Review: Dancing Bodies That Contain Multitudes

Can choreographers — or anyone, really — ever make something entirely new? Entirely their own? With her series “I Am Also,” the dancer and choreographer Molly Poerstel reminds us that every artist is a constellation of influences, a messy composite of other people and past experiences. In dance, that entanglement is especially intimate, deeply rooted in the body. As Poerstel writes of her latest work, “I Am Also – Monte,” referring to the many choreographers with whom she has danced: “Their work exists within my body, therefore, this work is an extension of their minds and bodies.”

The series considers how a dancer’s past seeps into the present and, inevitably, into the work of collaborators. When a choreographer, say, makes a solo for a dancer, what they create together could be seen as their respective histories, multiplied. Through this lens, what might seem like a simple form — the solo — grows exponentially more complex.

Whose work is it? Where does the choreographer end and the dancer begin? How do their identities and interpersonal connection — in the case of “Monte,” as a white woman and a Black man (Monte Jones) who have been friends for 25 years — further complicate this relationship?

Credit…Maria Baranova

These questions came to mind as I watched “Monte” in its premiere on Wednesday at Abrons Arts Center. The roughly 45-minute show stars the riveting and candid Jones, an improviser and house dancer who met Poerstel when they were fellow dance majors in college. Over the past 20 years, Poerstel has worked with choreographers including Jeanine Durning, Juliana F. May and RoseAnne Spradlin; Jones has danced with Ronald K. Brown, Ana King and Marlies Yearby, among others. The program notes acknowledge these influences and their presence in the work. (Jones and Poerstel are credited with choreography, Poerstel with concept and direction.)

Seated on the basement theater’s sunken stage, the audience faces a low balcony and the stairs that frame it. Jones rushes in, running down one set of stairs, to a pulsing score that includes samples from James Blake’s looping, hypnotic “I Mind.” What feels like stream-of-consciousness movement flows from his lanky frame: liquid house footwork; notes of Latin social dance; the churning arms and undulating torso familiar from Brown’s repertory. As the piece progresses, Jones dons a mask and voluminous red cape and strides in circles around the two-tiered stage: up one staircase, across the balcony, down the other side. With both off-the-cuff ease and live-wire tenacity, he draws us into his orbit.

At one point Poerstel joins for a fleeting duet, crawling across the floor in an agitated, headbanging sequence. In a tender lull, she and Jones lie still, heads touching, before she swiftly disappears. Her presence is more evident in the work’s overall construction. Like many of the artists with whom she has danced, she makes intriguing, sometimes jarring use of both repetition and non sequiturs. Here, cyclical structures and sudden shifts of light or sound capture the persistence and fallibility of memory, the way it endures yet morphs.

“Monte” does not resolve the questions of authorship it raises; nor, I think, does it intend to. Instead, it leans into the porousness of the relationship between choreographer and dancer, between collaborators, between friends. In the end, as Jones shares fragmented stories from his life, he also expands that notion outward: We are the people we have known, even those who physically are no longer here. They, too, are present in the dance.

I Am Also Monte

Through Saturday at Abrons Arts Center, Manhattan;

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