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Entitle a work “Not About [Insert Subject] Dance” is pointed rhetoric. Denial suggests a double taboo: the subject of which the work do...


Entitle a work “Not About [Insert Subject] Dance” is pointed rhetoric. Denial suggests a double taboo: the subject of which the work does not speak (but really relates) and the idea, shunned in certain dance circles, that a dance could “concern” about something.

It was true of Neil Greenberg’s 1994 work “Not-About-AIDS-Dance”, and that’s true of Gerald Casel’s recent “Not About Race Dance,” which premiered in the middle of three weeks The MaMa moves! dance festival. I saw three of the seven programs presented in the festival (it runs until May 5), and in each the tension between the subject and the abstraction of dance was at issue.

Tension was prominent in the work of Casel, who was born in the Philippines. “Not About Race Dance” begins with him dancing in front of projected text, a technique borrowed from Greenberg’s play. “I am a brown body dancing in a big white cube,” says part of the text. The rest identifies Casel’s movement strategies as derived from those of choreographer Trisha Brown, a line to which he has particular claim, having spent many years in the company of his disciple Stephen Petronio.

But what he raises is how a brown body in the white cube of postmodern dance could be seen differently from a white body, how to make a work that is “race-neutral” is a privilege that has been denied to him. . From a portable speaker, we hear TLC chanting, “Don’t chase the waterfalls, please stick to the rivers and lakes you’re used to.”

This work is certainly about dancers of color (Casel is joined by Styles Alexander, Audrey Johnson, Karla Quintero and Cauveri Suresh) creating space for themselves and seeing themselves. A comedic episode poking fun at the uprooting rigidity of college dance curricula crumbles into a limbo from which the five dancers escape by offering each other affirmations (“good job,” “I saw your spirit”). They look at each other fondly, on and off screen, shouting punk lyrics in unison and talking about pain and love.

Much of the choreography involves walking and pivoting, two steps forward, two steps back. Sometimes, as I watched the dancers noodle somewhat aimlessly to the ambient sounds, I wondered why the white space of postmodernism was desirable to anyone. The work ends, in beauty, on a note of ambiguity: Johnson and Quintero crawling to the sound of a surf report.

Later in the festival, Colombian troupe Compañía Cuerpo de Indias performed “Flowers for Kazuo Ohno (and Leonard Cohen)”. Álvaro Restrepo, the group’s affable director, explained the title in a lengthy pre-show talk about his dance journey (including his first work, performed at La MaMa in the 1980s). In 2008, while Compañía Cuerpo was performing in Tokyo, Ohno – one of the founders of Butoh, the dark form of Japanese dance theater – sent flowers backstage. The show is a reciprocal tribute to Ohno, died in 2010and to Cohen, who died in 2016 (and also to poet Federico García Lorca, an influence on both).

That didn’t explain the strangeness of the mash-up. The music is all Cohen, mostly from the later deep-voiced period, some of it revamped versions by the likes of nina simone and Anohni. The dance — choreographed by Restrepo, Ricardo Bustamante and Marie France Delieuvin — is not Butoh, but borrows from Ohno’s predilection for cross-dressing and feminine elegance. The conglomerate style is disconcerting: masked dancers, skeleton puppets and Lorca’s shouted poetry meet tearful acrobatics you might find on “So You Think You Can Dance?”

The serial structure – one slow Cohen track after another – runs for 90 minutes, though a recurring figure of a man carrying a Buddha’s head and a skirted Japanese fan provides something of a thread. Traversing a reverential and funereal tone, bursts of beauty (waltz patterns, red skirts floating on the ground) and surprising revelations of a sensibility that connects the company to the artists it honors. Cohen posthumously released song “Puppets” (which begins with “German puppets burned the Jews”) seems made for this Colombian troupe channeling a founder of Butô.

“Confianza (Trust)”, conceived by choreographer Valeria Solomonoff for her Valetango Company, is also self-explanatory. Solomonoff and her 10-year-old daughter, empowered Alondra Meek, talk in Spanish and English about the difficulty of trusting others. Trust is built into the interactions of weight sharing, driving and following the tango, the foundation of the company’s technique.

The show explores the theme in a kind of narrative. On a thoroughly eclectic lineup of tracks (which includes not only tango but Barbatuques and Ali Farka Touré), Solomonoff meets Rodney Hamilton and Orlando Reyes Ibarra, who both choreographed the piece with her. Things don’t go well with Ibarra (he pushes her to the ground), she finds a balance with Hamilton (they take turns covering their eyes), she knocks Ibarra down, the three dance together, and Solomonoff ends up alone. Meek is present throughout, as if to represent Solomonoff’s vulnerable inner child.

Confidence and tango go hand in hand, along with the emotional dangers of romance, but here the dance language often seems shackled by storytelling. The possibilities of three-way tango, for starters, remain woefully underdeveloped.

These three works have not always found the balance between subject and form, direct and implicit meaning. But they all seemed at home at La MaMa, not a white cube but an institution that has always invited artists to experiment.

The MaMa moves! dance festival

Until May 5 at La MaMa; Manhattan; 646-430-5374, lamama.org.

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