Vertigo Dance Company: One. One & One
Baryshnikov Arts Center
March 5–6, 2019
Numerous makers and performers have explored the interplay between the arts and the natural world. Often, we see man-made intervention create an image or experience in the great outdoors: from Michael Heizer's enduring scar in the earth in Double Negative, to Long Island City's INSITU outdoor dance festival. But, in One. One & One, Israeli dance ensemble Vertigo Dance Company achieves the opposite, instead elevating the natural world by literally bringing it inside (à la Walter de Maria's The New York Earth Room).
So often, dance exists in fleeting moments: a grand stride or leap, a split-second balance on the toes, or a dramatic muscular release. Then, these moments pass, and the dance ends, leaving no trace of the previous spectacle. Vertigo, established in 1992 by Adi Sha'al and Noa Wertheim, handily solves this issue with its application of natural materials. Dirt not only ultimately covers the stage during the US premiere of One. One & One at Baryshnikov Arts Center, creating a visual record of the dancers' steps and skids, but also forms the ground of the company's eco-art village, located in Kibbutz Netiv HaLamed-Heh in Jerusalem. The village's land serves as both a vehicle for arts education and a durable artifact in their substantial body of work.
Watching the dancers swiftly toss buckets of soil around the stage, one automatically recalls Pina Bausch's similar device in The Rite of Spring. In each work, a tribe dances itself to the point of disarray. However, where Rite offered primal fire, One grants a more modern sensibility (including its costumes comprised of drab-toned buttoned shirts and trousers). In both cases, the spectator's fascination extends beyond the soil's role in the dance, and into its delivery onto the stage: by a diligent set of BAM stagehands for the 2017 revival of Rite, and by the performers themselves in One. Audience members sit rapt at this blasphemous act of bringing the outdoors indoors and unapologetically smearing it across tidy man-made surfaces. In One. One & One, the nine dancers ultimately end up covered in dirt, marking their skin and costumes, as they perform alongside a sound score created by composer Avi Belleli.
Otherwise, the stage design is minimal, framed by long benches on each side, where dancers sometimes remove themselves from the choreography to sit and watch. A spot-lit solo draws our attention at the top of the show; the dancer performs deep, languid spinal articulations. Then our attention shifts as another dancer drops the first line of soil across the front of the stage, dividing the performance space from the audience.
Artistic director Wertheim's choreography reads as exaggerated versions of pedestrian movements. A walking phrase is elevated and rendered sultry with swiveling hips and heels, and hands cupped in front of the torso. High shapes are stretched very high, and the lows are very low, sometimes careening recklessly into the stage. (By the end of the evening, dirt hangs in the air, hazy in the stage lights.) The troupe's pacing is alternately slow, melting into negative space around each other's bodies, and fast, defying gravity with vaults off one arm in capoeira-esque kicks. The placement of the bodies reflects organic movement borne of contact improvisation and attention to breath, eschewing overly torqued turnouts or stiff arm positions. In the dancers' waves of movement, the upper body may arrive before or after the lower body, or go on a separate rippling journey altogether.
The Vertigo dancers execute movement like a well-organized mission, with confidence and commitment. As one soloist stumbles down the stage's diagonal, her colleagues plait her hair, swooping under and over each other to manipulate their taut sections of the braid. Several lifts require a running start and significant airtime, and go off with nary a hitch. One dancer lifts and spins another in circles, body outstretched, toes touching down only occasionally to draw circles in the dirt. The ensemble repeatedly slaps themselves across the torso, in an odd gesture that later transforms into high-velocity body rolls.
The majority of One. One & One's 60-plus minutes are divided into solos and small group ensembles. Toward the end of the performance, movement gathers speed and music gains volume. Just when it begins to feel hectic, a level of unison emerges, seeming to indicate a finale. Then, another female soloist travels around the stage, periodically repositioned by her colleagues, who ultimately tackle her to the ground and carry her to the edge of the stage. This would have made for a satisfying close to the work. Instead, more virtuosic solos and breathy group movement follow: the dancers' energy focuses skyward as if basking in sunshine, creating a less visually powerful conclusion but more generous runtime.
One. One & One contains a number of contrasting qualities: fast and slow, flying and falling to earth, autonomous and inflicted movement. The work's rich choreography and confident delivery feels appropriate, especially given that it was created in celebration of the company's 25th anniversary. (Over the past decades, Vertigo has maintained a steady stream of new works, and a rigorous international touring schedule, though One marks their first main-stage performance in New York City since 2011.) But perhaps One. One & One's most interesting facet is the translation of a natural substance, "dull as dirt" in its usual habitat, into a clean slate on which to inscribe a dance.