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Janis Brenner & Dancers: Spring 2017 Season

A program that skillfully combined the art of choreography with politics and social commentary.

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Janis Brenner & Dancers in a scene from “Soul River/Blues” (Photo credit: Judith Stuart Boroson)

[avatar user=”Joel Benjamin” size=”96″ align=”left” ] Joel Benjamin, Critic[/avatar]Janis Brenner has somehow solved the problem of combining social consciousness with the art of choreography, a melding that too often has led to heavy handed or obvious dance works that were neither good art nor good sociology.  In Janis Brenner & Dancers’ recent program at the downtown Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center, she skillfully melded politics, social commentary and dance.

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.

Janis Brenner & Dancers in a scene from “Once You Are Not A Stranger” (Photo credit: Judith Stuart Boroson)

“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

Running time: 90 minutes including one intermission

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About Joel Benjamin (561 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.

1 Comment on Janis Brenner & Dancers: Spring 2017 Season

  1. Thank you very much for your writing here, Joel. It is heartening to know that the work and the company were understood on a deep level.
    With appreciation.

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