We enter off the commercial retail strip of Broadway into a whimsical garden of cardboard cut-outs painted in shades of neon pink, orange, and green by the artist Mimi Gross. The gleaming wood floor of the fully functional dance studio is now bordered with flowering hedges, mirrored wall draped in leafy boughs, the glass itself painted as an enchanted forest. It all seems to quiver under the glow-in-the-dark lighting design of Lauren Parrish. As if a salve for a troubled and contentious world, Douglas Dunn has turned his SoHo loft into a lush “Garden Party,” filled with poetry and music devoted to love. His take on the matter is delivered with a wit so droll, we’re not sure whether the sentiment is genuine or parody. Perhaps at 80, Dunn has the perspective necessary to give us a little of both. With a history rooted in the 1970s spontaneous experiments of Grand Union along with the precision and control of Cunningham technique, his artistic breadth is considerable.
Gross, who has collaborated with Dunn since 1979, has also designed the costumes: barefoot dancers clad in geometric patterned leotards and a variety of spritely tutus, pantaloons, and other delightful Alice in Wonderland-type draping. Dunn himself, sequestered behind a flowered bush in the rear, stands for a solo to the opening poem while wearing a lime green pajama-like tunic and capris with leaves attached that dangle like fish lures. With gesturing arms and supple torso, he illustrates the 11th century Andalusian poet’s image of slicing open one’s heart to envelop that of another: “You’d be inside / no heart but mine.” His simple movement portrait is tender and lovely, but what are we to make of the comic figure he presents in that costume? It’s the first of many such contrasts in “Garden Party.”
An ensemble of eight, all accomplished choreographers and notable dance artists, delivers a masterful showing of the Cunningham technique that underpins Dunn’s “steps”: Alexandra Berger, Janet Charleston (who doubles as rehearsal director and company manager), Vanessa Knouse, Emily Pope, Paul Singh, Jin Ju Song-Begin, Timothy Ward, and Christopher Williams. They deftly move from complex one-legged balances to promenade in courtly pairs suggestive of Isadora Duncan, arms suspended in supple arcs. Grazia Della-Terza, Dunn’s spouse who began dancing with him in 1980, appears for several cameos as her recorded voice recites poems.
As evidence that “Garden Party” doesn’t take itself too seriously, Dunn’s choreography interprets the 19 featured poems/songs in a literal manner that borders on mime. It’s a choice that renders it all as light verse. When Emily Pope becomes the owl in a recitation of “The Owl and the Nightingale,” Dunn holds up a giant stuffed bird, ostensibly to stand in for the tiny birds noted in the poem as “slighting me with squeaks and squawks / & flying at me in their flocks.” It’s a wonderful cheeky response. In this and other sections, the dancers play it straight, their faces expressionless. But wait—is that the barest hint of an eyeroll from Williams?
The work becomes wonderfully more strange as the evening proceeds. One section continues to confound me several days after the show. While poet Anne Waldman recites a Cora Indian song about an eagle and the Moon Goddess, two couples enter—first Williams and Singh, then Knouse and Song-Begin—all wearing identical floor length white skirts with accordion pleats, the men sporting pastel capelets that bare their hairy chests. Each pair in turn pauses at an altar to slowly untie their skirts and stand, backs to audience, butt cheeks exposed. The couples each then make a ceremony of trading skirts before they re-dress. Was Dunn suggesting a different sort of moon goddess? No one laughed. Maybe we needed a tv sit-com laugh track.
Near the end, Dunn takes another solo for the John Lennon/Yoko Ono song, “Oh My Love,” followed by Bach’s St John Passion, and I begin to see him as a Puck-like character of mischievous influence. He flits along the perimeter and moves to and from the floor with an enviable mobility. The artist himself is yet another example of the contrasts in this work—his birdlike physicality so different from the grounded strength of the younger dancers beside him. His energy is magnetic. Dunn is clearly having one heck of a good time at this garden party of life and art.