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May 14, 2012

A Fine New Choreographer

For the past dozen years or so, I've been watching John Heginbotham perform with the Mark Morris Dance Group. He became one of those dancers whose presence I actively looked forward to: as the original and strikingly saintly Saint Ignatius in Four Saints in Three Acts; as the brilliantly feminine Mrs. Stahlbaum in The Hard Nut; as the highly sympathetic and touchingly rendered priest in Romeo and Juliet. So it was a combination of affection for the dancer and curiosity about his next step that took me to the Baryshnikov Arts Center on Saturday night, when two new pieces of choreography by Heginbotham were on the program. What started out as mere personal interest, however, turned into one of the most welcome experiences a critic can have--the profoundly impersonal yet wholehearted admiration of valuable new works of art.

Heginbotham turns out to have a true choreographic imagination and the technical skills to go along with it. In the two pieces on the program--Closing Bell, which premiered last August at Jacob's Pillow, and Twin, which was having its world premiere in this run at BAC--he evinced the kind of brilliantly specific musicality one might expect of a Mark Morris protegé. He cleverly chose music, though, that was unlike anything Morris would ever use: electronic scores by Tyondai Braxton (for Closing Bell) and Aphex Twin (for Twin) that yielded powerful rhythms, occasional familiar-seeming melodies, and intermittent strange sounds in a manner that could only have come from recorded music. This meant that Heginbotham's faithfulness to his music, while practically as intense as Morris's, had a very different feel. In the earlier piece, that feeling was mainly carnivalesque, circus-like, cartoonish, with many sparks of wit; in the premiere, the feeling was darker, more satiric, and sometimes rather frightening. And in each case he was able to bring something out in the music that I would not have heard if I had not been watching those dances.

The choreography required enormous skill on the part of the six dancers who, at least for that evening, constituted the group Dance Heginbotham. (The standout among them was the marvelous John Eirich, but all the others--Kristen Foote, Allysen Hooks, Lindsey Jones, BJ Randolph, and Evan Teitelbaum--were terrific, too.) This was not mere technical skill: Heginbotham knows how to ask a lot of his dancers in a way that gives their movement both psychological significance and emotional impact. The gestures ranged from the tiny (tongues poking into cheeks or stuck out of mouths) to the large (all the dancers jumping up and down in heartbeat-rhythm unison, in a way that made the bleachers holding the audience shake), and all of them existed to further the overall meaning of the dance. Most modern-dance choreographers these days have "ideas" that transcend and disdain technique, or else they have an almost mechanical obsession with showing what the human body can do, regardless of the gesture's point. Heginbotham avoids both these pitfalls: he has something to say through dance, but he knows enough about movement to say it with enormous complexity and skillful precision.

Closing Bell is a playful dance for three men and a woman, with thrilling passages in which each person dances solo, joyful combinations of all four dancing together, and many profusely active moments in between. It ends on a pounding, rhythmic finish and is a total delight. Twin is the more ambitious work--it is very difficult to convey threat and fear in dance, and I think Heginbotham manages it beautifully here, in a sequence where four of the other dancers alternately block and corner and scoop up and tower over a flimsily beskirted, obviously terrified Eirich--but as a performance it is finally a bit less coherent and slightly less satisfying than its predecessor. Both dances, though, especially in combination, signal the emergence of a serious new choreographic presence in our midst. I can't wait to see what he does next.
May 14, 2012 7:09 AM | | Comments (0)

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