Dance Commentary: Alone and Loving It

The number of solo dance performances is growing, and it is not only because they are cheap to produce.

By Debra Cash

William Butler Yeats once wondered “how can we know the dancer from the dance?” The poet’s conundrum is knotted even tighter when the dancer in question is a soloist, because performer and dance are more inextricably interlinked than usual. Which is it that attracts your eye, touches your heart, get your bones moving in kinesthetic sympathy: dancer or dance? And does it matter?

As a phenomenon, solo dancing is growing, partly because money for dance touring and production has dried up. Minimalist programs are easy to put together and inexpensive to produce. Some dance forms always emphasized solo performances, of course: Tap developed primarily as a virtuoso solo art as did Indian classical dancing, which features a single story-teller in motion describing her cast of god, demons, and milk maids.

The recent increase in solo programs, however, is not just a response to external conditions or a dance analogue to the tired one-man and one-woman shows based on historical figures — think Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, and Katherine Hepburn — that pad summer stock schedules.

More and more, dancers are using the solo form to take control of their own careers, deciding which messages they want to convey. In doing so, they are giving us a new lexicon for the variety of experiences that are available to anyone willing to stand, and move, alone.

New York City Ballet principal dancer Peter Boal is probably the most important recent example of this liberated artistic stance. When he wasn’t wowing them with his dancing in the familiar Balanchine repertoire, Boal has spent the last few years commissioning a series of solos for himself by contemporary choreographers whose names, by and large, were hardly household names outside the New York dance scene.

The results have been splendid. “In classical ballet solos,” Boal explained this past summer when he was performing in Concord, Mass, “you dance for a minute and go offstage again.” The athleticism and stamina demanded by a solo work like Molissa Fenley’s 18-minute “Pola’a” and the chance to act like a bobbing Schwartznegger in the bulky suit-jacket of Wendy Perron’s “The Man and the Echo,” extend a classically-trained dancer, at the height of his technical powers, into modern dance territory. This coming season Boal is expanding this effort to include his friends, creating what he laughingly calls a “make a wish” dance company for colleagues who want to commission new works from choreographers of their choosing, innovative dances suited to the performers’ unique talents.

Boal’s personal adventure into post-modernism is not so different Mikhail Baryshnikov’s strategy in recent years. Baryshnikov has been a prisoner of his own matinee-idol celebrity since his defection in 1974, when he was 26. Do what he will to be a self-effacing partner, a member of the club, audiences focus on his performance even when the dancers around him are stellar. Commissioning solos from post-modern choreographers such as Lucinda Childs, who created a gentle solo dance of grown-up ambiguity for him called “Largo,” keeps Baryshnikov in the spotlight while allowing him to exchange virtuosity for a chance to evoke deeper feelings. It also helps him protect his aging knees.

Solos can be blatant solipsism, cries of “look at me!” For every great soloist there are dozens, maybe hundreds of young and should-know-better choreographers who create moves for their own bodies, star in the dances themselves, and can barely hold an audience’s attention.

Nonetheless, a great performer can make a solo into a privileged insight into hard-won personal truths. Isadora Duncan, casting off her corset, changed the history of the arts forever by the simplest of gestures, spiced with her iconoclastic mix of Walt Whitman and Revolution. Trisha Brown, dancing “If You Couldn’t See Me” with her back to the audience in a Rauschenberg gown, offered a glimpse of the dark side of the moon.

Some critics have complained that Bill T. Jones’ solos, such as “Floating the Tongue,” where he narrates a glossary of his own sign language exploring the “messages” encoded in the postures of a male figure, are too much ‘About Bill.’ For me, they are honestly wrestling with the meaning of Jones’ self-display as a black, gay, male performer. Polemical as well as lyrical, Jones shows that a human body carries a freight of concrete associations even when the movement is ostensibly abstract.

The paradox is that solo work often implies a larger social reality. At Jacob’s Pillow this past summer, South African dancer Vincent Mantsoe suggested the essence of an entire culture, filtered through his Picasso-like stare as a suspicious tribal chief, fists on his hips, drawing his arms towards his sternum as if to bodily incorporate the energies of the earth.

Other solos distill a state of mind. Stephen Petronio is a choreographer of urban density, but “Broken Man,” part of the ambitious “Gotham” suite he continues to work on, is a solo choreographed around a costume: a torn suit jacket designed by Tara Subkoff of Imitation of Christ. The clothing wraps around the dancer’s torso like a straightjacket. Petronio is a post-modern “Petrushka,” crushed and listing under the light, gawky as he pushes his knee back into place, determined to stand.

Solo dancers work without a net, and their risk-taking points to larger truths more populated stage works rarely address. In these confusing, challenging, discouraging times, taking steps alone — on stage or off — is the condition every one of us faces, sometime, somewhere.

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