each other and watched each other as each wended his or her way down the center of the playing area, opening themselves up to the audience, whether alone or in groups.
Brenner’s dramatic vocalizations punctuated the proceedings. She also did a tiny solo and fit right in with her younger dancers. Throughout, she was the polar star to her dancers.
There is a straight forward earnestness to Janis Brenner & Dancers, an old-fashioned optimism that dance can change the world.
Janis Brenner & Dancers (June 1 – 3, 2017)
Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center, 280 Broadway, entrance at 53A Chambers Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-837-6809 or visit http://www.gibneydance.org
Running time: 90 minutes including one intermission