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Salsa rhythms in Stravinsky’s score

There’s little warmth created from the lighting’s infrared glow, the plush red rug in the center of the dance floor—or the comfy hugs Emanuel Gat and Roy Assaf give the three women—Avital Mano, Doron Raz, and Alexandra Shmurak—at LaGuardia Concert Hall, seen July 12. The asymmetrical cast of Gat’s “The Rite of Spring” sets up a foreboding sense that something will happen. Gat gets full mileage from the uneven number of his small cast who engage in a cyclical struggle for renewal.

In their mild salsa dance the two men move among the women to service them all. Their arms create a calming wave pattern; but the odd woman is left standing with her back to us, or turning by herself with her arms encircling an imaginary partner. Their faces are joyless and the rough edges of their moves convey tension that escalates into passive aggression as the men pull the women across the stage in a tango that only tires rather than exhilarates.

The red rug is a safe haven where the dance finds structure. Outside of it the lighting is chancy and the dancers reel concurrently in energetic solos, and as the music pounds, the movement gains gale force. The five then stand in a very close circle, and some hope of a plan emerges from this meeting. But the women rebel; the trio stands facing us on the rug, flailing their arms, torsos, and long hair.

In Gat’s dance to Igor Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps,” and in the Nijinsky classic and the music’s many subsequent interpretations, women’s lot is not a happy one. They wear simple calf-length, restrictively slim black dresses, each a bit different. Shmurak emerges as the ugly duckling with the most modest neckline and her hair pulled back. Finally left standing and facing upstage she pins up her hair and goes to lie down with the rest of the cast who are in formation, their slightly raised rumps creating an undulating wave pattern even as they lie still. But they scamper away and she’s left alone.

Lowering herself back, looking pained and spent, she lies on the diagonal with her head toward us and her legs slightly spread as if preparing to give birth. The rite complete, one can anticipate spring, but what would that entail, and what kind of environment will support the new life?

The ambivalence in Gat’s “Rite” puzzles. Sharp and soft coexist, sensuality is reticent, and the energy ends in stalemate, or stillbirth. But it is deliberate and intelligible. One can feel the relaxed release when the standing Gat bends and drops down slowly to touch the floor. He flips on the rug in a brief solo. His paucity is elegant and we wish for more but we’re given just enough.

The program begins with a gorgeous duet for the two men called “Winter Voyage” to three Schubert songs from “Winterreise” and long silences. The men wear long steel gray frocks with slit sides and darker trousers underneath. In this monastery garb they relate as brothers dancing in unison, or standing very close, side by side with shoulders touching, or facing one another with their noses nearly touching. They share moments of prayer or flight as when Assaf watches Gat propel himself with windmilling arms and leap to extraordinary heights.

In “Rite’s” red disco light or “Winter’s” austerity, the dancers travel like nomads, never staying in one place for long. In a men’s duet in “Rite” they are like large birds of prey in a space-eating chase. The tango of Shmurak and Assaf moves horizontally near the footlights, pulling us in to Gat’s unique and compelling vision.

Kudos to the Lincoln Center Festival for seeing to it that New Yorkers have good reason to stay home this summer—to see the most raved about new companies and works.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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