Under the critical eye of founder Henning Rübsam, SENSEDANCE has been creating innovative and eye-pleasing dances for over 20 years now. On Sunday, January 21, the company presented a retrospective of some of Rübsam's best work, a performance delayed last month by Hurricane Sandy.
Photo by Alexis Silver
A strain of majestic Teutonic froideur runs through much of Rübsam's work -- the powerful linear leaps and thrusts, the underground electronic music of DAF and other Mitteleuropasiche bands. But the choreographer also presents another side of German culture, the cultured world of Heine and Goethe, Schumann and Brahms that often goes overlooked in facile generalizations that Americans too often engage in. Classically trained at the Hamburg Ballet before capping off his training at the more experimental Juilliard School in New York, Rübsam's early work as part of the Jose Limón Company is apparent in the eye-pleasing rounded movements and the attention to facial gestures. This is set off, however, by an equal passion for jagged, rugged movement reminiscent of more experimental choreographers. This constitutes just another fascinating duality in one of our more intellectual downtown choreographers.
Rübsam seems unable to resist a good pun, visual or otherwise: in Petit Pas (2003), he plays on the Russian choreographer Petitpas' name, the steps that his dancers take onstage, as well as the "small step for man" that American astronaut Neil Armstrong took when he stepped onto the moon in 1969. Set to music by Laibach, the piece begins with the dancers lying flat on the ground, their legs and arms raised in slow flight. But soon, they rise up and surprise! they are on pointe. As befitting a choreographer so concerned with social justice, the piece ends with the voice of Gloria Steinem commenting on the need for social equality.
Interestingly enough, the highlight of the evening may have been a solo performed by the waifish gamin Oisín Monaghan, who delivered a sensitively-rendered interpretation of "Göttingen," set to the 1967 hit of the same name by French cabaret singer Barbara. The BBC recently named this now long-forgotten classic one of the "songs that changed the world." Barbara, a French Jew who was pursued by the Nazis during WWII, developed a postwar love affair with the German city of Göttingen. In her song of the same name, she warns of the return of hatred and war and repeats that "children in Paris and Göttingen are all the same." Göttingen the song has been credited with bringing the post war French and Germans together after close to a century of mutual distrust. In the SENSEDANCE performance, Monaghan was wonderfully light on his feet as he twirled, moved his arms right and left and somehow captured the essence of this most beautiful of peace songs.
The first half of the performance was rounded out by the world premiere of "Obsession/Calm" to music by Ernest Bloch, "Charon," a miniature solo excerpted from the 2008 Amaranthine Road, and the pulsating, excitingly rendered Half-Life which refers back to nuclear decay and the Japanese power plant accident of 2011.
Post-intermission was entirely taken up by a set of pieces performed to Brahms lieder. Rübsam is known as a fusion choreographer, one who mixes contemporary, pointe ballet and jazz vocabularies, depending on the piece and sometimes even within the same creation. The lieder were all performed with verve, and at times Rübsam partook in onstage farce and clowning (slapping his rear, mugging for the camera) that lent humor to the proceedings. This did not quite match the flow and inventiveness of the evening's first pieces. Choreographing to a great composer such as Brahms requires remarkable creative aplomb. Mark Morris, for example, delivers a powerful, ground shaking interpretation of the German master in his Love Song Waltzes, but he is a more established choreographer and has a larger, more experienced cast of dancers. Still, O Schöne Nacht and Wechsellied zum Tanz -- both ensemble pieces -- impressed most.
Overall it was a fine afternoon of dance, one that showed off to good effect Rübsam's tenacity and creative flair and the more than credible efforts by a diverse and enthusiastic group of performers who included standouts Matt Van and Uthman Ebrahim.
Photo by Julie Lemberger