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Works & Process at the Guggenheim: “One of Sixty-Five Thousand Gestures”/”NEW BODIES”

An intimate, illuminating look at the choreographic process with Jodi Melnick, Gretchen Smith et al.  

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Jodi Melnick in a scene from Trisha Brown and Melnick’s “One of Sixty-Five Thousand Gestures” at Works & Process at the Guggenheim (Photo credit: Robert Altman)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

The respected Works & Process at the Guggenheim turned its attention to the works of choreographer Jodi Melnick and, as usual, attracted a stellar company of performers to enlighten the work.

Two works were performed, then discussed.  The first was “One of Sixty-Five Thousand Gestures” (2012) choreographed by the late Trisha Brown and Melnick to spare music by Hahn Rowe.  As danced by Melnick, the choreographers’ two distinct styles emerged:  Brown’s cool formality and simple stage patterns supplemented by Melnick’s intricate gesture vocabulary.   Dressed in Yeohlee Teng’s simple brown tunic, Melnick was constantly interesting to watch.

“NEW BODIES” (2016) choreographed by Melnick was initiated by Sara Mearns in a summer workshop at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. Skilled classical ballet dancers who were interested in expanding their understanding of movement beyond the strict formalities of ballet choreography joined Mearns and Melnick to experiment with just how movements emerge into choreography.  The result is not an earth-shattering rethinking of the art of dance, but a loose web of crossing paths where touching and light partnering follow from soft collisions.

Jared Angle, Taylor Stanley and Sara Mearns in a scene from Jodi Melnick’s “NEW BODIES” commissioned by Works & Process at the Guggenheim (Photo credit: Robert Altman)

The intermittently heard musical score by György Ligeti (“Continuum”), Heinrich Biber (“Passacaglia”) and Robert Boston (“Retro-decay,” created for “NEW BODIES”) was played live by Boston on harpsichord and Monica Davis on violin.  The music alternated with passages of silence.

The dancers—Mearns, Jared Angle and Taylor Stanley—meandered slowly onto the stage individually.  The effect was as if the dancers were making the movements up at the moment.  The vocabulary included stretched out ballet poses onto which were grafted Melnick’s signature gestures performed by the superb cast all dressed in Marc Happel’s tight-fitting costumes—solid brown for Mearns and white shirts/dark pants for the men.

Although the New York City Ballet dancers professed in the panel discussion that followed the performance that working with Melnick was revelatory and that they profited in the way they approached movement, it was always clear that the three performers were classically trained.

Sara Mearns, Jared Angle and Taylor Stanley in a scene from Jodi Melnick’s “NEW BODIES” commissioned by Works & Process at the Guggenheim (Photo credit: Robert Altman)

Maybe the choreography demanded more fluidity in the torso and a detailed use of well-timed arm and leg gestures—ranging from reaching hands touching the face to jutting elbows to tiny knee circles and little sexy raises of the hips—but modern dance-trained performers would have looked different dancing these movements.

The panel included moderator Judy Hussie-Taylor, the four dancers and NYCB member Gretchen Smith who originated the role danced by Stanley.  As usual, there was much gushing—and rightly so considering the participants and the venue—but the Melnick work was not a work of genius, but a carefully constructed, soft-edged ballet that broke no new ground.

Lighting designer Joe Levasseur did what he could with the fairly limited lighting available at the Guggenheim.  There was very little color, but a good use of contrasting shadow and light with some dramatic images cast against the back wall.

Works & Process at the Guggenheim (January 14-15, 2018)

“One of Sixty-Five Thousand Gestures”/”NEW BODIES”

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Rotunda, 1071 Fifth Avenue, in Manhattan

Running time:  90 minutes with no intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (286 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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