Jennifer Muller/The Works at The Joyce Theater

Jennifer Muller/The Works in Bench, photo by Ben Hider

If given the option to see a satisfying, sophisticated dance performance or a mediocre one that leaves much to be desired, the choice seems obvious.  But once in a while, a weak evening of dance has its benefits, for it serves as a reminder of the range in choreographic and artistic quality.  On Wednesday evening, a performance by Jennifer Muller/The Works was beneficial in this way; as an audience member leaving the Joyce Theater smartly commented, “You don’t know what’s good until you see what’s bad”.  The disappointing program included a hodge-podge mix of themes and styles, with monotonous movement and frustratingly superficial interactions among the dancers.

The most interesting piece on the program also happened to be the oldest.  Tub, which premiered in 1973, is a meditation on the emotional significance of water and cleansing.  A woman soaks in a tub of water before rising and flinging her head back, causing a stream of water to shoot across the stage.  Several other women and men join her, each taking turns soaking their heads or limbs in the tub while moving rhythmically to Burt Alcantara’s blend of electronics, chanting, and the sound of waves on a shore.  The spiritual mood is offset by a lone dancer, Duane Gosa, in flippers.  He maintains a deadpan expression and matter-of-fact attitude as he extends his long legs and maneuvers his way around the others, who seem desperate for renewal as they look for symbolism in water.

Gen Hashimoto and Mariana Cardenas in Bench, photo by Ben Hider

The few moments of nuance and intrigue in Tub are unfortunately absent from Bench, a world premiere inspired by Al Gore’s book and documentary An Inconvenient TruthBench is an uninspiring, insincere attempt at conveying the earth’s destruction through careless human behavior.  Poor-quality photographs of the earth are projected on a screen behind twelve dancers in white who engage in theatrical, sexually charged movement that, according to the program, is loosely based on the seven deadly sins.  Yet, there are hardly any distinctions between “lush earth”, “abused earth”, and “violent earth”, among others, creating a blur of formations and encounters that depict quarrels, jealousies, violence, conflicting desires, and power struggles.   The dancers certainly prove they know how to kick their legs and stare down an enemy, but the messy tangling of bodies and dramatic expressions is, well, just messy.  Portraying the earth’s vulnerability through movement is no easy task, but there are many finer, more sensitive, and more sophisticated attempts than Muller’s.

Since Tub and Bench aim to address weighty topics, it came as no surprise that the program closed with the colorful, upbeat Momentum from 2005.  Set to the techno sounds of Yello, Momentum allows the dancers to showcase their favorite bravura moves and flash cheesy smiles as they frequently rush in and out of the wings.  It’s certainly a fun end to the program, but Momentum would look more in place on a reality dance show or a cruise ship.  Muller’s dancers are capable of so much more.

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