The hottest young talent on the New Jersey dance scene today belongs to a 26-year-old choreographer from Elmwood Park named Robert Mark Burke.
Burke’s lyrical duet “Interwoven Shadow,” to sacred music by Arvo Pärt, received its premiere on June 16 as part of the third Jersey (New) Moves program, a showcase for emerging artists held in the Victoria Theater at NJPAC in Newark. Performed by Monica Gonzalez and Jared McAboy, this dance was the most outstanding among seven new works choreographed under the mentorship of established local dance-makers Carolyn Dorfman, Randy James and Nai-Ni Chen.
The dance began with McAboy sitting on the floor in profile, one knee raised, in a pose that brought to mind Nijinsky’s historic ballet “L’Après-midi d’un faune” and its theme of sexual desire and frustration. In Burke’s piece, however, the “faune” is not the pursuer. When Gonzalez appeared, she approached McAboy slowly and then rushed at him, sliding into an embrace. When they rose to dance, their duet felt desperate one moment and despairing the next.
Pärt’s chorus of singers clothed it in an aura of religiosity, suggesting an otherworldly cast of mind or other circumstances that threatened to place this young man beyond the reach of his companion.
Best of all, however, was Burke’s sophisticated handling of the dance’s energy, giving the movement a dynamic impulse that slowed but never came to a full stop, instead quickening again and rising into an overhead lift, or capturing these partners in a spinning vortex. They darted into action, paused to breathe, and then rushed off again as if carried on the wind. In gentle moments, Gonzalez leaned her head against McAboy and sank downward, her effort at tenderness failing. It was as if he were made of stone, an object she could cling to but never possess.
The other pieces on the program were all more elaborate, yet less polished.
In Lauren Connolly’s “Images from ‘An Endless Pause,’ ” the dancers found themselves blocked or repulsed, overthrown by unseen forces and crashing into barriers. Their bodies remained loose and active, and their movements looked raw; but then, unexpectedly, they would make a slick transition.
Though this piece for four dancers was too rangy to be described as “gestural,” the performers often drew attention to their hands: making them flutter, opening them like a book, and creating designs that had serifs and wings.
Ariel Grossman’s “No Words” really was a gestural piece that took off from an image in which the dancers held a hand to their hearts, as if reciting the Pledge Allegiance. Who knows? Maybe that’s what they were doing, lined up as in a school assembly. The central figure proved disturbed, however. She restrained herself, pulling in her hand when it reached out; and she contracted her body, pitching forward as if vomiting. Then she stretched as if attempting to fly. The other women framed and mirrored her actions, and created architectural tableaux. Snatching and shoving, they played power games and applauded their own performance.
Grossman’s piece was clever but often felt static. She needs to figure out how to move bodies around the stage.
Stephanie Nerbak’s “Caught in the Loop,” a solo that she danced herself, won applause for taking up arms in our nation’s culture wars, and defending the value of the arts. While Nerbak alternated between heroic and gentle movements, dressed in a long, white drapery à la Isadora Duncan, we heard a tape of President John F. Kennedy delivering a speech in praise of American poet Robert Frost.
“When power corrupts,” the president said, “poetry cleanses.” That was in 1963. In the background, a video of Nerbak dancing in a more Expressionist style added complexity without making the piece more effective.
In “ ‘Colored’-moments,” choreographer Kyle Marshall, now a prominent dancer with Doug Elkins’ company in New York, joined hands with Dare Ayorinde and Myssi Robinson to share a moment of prayerful solidarity before the trio came apart and began to skip, pulse and sway. Sinuous hand waving and rhythmic slaps were among this dance’s various motifs, but “‘Colored’-moments” was, as advertised, a collection of isolated “moments” without an obvious, over-arching structure.
“Richter,” a dance dedicated to composer Max Richter, came last on the program; and it was easy to see why it was placed there. Choreographed by Nijawwon Matthews, this large, group work celebrated virtuosity for its own sake, highlighting giant “extensions” and silken pirouettes, not to mention flips and somersaults.
Nothing could have followed this series of athletic climaxes without seeming tame. While it made some members of the audience squeal, however, this dance’s exhibitionism could also feel relentless, tiresome and ultimately pointless.