Dance in Review

Juilliard’s “New Dances” Showcases Strings and Socks

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Juilliard’s “New Dances” Showcases Strings and Socks

By Garth Grimball

Alicia Graf Mack, dean and director of Juilliard Dance, introduced the department’s “New Dances” program with now-familiar caveats: dance rehearsals followed public health guidelines; in-person and Zoom process; casts of no more than 8 dancers; no touching or partnering; lastly, within restrictions creativity flourishes. If only that were true of this program. The dancing is virtuosic and passionate. The dances are bland and long.

Four choreographers, Tiler Peck, Sonyah Teh, Bobbi Jene Smith, and Matthew Neenan, created original works on the students of the Juilliard Dance Department. Are there obstacles this new generation of dancers can’t handle? 

Dancing for camera - check. Creating work under the confines of health precautions antithetical to dance making - check. Ignoring the swamp-face from strenuous activity in a mask to the point of seeming like it’s totally natural - check. Their verve and commitment to dance inspires.

Peck’s “Broad and Free” builds vocabulary out of attitude turns, enveloppé​, and port de bras above the head. The choreography follows Caroline Shaw’s piano and violin composition, never going against the music, but cruising in the wake of its melancholy. The structure and staging have the forward-facing unison common to competition dances. At one point the music slips into a mazurka and Peck quotes Balanachine’s “Stravinsky Violin Concerto.”

For “End, Middle, Beginning” Sonya Teh brings the viewer into the piece with cinema-verite-style filming. The camera moves through the wings onto the stage and out into the audience. For the rest of the piece the viewpoint is mostly static with crossfades as transitions. Group floorwork interrupted by standing solos define the dance. The interruptions lack the punch of creating a ceiling and breaking it, feeling more like a knock on the attic door. The somber music of Son Lux dulls Teh’s creative ideations on the Graham-Gaga lineage.

Speaking of Gaga, Bobbi Jene Smith’s “Ways of Listening” is a parade of solos overflowing with the pelvic floor and energetic mania endemic to the technique. Smith’s choreography and staging is the most dynamic in its use of the theater space. Thankfully she goes against the Nico Muhly cello (more strings) solo played live on stage. “Ways of wanting to be heard” is a more apt description of the dance. Soloists center the action while the rest of the cast stand still observing. The lunges, turns, gestures, and leaps become shouts into the void because of the static listening. Smith breaks the only-8-dancers rule in her climax. Twenty one bodies fill the stage in a tightly structured mix of unison and variations.

Matthew Neenan’s “The Solo 7,” set to String (!) Quintets by Mozart, has the idiosyncrasies of a dance made 10 years ago. Remember between 2009 to 2013 when every contemporary dance had the “flick” gesture (arms unfurl out and snap quickly at the wrist)? “The Solo 7” is of the era when ballet choreographers decided to incorporate the “flick” and other contemporary dance gestures into classical vocabulary. The dance has three costume changes: muted pedestrian, monochrome floor-length dresses, unison brown and black ensembles. The sartorial variation has little effect on the mood or tone of the piece.

Other than being set to strings, all of the dances have one commonality: socks. When did the mid-ankle length sock become the contemporary dance uniform, like pointe shoes to ballet? Each dance used the exact same type of socks, no variation in length or material. I love dancing in socks. It’s comfortable. Socks signify a coziness that contradicts the groundedness of modern dance, the connection to the earth. The Juilliard dancers move with precision and abandon. But through the screen and through the socks, the weight of a body floats away.

New Dances: Edition 2020-21 is available to stream for free on the Juilliard YouTube channel for 1 year.


Garth Grimball is a dance writer and artist based in Oakland, CA. He hosts the Reference Desk podcast and is the co-director of Wax Poet(s) performance collective.












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