Johnson’s choreographic ethic borders on the minimalistic, repeating some basic movements, particularly certain arm gestures, in all of the works. In two of the three ballets, it works, in one it fails terribly, and in the fourth, it merely comes up short.
Establishing that formula was the first work, “Crossing the River” from 2012, constructed in three sections to religious-themed music—tinged with minor key tunes and even a touch of klezmer—by Osvaldo Golijov. The movement choices were purposely limited: arms raised in angular positions that constantly changed as the dancers walked, leaned, lunged, all made interesting by clever disbursement of the five dancers—Laura Di Orio, MinSeon Kim, Katie Martin-Lohiya, Lisa Iannacito McBride and Dona Wiley—about the stage.
“Crossing” began with just one dancer on stage, bent over as if mourning, her palms extended. As others joined her, it was as if this lone lady somehow drew the others into her sad reverie. Thereafter, Johnson’s constant rearrangement of the women somehow managed to provide emotional heft, as if the cast were participating in a quiet ritual. The exacting lighting for this, and all the works on the program, was by Renée Molina.
Somehow in the next dance, “Giving Way” (2015), also to music by Golijov (with Marc Mellits), this almost meditative repetitiveness gave it a quiet starkness and depth. The men of the troupe made their first appearance in this “Giving Way,” adding the dimension of partnering and sensuality.
The first premiere was “Trio Sonatas” to music by Handel. Here the deficiencies of Johnson’s choreographic style became more obvious. The unfussy movement scheme was no match for Handel’s sophisticated music. Johnson missed virtually all the music’s undercurrents, choosing instead to attach movements to the obvious melodies and rhythms, making me wonder just how sensitive she is to the subtleties of this music. The slow movements were simply exact duplicates of the fast movements, just slower.
The final work, and second premiere, was “This, and my heart beside,” the title based on one of Emily Dickinson’s more cloying poems. (Even she didn’t write only masterpieces.) The score shifted between music by Marc Mellits and one of Philip Glass most moving works. Johnson structured this work around three couples and, a quietly lovely youngster, Sara Spangler, who helped tie up all the loose ends at the work’s finale.
Again, because Johnson relied on her usual formula of limited movements—here made only slightly more interesting by same sex partnering and the introduction of Miss Spangler—it was difficult to find any difference between the couples’ emotional states.
Her fine dancers made the most of her movements with both their technical level—which is quite high—and their devotion to her choreographic philosophy. These dancers were Peter Chursin, Chazz Fenner-McBride, Mary Beth Hansohn, Ms. Kim, Ms. Martin-Lohiya, Daniel Pigliavento, Blair Reavis-Tyler, Hope K. Ruth, Lauren Treat and Ms. Wiley.
Jessica Sand Blonde designed the unfussy costumes.
Lydia Johnson Dance (June 21, 22 and 23, 2017)
New York Live Arts, 219 West 19th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-924-0077 or visit http://www.newyorklivearts.org
For more information, visit http://www.lydiajohnsondance.org
Running time: 90 minutes including one intermission