Winter Variations
Emanuel Gat Dance
Reynolds Industries Theater
American Dance Festival
June 22-24

If a dance maker has no idea what his work is about, his audience is likely to experience similar difficulties. This is but one of the cautionary lessons from Winter Variations, choreographer Emanuel Gat’s duet for himself and dancer Roy Assaf, in a world premiere that bowed last week at the American Dance Festival.

For better and worse, most of the Variations‘ 45 minutes gave the impression of looking into a choreographer’s sketchbook. Assaf and Gat, both riveting performers, paged through a series of individual gestures and moves, some of them momentarily intriguing but none of them building into anything more.

Until, that is, a 5-to-10-minute section in the middle wherein one dancer used his hands to quickly, perhaps desperately, define as much of the immediate space around his partner as possible. Gat’s hands swiftly scanned over every square inch of Assaf’s head, shoulders, arms and torso as his partner kneeled beside him on the floor, before reciprocating the scan. Where the preceding gestures had conveyed little or no meaning, the diverted looks and eye contact, the touch (and, even more, the almost-touch) of this sequence communicated the intimacy Gat indicated as his true interest in a preseason press release.

For a culture so allegedly politically correct as ours, we often still don’t seem to know what to do with depictions of intimacy between men. When it’s no longer seen as a shock, a revolutionary act on the stage, we will have crossed a great divide as a people. As it stands, the immediate assumption we tend to make is that eroticism is presenta quality that seemed entirely absent from the passage I saw.

It seemed that two men were sincerely trying to approach one another, to gauge, to measure the distance between themselves. It also seemed that, no matter what extension of arm, head, leg or torso they used (including the bent knees they walked on in two parts), they were never able to truly span that distance. Thus, the existentialand decidedly non-eroticdilemma: two people alone together, a relationship forever caught in one of Zeno’s paradoxes.

It was an excellent sequence. Unfortunately, the moves that came before and after it largely seemed an indulgenceparticularly a closing set of moves by both dancers that suggested dying fish flopping about on the deck of a boat. Then an after-show talkback revealed the choreographer’s hand. “I have no idea what the work is about,” Gat proclaimed. “My only concern is to create a mechanism with a kind of formalistic logic.” The choreographer displayed a seemingly unshakable faith in his artistic processbut one that, unfortunately, the work we saw may not have entirely supported.

There’s certainly a rich tradition of non-narrative dance. In the work of Merce Cunningham, for example, even without the convention of story arc, we very rarely doubt that his dancers are truly getting somewhere. The same assurances are largely missing in Gat’s work.

Lacking any other meaning, Gat’s new work at this stage mainly points to the importance of saying what you have to say in a work and then getting off the stage as quickly as possible. While the majority of Winter Variations contradicts the Balanchine premise that two people onstage automatically imply a story, it reinforces Doris Humphrey’s still-relevant adage: “All dances are too long.”

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