Three years can make a huge difference in the life of an emerging choreographer. Kyle Marshall was one of several promising young artists to present his work-in-progress as part of the Jersey New Moves Festival at NJPAC in Newark, in 2017. This weekend, he returned at the head of a parade, riding on a float of critical accolades as he brought a full program of dances to the Live Arts series at the Morris Museum in Morris Township.
The Jan. 17 program at the museum’s Bickford Theatre revealed how much this 29-year-old artist has learned in the interval. Chiefly, he has discovered what he can eliminate, so that the three pieces on this program, including the premiere of an intriguing duet titled “Horizon,” displayed their architecture clearly and were free of clutter. Balancing symmetry and asymmetry and sandwiching the abstract “Horizon” between works of narrative bent, this evening pointed to Marshall’s sophistication and good taste. He is still experimenting with different styles, and it remains to be seen where he will decide to settle.
The choreographer began, in classic modern-dance fashion, by introducing himself in a solo. “King” is set to the powerful oratory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech — words that still rouse an audience to applause. Marshall’s dance offered a portrait of willing sacrifice, the gentleness of his movements and the simple beauty of his outstretched arms a foil for the violence alluded to in the speech. Advancing from hops and skips to loose, whipping turns, he paused to bring his hands together in a prayer that trembled with hope and belief.
“Horizon” found the choreographer working in an entirely different vein. The duet might be described as “Cunningham-esque” for its emphasis on pure lines and movement impulses, and for its strange atmosphere disassociated from human passions. Marshall and his sprightly partner, Miriam Gabriel, passed each other unseeing. But even when they came together, shadowing and intersecting in a complicated figure that curved backward and pierced space, it was far from clear that they represented conscious actors.
If these characters were communicating, it might have been only on the level of the shortwave radio broadcasts that served as “Horizon’s” sound-score. Beeping, scratchy and indistinct, these messages crackled blindly in the dark.
Marshall switched stylistic gears again, taking us into an exalted realm in the program’s concluding work, “A.D.” Here the dancers accompanied themselves by reciting fragments of Biblical text. We heard references to the Flood, and the Lord’s promise to make of His people a great nation. Meanwhile, human frailty and suggestions of randomness were banished; the choreographer imposed orderly designs upon the stage with seemingly divine authority.
Gabriel and Bria Bacon were angelic figures framing the action with flat gestures and heads tilted submissively. Prancing and shivering in a solo, Oluwadamilare Ayorinde seemed to rejoice in secret knowledge like an Old Testament prophet. Marshall and Myssi Robinson entered to complicate the action without obscuring the work’s broad outlines.
The focus shrank in a section dedicated to stamping, slapping rhythms; then Bacon stealed across the stage cradling an invisible baby, which she laid furtively on the ground. “A.D.” resolved itself in a formal tableau, with Robinson stretched on the ground in apparent martyrdom while the others hovered protectively above her head.
Evidently the Bible remains a fecund source of inspiration. It seemed overly ambitious, however, to try to cram it all into a single dance.
For more on the Live Arts series at the Morris Museum, visit morrismuseum.org/livearts.
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