Perhaps no choreographer has been as successful as Doug Elkins in merging hip-hop culture with contemporary dance. An ingenious and beautiful work like Elkins’ “O, round desire,” which received its premiere as part of a mixed bill at Montclair State University on Thursday (and will also be presented Friday through Sunday), takes competitive solo forms like breakdancing and vogueing, and refashions them for the theater.
While breakdancers and voguers typically confine themselves to rapid bursts of energy in a tight space, Elkins modulates his dance’s impulses and develops it gracefully. His performers also travel freely across a broad area. Where breakdancing often looks dodgy and evasive, Elkins requires his performers to engage with one another and display collaborative “skills.”
So while the sight of certain locking gestures, floor spins and pretzel-like twists may still elicit smiles in the context of a highbrow evening at the Alexander Kasser Theater, the truth is that a revolution has already taken place. In forging a personal style, Elkins has made 1970s street dancing, club dancing and television dancing part of the vocabulary of post-modernism.
This theatrical approach allows Elkins to tackle a subject such as love, as he does obliquely in “O, round desire,” a piece commissioned and co-produced by Peak Performances. While the centerpiece of the dance is a duet for two women, Cori Marquis and Carolyn Cryer, the work features many combinations of its cast, which includes five members of Elkins’ professional company and nine student dancers from MSU and Rutgers.
Inspired by Gabriel García Márquez’s novel “Love in the Time of Cholera,” “O, round desire,” suggests the generosity of a heart that opens to several people simultaneously; and we note Elkins’ own promiscuous attachment to composers of different eras, from Mozart to Philip Glass, whose music he presents side-by-side. Yet this playlist accompanies dancing that requires no other pretext than its own, brimming energy. Elkins’ attitude remains the same throughout; and in his work style always takes first place.
For all its virtuosity, this dancing is gentle and light, always ready to rebound as if these barefoot moderns were in fact wearing rubber-soled shoes. Even the three women who seem unable to rise from the floor appear cushioned and almost weightless as they propel themselves away from the surface and then subside. Elkins’ dancers tumble easily on one shoulder, and they roll across one another’s bodies playfully. When jogging or leaping, their passage seems frictionless.
In intricate encounters, the performers dive through apertures that suddenly appear, and one person may duck beneath another’s limbs to peer out at the world or crawl into a new structure composed of bodies. This complexity is captivating. A woman may grab her partner assertively by the back of the neck or let her fingers wander ticklishly up the other’s clavicle as their duet varies in intensity. In expansive passages, their arms whip around and their chests fill like sails. Much of the choreography has a teasing and spontaneous quality, as if it were being improvised on the spot. The student ensembles are more static, focusing on steps like knees that flap, or kicks and swivels.
Lighting designer Amanda K. Ringger sets these antics against a succession of solid colors or bright strips that suggest the layers of a delicious tropical cocktail. Oana Botez’s costumes are white shirts and pants that remain immaculate or take on a bluish tint. Despite its theme, the piece feels more brainy than impassioned.
Preceding “O, round desire,” Elkins offered another premiere — this one on screen. “A Hundred Indecisions” is his contribution to MSU’s “Dance for Film on Location” project, and the final film in the series.
Though taking its cue from T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” this film turns out to be a love song addressed to Montclair State University. Far from the grimy backstreets of Prufrock’s wanderings, the campus shines here in impossibly brilliant light supplying any number of gorgeous locations and patterned backdrops for Elkins’ dance.
Apart from its luminosity, the film adds the camera’s resources to the choreographer’s bag of tricks, amplifying with its own movement the moment when a dancer pushes against a wall or rolls over on the floor, the latter becoming something akin to an avalanche. When Charmaine Seet abruptly changes direction in a closeup, and when we look down from a height to see Javier “Ninja” Madrid sliding along a tiled floor on his back, we may be left wondering whether the jarring effect of the former and the continuity of the latter is Elkins’ work, or whether it reflects the sleight of hand of Benjamin Seth Wolf, the director of photography, or of editor Tony Pemberton. “A Hundred Indecisions” turns MSU into a kinetic wonderland.
The evening concluded with a reprise of Elkins’ now classic “Mo(or)town/Redux,” either a witty parody or a simple re-thinking of José Limón’s taut masterpiece, “The Moor’s Pavane,” set this time not to Henry Purcell but to a variety of R&B such as James Brown singing “Super Bad.” (The effect of “Try a Little Tenderness,” as Donnell Oakley’s affectionate Desdemona tries to console Kyle Marshall’s zombified Othello, can be nothing but ironic.)
Filled with casual gestures, nuzzling and laughing, as well as tours de force like a hip-hop solo for Iago, danced by sprightly Elias Rosa, this fresh take on “Othello” suggests a night out among friends, who, after hitting the clubs, end up making lurid headlines.
“O, round desire,” “A Hundred Indecisions” and “Mo(or)town/Redux” will be presented at the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University April 21 at 7:30 p.m., April 22 at 8 p.m. and April 23 at 3 p.m.; for tickets and information, visit peakperfs.org.
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