Driven by inner demons that are not always his, Seán Curran danced his “St. Petersburg Waltz” at the Joyce Theater June 7-12.
Curran created it for Meredith Monk’s recent 40th birthday celebration to her song of the same title. Honoring Monk’s Russian grandfather, Curran wears a bowler hat and short wide striped tie, vest, trousers and crisp white shirt. The polished solo was the highlight of Seán Curran Company’s Joyce June 12 matinee.
The “Waltz” features Curran’s signature style, a fusion of folk, modern, ballet and social dance, and culminates in a crescendo of mime. His hands clasp at his back and he breaks the shackles as he whips around. He falls several times but gets up and spins with his arms curved out to the sides and palms out; his quaint shape has centrifugal force. Curran covers his eyes and puts a finger to his lips. He gestures surrender and pointing out above his ears, he’s momentarily bullish or devilish.
One imagines that private memories or anguish over war and suffering impel Curran’s vigorously waving palms. In the end, he dovens in prayer. A valedictory sign of peace accompanies his bow.
Curran’s torso curls side to side as he ambulates on what can be pictured as a St. Petersburg square. His dress brings forth the early 20th century and his manner suggests Diaghilev, the intellectual dance impresario and founder of the Ballet Russes. Curran, in invoking Diaghilev, harks back to a time when art and politics were partners. “St. Petersburg Waltz” is Curran’s cogent, if obtuse expression of our political climate.
“Art/Song/Dance,” a series of pieces, also has an old-fashioned aura that places it in the tradition of dance hall ballets. The spirits of Ann Miller and a barefoot Gene Kelly are recalled in this string of vignettes. Original songs by Ricky Ian Gordon feature lyrics from the likes of Langston Hughes and Edna St. Vincent Millay. A quartet of Broadway singers perform in intimate dialogue with the dancers and Scott Murphee bolts onto the stage to repeat the line “On any given day the human race is in tears.”
In “Open All Night” Amy Brous dances as a depressed alcoholic whose sad story is summed up in the line “I wish I was dead.”
In “Runaway,” a more upbeat jazz/blues creation of Gordon’s, Diane Sutherland sings, “Someone just ran away with my heart.” The excellent cast of nine run around, reveling in dance through a dire situation.
With cathartic energy, four males circle with high leaps, toes pointed down as in Irish step dance. Nora Brickman and Annie Boyer kiss. Tony Gugglieti is “a windy tower” dancing of perilous love. He and Seth Williams dance an angry lover’s quarrel and the heel of Gugglieti’s hand slices into the crux of his elbow in a final unspoken “fuck you!” The two then circle in conciliation.
A row of upstage footlights and polka-dot dresses set the stage for this postmodern lindy hop. Curran’s old-fashioned music, dance and costumes look to the comfortable past, idealized with distance, but the expressivity of “Art/Song/ Dance” saves it from mere nostalgia. The demographics, with several same-sex partners, are those of our new century.
In “Sonata (We Are What We Were),” arms move stiffly but propel. A chain of dancers coils into a rosette shape. It’s a country lawn dance with many miniature chairs set around the stage. Czech composer Leos Janecek, inspired by Moravian folk music, is fitting accompaniment for Curran’s folk-style steps. With the chairs, he plays with spectator/performer roles.
The gentle irony is even more apparent in the dress-up duet “Companion Dances,” to the music of Young Marble Giants, Radiohead, Solex and Jesse Manno. Founding company member Heather Waldon-Arnold and Seth Williams pose on Moderne chairs, clasp hands and stare together out at the audience. The moment is ripe with possibilities, although Williams does not yet approach Curran’s power as a performer.