I have a condition. I’ve been suffering—more and more, recently—from “dance blackout.” Usually it occurs at perfectly respectable contemporary dance performances. I’ll be watching some blandly pleasant movement and suddenly realize that several minutes have gone by without a memorable moment, a moment of jolting veracity—that I haven’t once been engaged, excited, awakened.
I’d like to say that this didn’t happen to me during GERALDCASELDANCE’s Border, an elegantly crafted rumination on our fascination with the foreign, performed at Joyce Soho in May. Casel, a longtime Stephen Petronio dancer, was inspired by Project 28, a federally funded “virtual fence” that runs along the U.S./Mexican border. A provocative subject, and good fodder for a work of politically-charged dance theater. But for most of Border, Casel seemed embarrassed by his own theatrical impulses, too often falling back on pretty, blackout-inducing abstraction.
Border’s nine dancers begin the piece in black-and-white costumes, an undifferentiated group. Jeff Hanson’s delicate falsetto, some swooning Debussy selections, and Robert Poss’s live, meditative guitar work—a strangely logical mix—set a dreamy mood. We see the dancers, who we watched warmup onstage before the show, fall gradually into character, throwing their eyes out of focus. After a short animated film by John Bielicki—in which stick figures walk across a white screen and repeatedly encounter obstacles, accompanied by ominous piano plunking—the dancers re-emerge in brightly colored versions of their old attire. It is a beautiful moment of dramatic tension: the formerly homogenous cast is now clearly divided into two teams, a red-orange group and a blue-green group. They stand facing each other, expectant and nervous, on opposite sides of the stage. (“It’s so West Side Story,” I heard an audience member whisper.)
So the real story begins, or so it should. But rather than articulating the anxieties that might animate the color-coded world he’s created, Casel repeatedly backs away from them. He relies heavily on floor work, and much of it is quite striking, particularly a sequence in which the dancers lie on their backs and circle their hips and then their ribs up and away from the ground, as if they were marionettes being pulled by strings. Pretty is as pretty does, however, and rarely do these passages of handsome writhing do much.
There are a few interesting waves in Casel’s flat sea of attractive movement—waves of plot. At one point a blue-green girl (Na-Ye Kim) and a red-orange girl (Omagbitse Omagbemi), dancing on opposite sides of the stage, perform a tortured non-touching pas de deux. When they finally catapult towards each other, they are caught and restrained by other members of their respective groups. Another blue-green girl (Toni Melaas)—whom I thought of, tellingly, as Giselle’s domineering matriarch, Myrtha—scolds her teammate by bringing her a blue jacket to wear, reminding her where her loyalties should lie. Near the conclusion of the piece, this scene is repeated, now complicated by the fact that “Myrtha” has had some kind of tryst with a red-orange girl. This time, the dissenting blue-green girl refuses the jacket and returns to her red-orange friend. It’s a story, a real story. And it’s memorable.
I understand that Casel may dislike literalism, may fear Broadway-style mawkishness (hello, West Side Story). But I’m disappointed that that type of fear could be hampering what I think is a naturally theatrical mind. Casel works best when he’s telling stories. I wish somebody would tell him that’s not always a bad thing.
Margaret Fuhrer is a dancer, choreographer, and graduate student in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University.