Review: Gibney Mines a Too-Familiar Contemporary Dance Mode

A performance by Gibney Company begs a question: What about this reinvented company does the dance world need? In 2023, what does it nourish? I’m still not sure.

Created as a contemporary repertory company — along the lines of Nederlands Dans Theater or Ballet BC in Canada— Gibney gravitates toward work in which emotions are fraught and the bodies containing them, while malleable, are nearly indistinguishable as they slither from one state to the next.

In the company’s return on Wednesday to the Joyce Theater in Manhattan, part of the problem had to do with the sleepy lighting. More than watching dancers, it often felt like watching silhouettes of dancers in an all-too-common contemporary dance combination of dated and distraught.

The program started in darkness, but it ended in light. Gibney Dance, led by its founder and artistic director, Gina Gibney, along with company and rehearsal director, Gilbert T Small II, offered three works, including a commission that was decidedly in the twilight camp. In the new dance, “Ghost Town,” by Tiffany Tregarthen and David Raymond, who direct the Vancouver-based Out Innerspace Dance Theater, there may have been 13 dancers onstage, but with such moody lighting by James Proudfoot, there could have been 30. Or three? They were hard to pin down.

The premiere, Tregarthen and Raymond’s United States debut, began with the dancers slowly emerging from an obscured pocket of the stage in something of a wedge formation — similar clusters cropped up again and again during the evening — and shifting from side to side. With their legs bent in deep pliés, they swayed with a rhythmic intensity; at one point, with lowered heads, they twisted their torsos loosely while pulling sharp elbows back. There was a ritualistic side to their uniformity, which bubbled up and dissipated throughout the work — storms of movement that suddenly turned still and ghostly quiet.

The dance, which included the title’s song performed by Eddie Miller and His Band — hearing the growl of “Mmm” before the half-whispered “Ghost Town” was at once jarring and silly — did conjure an apocalyptic sensation. A line in the program, “acts of self-preservation in extreme climates,” hinted at the threats to the world, as the lighting, which cut geometric shapes onto the stage, created the effect of cavelike chambers seemingly trapping dancers behind dusty glass. It had the cover-art look of “The Dark Side of the Moon.”

But even as the work morphed into something like a dance party — the cast bounced together, rolling their arms and shaking their hands — “Ghost Town” landed as more of a light installation with dancers inside of it than as a dance. Choreographically, it droned on.

The program also included two works with ties to the Nederlands Dans Theater universe: “Sara,” originally created for NDT 2 by Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar, and “Bliss” by the former Nederlands company member and choreographer Johan Inger.

The moody “Sara,” set to music by Ori Lichtik, stripped the dancers’ identities through costuming. Seven performers wear sleek black unitards; six are in one clump and a single dancer, Miriam Gittens, stands apart. Stillness gives way to bodily quirks — hands anchor onto the ribs for a deep breaths or are held out like paws — which increasingly build in intensity to full-body writhing. In this mannered view of bodies under pressure, Gittens mouths a lyric from “From Off To On,” performed by the Knife: “We want control of our bodies.”

But do they really? “Sara” reads more as an attempt to be weird rather than as something truly odd. It was originally created in 2013, and its age shows, along with its familiar look — it is derivative of works by Batsheva Dance Company, where Eyal danced for many years. “Bliss,” an ensemble work, takes a different course, proposing a sunny reaction to a section from Keith Jarrett’s “Köln Concert” (1975).

As for Inger’s dance? It never measures up to the sweeping virtuosity of the music. The cast, dressed as if attending a high-school dance in an unnamed, friendlier era, pair off in duets, shifting partners with the quick grab of a hand. Dancers walk, they run; a cartwheel turns into a roll.

Eleni Loving stands in a wide plié softly rolling her hips when Eddieomar Gonzalez-Castillo seizes his opportunity and slips underneath her legs, assuming her position to a moan from Jarrett, whose trance-like utterances are audible throughout “Bliss.” While Jarrett hits the piano keys with power and urgency, the Gibney cast responds with a light touch, as if the notes were as soft as gauze.

Predictably, they came together in the end, swooping across the stage in low kicks that turned feverish until one dancer was left standing alone. After realizing his plight, he shrugged and ran off, too. Certainly the title was ambitious, but “Bliss” had a missing ingredient: euphoria.

Gibney Company

Through Sunday at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan; joyce.org.

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