ZviDance at ADI by Luella Christopher

American Dance Institute
Rockville, Maryland
September 9-10, 2106
By Luella Christopher, Ph.D.

Zvi Gotheimer is a “Zen-like” firebrand. Arriving in New York in 1981 on scholarship from America-Israeli Cultural Foundation to study dance, he promptly attached to Joyce Trisler Dance Company, Feld Ballets/NYC and Garden State Ballet. Ten years later he founded his own company, earning immediate praise for refusing to be bound to specific thematic or aesthetic dogma when making dances. Gotheiner also amassed a reputation for controversial teaching methods in which “nothing is incorrect”. As described by Siobhan Burke (New York Times, July 29, 2105), Gotheiner champions the body’s natural intelligence, never asking his dancers to “elongate”. He believes that the body “doesn’t need any discipline [to force it into place] or new software.” Classes often draw “students” from major dance companies who praise his ability to rehabilitate their injuries.

Following a pivotal debut at Jacob’s Pillow in 2004, ZviDance showcased “Escher/Bacon/Rothko”, a finished, evening-length tribute to three leaders in 20th century modern art in July 2016, again at the Pillow. (M.C. Escher is known for black and white mathematical lithographs, Francis Bacon for grotesque figurative painting, and Mark Rothko for colorful abstracts.) The series of concerts also birthed “On the Road”, a work based loosely on the famed novel by Jack Kerouac that traces a journey with characters from the Beat-Generation and their “startling notions of social rebellion”.

To create the piece, Gotheiner and four company members (Ying Ying Shiau, Chelsea Ainsworth, Doron Perk and Isaies Santamaria Perez) drove from New York to San Francisco. Stopping in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Des Moines, Omaha City, Denver, Salt Lake City and Reno, they traced the path of Sal Paradise – narrator of the Kerouac novel as well as character assumed by the author himself. Sometimes, media artist and videographer Joshua Higgason just told the crew to disembark and improvise to a randomly chosen scene.

True to his interdisciplinary bent, Gotheiner melds the artistic mediums of dance and literature in “On the Road”. It is meant to be watched independently of recollections or impressions of Kerouac’s book. Yet linkages are unmistakable and are conveyed by the series of powerful videos by Higgason, to which the live choreography is intimately related. Extracts from the text of the novel are woven throughout the choreography, starting with the very first inscription: “And the things that were to come are too fantastic not to tell”.

The opening video shows trucks and cars on a highway, their momentum accelerated to create a blur. Dancers meander onstage, jitterbugging – first a couple (Ainsworth and Alex Biegelson), then others. A robust score by composer Jukka Rintamaki, a Finn by way of Sweden, provides an underlying disco beat. To an inscription, “So many nights I lose myself”, a male dancer (Perez) launches into spastic moves and gestures. A couple (Shiau and Will Tomaskovic) knocks each other in the vein of cars colliding. A video backdrop of a theater named “Iowa” provides the backdrop for a trio (Ainsworth, Biegelson and Perk) – semi-balletic in its jumping extensions as well as body swirls and lifts, one of which culminates in turning the female dancer over completely.

In a video of mountain ranges, the movements of the live female dancer and the dancer in the video (Kuan Hui Chew) are the same. By now, Gotheiner reveals a staging technique that intimately relates the live dancer to whomever is shown in the video (indeed, they are frequently the same individual). An ensemble of seven dancers (four men, three women) moves rhythmically, pulsating at varied levels. They are chanting as they move.

Suddenly, the scene is urban – with traffic sporting even a double-decker or tour bus. It switches to a building from which flags are flying at half-mast (perhaps a government facility or an innocuous rest-stop on the interstate). The two Asian dancers (Shiau and Chew) swirl arms and sway in synchronization with their hips.

An enticing video of a table set with plates of apple pie a la mode and French fries reveals three forks on a plate. Blurred hands fade in and out of the picture, seemingly partaking of the dessert; a salad and a fourth fork are added.
A plucked string section follows, to which a couple (Ainsworth and Tomaskovic) dances slowly. The video then changes to an alleyway with trash blowing. A foppish “hoboette” in the video (played by Shiau) dumpster-dives and rolls on the ground nearly the length of the alley in images that fade out but return. She steals the thunder from the live dancers (Perez and Perk). But, “complications rose like butterflies”.

In one of the most provocative videos of the work, a man attaches a prosthetic leg to his body next to a sign for Loyola (College). The live male dancer (Biegelson) seems to be fighting with his own limbs, as if trying to come to terms with the artificial device. Once again, all seven dancers take the stage, executing outsize renverses before a blurred video background. As a purist when it comes to prop management, I gravitate toward these blurred backdrops as they do not distract for even a second from the dancing. I hasten to add that, unlike many techno-savvy post-modern dance works, the videos never overwhelm the choreography. Both the movement vocabulary and its execution by Gotheiner’s seven dancers is so commanding that the “live” aspect would prove impossible to ignore, The video then shows Colorado Route #70 signs, with four of the dancers (by now, they certainly seem like close friends) huddling in the cold.

A graceful female (Shiau) circles her body sinuously, climbing in and out of intertwined poses with her partner (Perez) that seem sublimely connected. Now there’s a maze of manicured hedges, then a dilapidated red farmhouse with a live dancing couple mirroring the couple in the video, surging and disappearing. Sinking periodically to the ground, the live couple (Ainsworth and Perk) seems defeated or dying – like the farmhouse.

Smokestacks, then a trio, the female component of which keeps kicking one of the others away. A solitary male (actually the videographer Higgason) walks repeatedly across a frozen lake, while an equally solitary female (Ainsworth) dances in front of the video. It is actually a salt flat in Utah, the dancers tell me at the reception. A split-screen video acts as backdrop for more muscular gyrations from Biegelson, who extends one arm while the other arm pulls back from it. He then pummels his body into a stunning series of turning stag leaps.

A second split-screen video shows a canyon and a stream or river lapping against an outcropping. A winsome female (Shiau) performs an extended adage, modestly attired in a captivating brown print-dot dress. A man stands in what looks like mine-slag. Dancers move across the stage on a horizontal line, one by one, studying the video. Moves are contorted, alternately slithering and bucking. They remove their shirts, as if overheated, to a video of “Reno – biggest little city in the world”. Difficult floor-bound leaps for which names do not exist are deftly executed (Perez).

Video is once again the blurred highway, like the opening, with all seven dancers now on stage – a briefly undulating line, three pairs and one woman off to herself. Boxcars move monotonically and two male dancers (Perk and Perez), dressed only in briefs, pick their way along the tracks. One of the female dancers (Chew) saunters backward almost as if under the wheels of the moving cars.

Once again, road signs command the video: “Adler – Jack Kerouac – 000”. This time, they appear to lead nowhere. The dancers relay that such a sign does exist. However, its meaning for Gotheiner’s piece does not receive any further elaboration. The final video shows the original four travelers (Shiau, Ainsworth, Perk and Perez) walking on a beach – as with an earlier video, “liberated” from any articles of clothing. The scene fits the youthfully rebellious mood and the panoply of alternatively sunny and defeatist tendencies that “On the Road” delivers. Gotheiner has told us quite a story. Despite the proclaimed “non-message”, we truly know or at least understand these characters.

Copyright 2016 by Luella Christopher