Putting on a dance show is a Sisyphean task. No matter what heights the dancers reach onstage one night, they begin the next night's performance at the bottom of the hill, doomed to re-create the work from scratch. It's a grueling job. It's also a heroic one. Dancers understand its futility and commit themselves to it anyway. They enjoy the process of the climb as much as the brief moment at the summit.
"One must imagine Sisyphus happy," Albert Camus says in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus. Andrea Miller quotes the line in the program for Sit, Kneel, Stand, which her company, Gallim Dance, performed last weekend at the Joyce Theater. The hour-long piece investigates humanity's Sisyphean struggle -- the simple challenge of getting up every day and doing things, knowing that we'll just repeat the process tomorrow -- and a dancer's (and choreographer's) particular version of that grind. It's lighter and sweeter than most of Miller's earlier works, leavened generously with humor. At times it's a tad literal. (While there's no boulder, there is a tangled pile of chairs to be pushed around, disassembled and reassembled.) But Miller has a talent for creating characters, people -- or almost-people -- we empathize with. And her seven extraordinary dancers bring them to life in full color.
Most colorful of all are the characters who might be proxies for Miller. In one of the work's funniest scenes, Arika Yamada slinks through a languorous series of extensions atop a line of chairs, while Jonathan Royse Windham flutters frantically around her, muttering to himself, shoulders hunched -- a cartoon buffoon. He desperately wants to provide the next chair Yamada will step on, but must go through an agonizing series of small compulsive gestures to get that chair to her, taking the longest possible route to every destination. Eventually Yamada happens to choose his chair, sending Windham into a paroxysm of glee. But he's not happy for long: She wanders away again, and he twitches tragically after her. Later Francesca Romo drags another dancer onto the stage, attempting to puppet his unresponsive body into various shapes, demonstrating crazily in her attempts to make him understand. "Pleeease?" she begs. "Like this? Elbow, knee? Elbow, knee?" When Yamada enters, Romo begins a heartbreaking, hilarious effort to get the two dancers to partner each other. She arranges the man's arms around Yamada; Yamada slips out of them, ignoring Romo's wheedling cry of "Oh... madam? Madam!" Miller knows the battle Windham and Romo are fighting. They're trying to communicate the incommunicable, to capture something that can't be captured.
Gallim Dance in Sit, Kneel, Stand. Photo by Christopher Duggan.
These episodes alternate with dancier sections that feel bland in comparison. It's all appealing choreography, complex, physical and ever-changing. It's just not distinctive. Miller is far more sure of her theatrical personality than her choreographic one. I'm also sad that the score -- a grab bag of nature sounds, electronic noise and short excerpts from works by Beethoven and Ravel -- is relegated to the background. Miller can be a gorgeously musical choreographer. Here music sets the mood and tone, but it's not the impetus for any movement. The best parts actually happen in silence.
But these are quibbles. Sit, Kneel, Stand is sophisticated and touching; you think along with it as well as laugh along with it. And it ends on a beautiful high. As the lights dim, the cast begins a game of tag, panting and laughing. After all that pushing, they have a moment of peace at the top of the hill, before their boulders roll down again.