Rashaun Mitchell, Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York

The blankface is so pervasive in modern dance that it has a name: “modern dance face”. But what if the countenance were assigned “moves”, like the rest of the body? The question animates Rashaun Mitchell’s provocative Interface.

Mitchell, who danced with special sensual intensity for Merce Cunningham for eight years before the company disbanded in 2012, is only now hitting his stride as a choreographer, but he has already shown a keen curiosity about emotional extremity. In last year’s award-winning Nox, the quirky classicist and poet Anne Carson ruminated via Catullus over her estranged brother’s death while Silas Riener flung his hyperflexible body against floor and walls. The confluence of circumspect recollection and hot, embodied feeling was no more surprising, though, than Mitchell’s capacity to juxtapose talking and dancing without the words overwhelming the steps.

The odd couple in Interface is head and body. The choreographer has soldered instantly readable facial expressions on to muttering steps for legs and crooked curves for torso. Melissa Toogood, Cori Kresge, Riener and Mitchell – all former Cunningham dancers, all outstanding – pursed their lips in disaffection, formed their mouths into an O of dumbfoundedness, let their mugs crumple in tears and collapse in despair and, in Toogood’s case, hid the face entirely. Late in the hour, this fierce, touching dancer unpinned her bun so a curtain of hair hung over her features as she slammed through a history of dance histrionics, including Martha Graham’s floor contractions and a fragment of Pavlova’s Dying Swan.

Without the face’s fine arc of feeling to show it up, the body grew eloquent. Otherwise, its choreography resembled a rough sketch, as if the dancers were handed generic instructions: “Do a balance here, some kind of partnering there.”

Interface is all about making and blurring distinctions. Thomas Arsenault’s score alternates between found sounds (breathing, humming, heels click-clacking on tile) and music (haunted sad-sack murmurings à la Lisa Germano, Sigur Rós-inspired atmospherics). Fraser Taylor’s compelling wall panels approach art by way of doodling. As for the dancing, sometimes the main action takes place on the margins, caught out of the corner of the eye.

Interface is elusive, keeping an intriguing distance. The dance invites us less to commune with its flickering feelings than to notice the strict forms they take.


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