Smart, And Structurally Sound

Christopher Williams, Sam Kim, and Hou Ying

To get attention in dance you have to do more than just make good dances. There has to be some twist, some essence, some fundamental underpinning that distinguishes your work from everything else. It can even be a gimmick, as long as it works. Christopher Williams works with history, finding glorious inspiration in the lives of saints, medieval music, and, in his most recent creation, Portuguese fado. His costumes and sets are smart, too, and using live singing is always a plus. He also works with seasoned performers—although he is young, he is an accomplished dancer and has performed and danced with many other artists and companies and the reciprocity is a boon to all.

Williams is also a puppeteer, and his style of movement—jointed torso, angular and long limbed, tilted and often propped up—can make him look like a marionette; his balance and control are as manifest as his graceful abilities. “The Portuguese Suite,” at Danspace Project May 18-21, is set to fado songs that are sweet, sad, and, indeed, fated. Williams uses the songs to structure a tale of two men—himself and dancer Andrei Garzón—that is, naturally, unacceptable.

Like his “Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins,” the work is supported by a chorus, here a cadre of women who lament the involvement of the two strapping young men. They move in conformist huddles, emerging from their individual white chapels, moveable set fixtures with window cutouts—a cross, a moon, a star, a shield, a boat—designed by John Bianci.

The arc of this theatrical work is there, and the movement provides a clear counterpart to the emotionality of the music. But the relationships seem contrived; everything is too binary. The women don’t seem terribly complex, and the motivations for the Portuguese Sailor (Garzon) seem arbitrary. When he leaves, shaking his head no to Williams at the end, it’s not believable at all, even though it was to be expected—earlier he had danced with a woman.

Far more successful were the reprisals from “Ursula—“Saint Barbara” (a pugilistic Nami Yamamoto) and “Saint Lucy” (a tethered Janet Charleston)—and the sneak peak of three components from his next work, “The Golden Legend”—“Saint Christopher,” “Saint James the Greater,” and “Saint Anthony Abbot.” For Christopher, Williams has enlisted the wonderfully elastic and gamely goofy Chris Elam, and original music by Peter Kirn. He adapts the deep plied movement Williams favors with animal physicality, embodying the dog-headed baboon supposed to be the saint’s original form along with twin Williams, who makes an early exit and late return to the Matthew Barney-esque duet. A shirtless male dance corps comforts the prone and whimpering Williams in a dark corner of the stage.

Likewise, Aaron Mattocks is a perfectly medieval and queer Saint James the Greater, with gartered pointy-toed hosen and bold mascara, flitting about the female chorus with camp and wit. John Kelly as Saint Anthony danced fat, his torso unable to control the freedom Williams choreographs around it. But this seemed to suit the life of this saint—who was tormented by demons and taken by angels.

Every time I head off the beaten trail I discover not just something new, but something exquisite. Never mind that this Irish-Polak immigrant/native New Yorker has never done anything in Chinatown that wasn’t food-related—even though H.T. Chen and Mulberry St. Theater have been there more than 20 years. So Sam Kim’s invitation to her “Avatar” on their Ear to the Ground series brought me to my knees. Of course I completely reveled, fidgeted, rocked, freaked, and felt insecure and all-powerful during Kim’s solo. The body, insistent and aware… these words kept echoing in my head.

She approaches with her back. She rarely shows her face. When she does, she looks at us. We know her. She poses, pretends, primps, plants her feet, pumps her pelvis, puts her fists at arms length. She strips, her back to us again, and rolls her skeleton around in circles. She lies, crouched on the floor, motionless, during a whole song, replayed. What archetype is this? Performance is the avatar; the body does not lie.

Before this living, breathing truth, the unexpected surprise, a trio called “Whirlpool” made by Hou Ying, who performs with Shen Wei. A dance for her and Chia Ying Kao and Dai Jan, who also dances with Shen, it is what you might expect from the title, a dance of centrifugal forces and relations, the momentum building over each of several movement studies that begin against the back wall. But it is realized with meticulous acumen and stunning, gorgeous dancing, a blend of balletic and release-based movement. Hou is precise, her lines perfect, a feature heightened by her close-cropped hair. The tall, long limbed, dynamic Dai also has his hair closely cropped, and moves with the same perfect timing and lines of Hou. Chia Ying has long hair, but also moves with a more supple upper body, adding a lovely contrast. It is rare to see such exceptional technical dancing in such an intimate space. I look forward to seeing all three of these performers more, in whatever they are doing—and will certainly be keeping my ear to the ground.