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Big Ideas

Jacqulyn Buglisi is not one to shy away from big ideas. For the thirtieth season of the company founded by four of the last generation to have worked directly with Martha Graham, Buglisi takes on human rights, world peace, forbidden love, and climate crisis in a program of seven works, including three premieres. There’s much to respect in the female-centric work and age-positive artists that Buglisi Dance Theatre presented at Ailey’s Joan Weill Center for Dance. It’s also a lot for a two-hour show.

Performance

Buglisi Dance Theatre

Place

Ailey Citigroup Theater, Joan Weill Center for Dance, New York, NY, June 14, 2023

Words

Karen Hildebrand

Terese Capucilli, Christine Dakin, Daniel Bernard Roumain (violin) and dancers of Buglisi Dance Theatre in “Illuminations.” Photograph by Kristin Lodoen

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Opening the evening was an excerpt from “Requiem” (2001), a dance for five women including former Graham stars (and fellow Buglisi founders) Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin. The dancers perch on cubes, wearing dresses with extremely long trains. When they rotate, the fabric twists around the cubes, rendering the women as classical statues of goddesses. The chance to see Capucilli and Dakin perform is what brought me to this show. Principal dancers with Martha Graham beginning in 1979 and 1976 respectively, the two led the Graham company through several tumultuous years following the choreographer’s death. They wear the Graham vocabulary like a second skin.

I was most taken by two of Buglisi’s older works, a solo and a duet. “Speak Memory” (1996) opens with the unforgettable image of an ethereal Capucilli reclining in a white gown, long hair hanging down, as if she’s floating midair. “Sospiri” (1989) is a romantic tragedy featuring a series of muscular lifts, danced beautifully the night I attended by Virginie Mécène and Kevin Predmore.

Terese Capucilli in Buglisi Dance Theatre's “Requiem.” Photograph by Lisa Meloni Ragusa.

Long steeped in Graham technique as both performer and educator, Buglisi as choreographer is best known for “Table of Silence,” the quietly moving 9/11 community remembrance that she created in 2011. It is performed annually outdoors at New York’s Lincoln Center. The premiere “Illuminations” brings a similar ritual indoors on a smaller scale, which feels a bit contained. The work includes poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s spoken word, recited by Capucilli and Dakin, and composer Daniel Bernard Roumain’s commissioned score, which he performs. 

In a departure from the otherwise all-Buglisi program, each of the five sections of the premiere “The Threads Project” is credited to a different choreographer: Jesse Obremski, Jennifer Archibald, Buglisi, PeiJu Chien-Pott, or Blakeley White-McGuire and Daniel Fetecua. White-McGlure and Fetecua’s quartet “Two Couples,” danced by the choreographers and Greta Campo and Zachary Jeppsen, is striking. At one point, both women balance atop the prone men, their feet resting on the men’s foreheads. There is also a moment when the women kneel on the men’s backs as they crawl across the floor. The clamshell shape that the golden skirts take as the women spiraled to the floor lingers. 

Photo Kristin Lodoen Esteban Santamaria and Gabrielle Willis in Buglisi Dance Theatre's “Threads Project.”

An evening of Graham technique is inherently full of drama. It’s built into the vocabulary: the dichotomy of the contraction and release, the gravitational pull that grounds the movement, the strength emanating from the center. By intermission, I was hobbled by viewer’s fatigue. The details of each piece became less defined. The loveliness of the chiffon gowns started to fade. 

The premiere “Suns and Future Imaginings,” inspired by the poetry of Ada Limón and Marie Howe, features an intriguing sextet near the end, in which the performers dance as if among ghosts. The finale, “Moss Anthology: Variation #5” (2019), relies heavily on projected images to convey its topic of global climate crisis—roots, mossy rocks, the cracked clay of drought. I’d like to revisit both these works with a fresh eye. But ultimately my take on the choreography may be moot. What stands out is the Graham legacy embodied by this company. To put several generations at work together enables the dancers to pass the memory of Martha Graham from one body to another, the way dancers have always done.

Karen Hildebrand


Karen Hildebrand is former editorial director for Dance Magazine and served as editor in chief for Dance Teacher for a decade. An advocate for dance education, she was honored with the Dance Teacher Award in 2020. She follows in the tradition of dance writers who are also poets (Edwin Denby, Jack Anderson), with poetry published in many literary journals and in her book, Crossing Pleasure Avenue (Indolent Books). She holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Originally from Colorado, she lives in Brooklyn.

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