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Great dancers with great style, but few new ideas

Jazz artist Ornette Coleman recently observed that today’s music is more about style than idea. I thought of this distinction between “style” (defined, fixed, commodified even) and “idea” (remaining open to influence, change, and growth) as I watched LUNA, an evening of dance by Max Luna III. This program, part of the 14th season of The Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America, was presented at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University.

Best known for his years as an Alvin Ailey dancer, the Philippine-born Luna has been marked by the Ailey taste for sensual glamour, ornate and effusive partnering, and mass choral movement. His dancers look great and perform with high technical polish, reproducing his designs with the required energy and focus. Now and again we’re treated to the sight of Roberta Sorrenti and Jason Jordan who, aside from A+ attractiveness, bring to their stage work a little something extra that looks suspiciously like a lived-in life–authentic and juicy. But for the most part, Luna’s choreography seems stuck in a once-entertaining style that no longer has much going on beneath its surface.

We see this in “American Rhapsody”—four duets set to Gershwin songs that could be readily donned by the Ailey troupe like a trunk of one-size-fits-all rain slickers. There are the requisite swirly arms, rippling torsos, sudden drops and recoveries, dizzying turns and turning lifts, and exquisitely pliable women swooning or pulling away from their stabilizing, sturdy hunks—all in all, a half-doodled, half-sculpted architecture of body and space taking into account nothing of the individual, his or her actual moment in time, or the possibility of meaning. Only luscious Sorrenti (paired with Werner Figar in “How Long Has This Been Going On?”) and frisky, incandescent Jordan (partnering a clearly delighted Mica Bernas in “Embraceable You”) rise above the stylistic conventions on display. “Cold Song”—a dramatic, mournful tribute to Ailey set to a song by Klaus Nomi—is also familiar fare in its coiled and sprung expression of grief, although powerfully inhabited by Jordan.

The world premiere—“Mga Awit (A Love Song Cycle for Voice, Cello, & Piano)” with live music composed by Michael Dadap with lyrics by Nelson Navarro—is dedicated to Luna’s partner. It traces the many seasons of love from first blush to first loss, from rediscovery to renewal. One early segment for the full male contingent shows duos deftly, continuously shifting partners, where ensemble movement patterns are so perfectly and impersonally uniform—a dispiriting Luna tendency—that it never matters who’s dancing with whom. This passage has got to be one of the subtlest depictions of amorous gay behavior I’ve ever seen in dance, if intended as such.

Luna couldn’t seem to figure out how to make women look interesting in “Mga Awit.” The mixed-sex passages are diminished by choreographic sameness, failure of imagination, and disconnection. Here the uniformity of movement cries out to be broken open and seriously messed with. We need a dance maker who can crush the spice of connection and release its fragrance. Bernas was such a cipher in the “Dapithapon (Dusk)” duet with Jordan that I did not recognize her, and Jordan also seemed at a loss. All that chemistry and sweetness on display in “Embraceable You” had long since evaporated.

The two-hour program also included “The Hurt We Embrace”—a duet featuring Sorrenti and Joseph Watson II that made me long for a Sorrenti/Jordan partnership. The “Tinig Ng Lupa (Sounds of the Earth)” ensemble piece—inspired by the mountain-dwelling Igorot tribe of the Philippines—was best noted for the live, wondrous, and thunderous performance of its final section by musicians William Cantanzaro, Michael Mustafa Ulmer, and Shane Shanahan.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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