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The Human Machine
The Milwaukee Ballet's Genesis Competition

Dancers Nicole Teague and Timothy O’Donnell (photo by Erik Ljung)

I’m not sure who chooses the program order in the Milwaukee Ballet’s “Genesis Choreographic Competition,” but thank goodness the slate for this year’s concert ended with Gabrielle Lamb’s “Manifold.” A work of exquisite detail and beautiful sense of wonder, Lamb’s piece opened up the dark mood of the concert like a sunrise bursting through storm clouds.

I’m not suggesting that “Manifold” was leagues better the other two pieces on the program (though it has my vote for the winning entry), but it was markedly different in tone from both James Gregg’s “Biorhythm” and Lauren Edson’s “I Hit the Ground.”

Gregg’s “Biorhythm,” driven by the electronica of “sound artist” Mikhail Karikis, has all the trappings of ‘90s Euro-art-rock—heavy eye shadow on both sexes, black on black clothes and a good measure of saturated angst. Karikis’s music has inventive textures that don’t always articulate a clear pulse, and part of the piece’s fun is the juxtaposition of the music’s irregular rhythms with the dancers’ clipped, asymmetric phrases. There’s a bit of Kafkaesque anonymity when the eight dancers slip on raincoats, made dazzlingly colorful by Jason Fassl’s lighting. But the main problem with “Biorhythm” is its emotional flatness. Even as the gestural vocabulary changes, the nihilistic mood remains the same.

Edson’s “I Hit the Ground” was both enigmatic and engaging, though ultimately a dark vision as well. No goth trappings here, but instead a intentional coolness and emotional distance. There is glorious, almost mathematical ensemble work, pairs and trios emerging and shifting from the onstage ensemble. A feature for Harmon and David Hovhannisyan, their duets are sexy but remote, humanly and beautifully danced but seemingly the pantomime of damaged souls. Hovhannisyan has the most intense moments in the dance, throwing himself convulsively on the floor near the end of the duet. Despite her skill with ensembles, Edson doesn’t end with a big crowded finish—instead she bravely closes with a disturbing whisper—Valerie Harmon’s slinky solo to the Nancy Sinatra song, “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).”  Enough real life “Bang Bang” has happened in recent months that you could read “I Hit the Ground” as a mournful meditation on the tragedies of gun violence. But even without those associations, it’s a piece of rich, chilling beauty.

Coming after these two pieces, the warm lighting and serene, simple costumes (blue-grey and tans) of “Manifold” was a nice respite. I avoided reading Lamb’s program note until after the performance, so my mind wasn’t thinking about Spanish Surrealist paintings or the creative process as I watched the dancers move around the stage in Lamb’s detailed and fascinating vocabulary. Instead I saw a menagerie of sorts, a world-vision rendered in broad vistas and tiny details (the dance opens with Mengjum Chen standing center stage, one arm raised, twirling a single finger—“whoopee”). In some sections, it read like that old theater-class exercise, “The Machine,” in which people cluster into a clanky representation of a Rube Goldberg contraption. But there was nothing clanky here—it's an inspiring human machine, a little Dr. Seuss, a little Julie Taymor, a touch of Martha Clarke, and in retrospect, of course, quite surreal. Like the surrealists, Lamb is ceaselessly inventive—there were more interesting ideas crammed into this 20-minute dance to fill an entire evening. Wonderful in the best sense of the word, it offers a world—both real and surreal—that’s chock full of wonder and delight. 

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