Henning Rübsam/ SENSEDANCE

Baruch Performing Arts Center, New York City,
October 12–16, 2005

A Review by Bella Rehnquist

L to R: Ramon Thielen, Henning Rubsam, Andrea Long, and Melissa Morrissey in Henning Rubsam's Dinner Is West
Photo © 2005 Richard Termine
Dinner is West—the curious title of the new SENSEDANCE evening—is briefly explained in its printed program: “Dinner is West—a DADA quote by Gertrude Stein caught artistic director Henning Rübsam’s attention and he thought: ‘Food is what I like and a direction is good to have.’”

The evening as a whole as well as the new work of the same title explore many different directions. Every one of them is rewarding.

The new work, Dinner is West, opens with a tableau in brilliant colors. Andrea Long and Melissa Morrissey, guests from the still-furloughed Dance Theatre of Harlem, sit in fuchsia and orange dresses and mime eating and drinking. Soon Morrissey is suspended in the air on the soles of the feet of her—until then invisible—partner, Ramon Thielen, whom she had been sitting on. Long is spun horizontally by Rübsam and the breathtaking opening picture is dissolved. “Impressions”—one of the subtitles of the first section (each has two)—feels like taking a stroll through a cabinet of surrealist dreams. Rübsam keeps it light and puts in visual puns. In perfect Nikolais tradition he makes use of the costumes in every imaginable way.

Thielen lifts up Morrissey’s skirt when she takes a low arabesque, thus creating a line as if she had lifted her leg high. She then looks at the raised skirt rather than her actual low arabesque line, and one ends up with a sly spoof of an image right out of a Bournonville ballet. A skirt walks next to Rübsam, yet he does not seem to notice that the upper half of his partner is missing. Bent over on hands and feet, Long veils her obscured body with the fabric.

The magnificent skirts (costumes credited to Ivan Grundahl, Rübsam, and Ed Sylvia) just happen to fall into place as wraps, scarfs and coats. In the end Morrissey spreads her skirt wide as she sits on Thielen, who—pretending to be a dog she just walked—wiggles under her, in which she takes discreet delight.

Rübsam introduces the theme of the next section (“God Laughs” or “Lemon Chiffon”) while the other dancers join in for fragments of the phrase. Then his three dancers take on the theme and invert and reverse some of it before the music slows and the dancers couple off to find partnering possibilities within the movement material previously presented.

A stunning neo-classical pas de deux for Long and Thielen follows. The sanguine dancers are well matched in this fast-paced duet—a test of Thielen’s excellent partnering skills. They are joined by the other couple, and the women end up gesturing held aloft in mid-air, the only place that is still lit.

The oddest—and somehow oddly familiar—section (“Night Watch” or “Broken Barocco”) is next. Long and Morrissey lie on their backs repeating the mid-air arm gestures toward heaven rather than front. Then they lift their point shoes up in the air, treating an imaginary ceiling like a floor. Leg patterns are dutifully executed. The dancers get up only to circle each other and to descend again. After sliding across the floor they end up lying next to each other again, this time towards the upstage left corner. Once more the point shoes are raised and now the two dancers perform the well-known pattern from Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco in a supine position. Was it C.B. all along? Done upside down? Only a second viewing could tell.

“So there,” a lively trio for Long, Morrissey, and Rübsam lets the dancers take risk in lightning-speed maneuvers around each other. Syncopation adds a sophisticated jazz flavor and sparks are flying as the dancers tear up the floor.

“A Dream” (or “For the Birds”) gives Thielen the chance to display and unfold his agile beautiful body as a fledgling bird who eventually takes flight, while the other

Ramon Thielen, Melissa Morrissey, Andrea Long, and Henning Rubsam in Dinner Is West
Photo © 2005 Richard Termine
dancers dreamily soar in one-footed suspension in the background. Rübsam does know how to create atmosphere with simple means, having an uncanny ability to reduce movement to sculptural quality that resonates.

The finale combines swimming patterns and unconventional ballet partnering in a whirlwind feast for the eyes. By the end the dancers join in a circle holding hands and sit down as if ready to eat together. The work, just like its title, leaves one to wonder at times how to connect the different parts, but the rich imagery and the always-exciting physical discourse with the original score for violin, cello and piano by Beata Moon give reason enough to wholeheartedly enjoy this colorful theatrical avant-garde ballet.

Rübsam’s other premiere, The Dance Bag, is co-choreographed and performed by former Nikolais dancer Christine Reisner. Now in her fifties—with a body a thirty-year old dancer could kill for—she takes a whimsical look at her career. The “self-check” in the mirror while working out is included as well as the “being stuck” in a bag during her modern dance career. The heavy dance bag is burden and home; becomes a dress; and provides comfort, clothing and many treasured memories. The ingeniously designed bag is by Malissa Drayton Lisbon.

Two other works were new to me and underscored Rübsam’s versatility as both choreographer and dancer. A male duet to the Andante of Brahms’ Double Concerto (choreographed in 2001) showed former American Ballet Theatre dancer Dartanion Reed and Rübsam as equal partners in a balletic pas de deux. Are the two brothers contenders, or two men on a spiritual path? They sometimes tenderly support, at other times violently pull one another in their journey, which ends when Rübsam opens his arms with the last chord of the music as he sits on upright Reed’s shoulders. One feels uplifted by the soulful gesture. The pas de deux manages to subliminally politicize the world of partnering in dance and choices of partnership in life. The elegant, long and lean Rübsam presents himself in impeccable form and impresses with clean lines, high extensions and a dramatic alertness, while the more muscular Reed smolders with a quiet masculine intensity that needs to be a bit less quiet to be entirely engaging.

Save the Country (choreographed in 1997 to Laura Nyro’s song) is an energetic duet that has Ashley Sowell and Rübsam roll and flip in breakneck speed across the floor. The hippie peace vibe is another refreshing addition to the program. The fearless Sowell leap-dives at Rübsam, who scoops her up for a final swoop that ends in a spinning loving embrace.

A repeat performance of Chorale (see review Oct. 2004, music by Ricardo Llorca) by Morrissey and Thielen was nothing short of glorious, as was Thielen’s reprise solo “Dinette” of last year’s DJANGO. Long made an impressive debut in the “Rythme Futur” solo. Here presented as a suite of five dances (out of the original eight), I missed the poetry of Rübsam dancing with an imaginary partner before two couples embody his dream. But even with the poetic element missing, the shortened DJANGO remains high-spirited and original entertainment, that I for one never seem to tire of.