Loni Landon
Loni Landon Dance Project in “Fast Love.” Photograph by Bill Herbert

The Conduct Of A Person

Performance
Tere O’Connor and Loni Landon: “NY Quadrille: Part 2”
Place
The Joyce Theater, New York, NY, September 27-October 9, 2016
Words
Erica Getto

In his 1881 guide Our Etiquette and Social Observances, writer Hudson K. Lyverthey aims to outline the “rules for the conduct of a person in all of his relations to society.” He uses drawing rooms, street corners, social dances, and even church as settings for this discussion. His booklet, he explains, is unique because it “is designed for both ladies and gentlemen; the advantages of this plan will be evident.”

“Introduce the inferior to the superior, as a lady to a gentleman,” he writes in one tip on social introductions. “If it is between two ladies or two gentlemen the elder is regarded the superior.” Here, he hints at a fundamental rule in this social world: women are inferior to men, and they must act accordingly, even on the dance floor. It can, therefore, be concluded that attendees at the era’s social dances used movement as a means of asserting gender identity—and, in turn, power. At “NY Quadrille,” choreographers Tere O’Connor and Loni Landon play with these conventions to dazzling and destabilizing effect.

Tere O’Connor presents two pieces in his take on a traditional quadrille. The first, “Undersweet,” features Michael Ingle and Silas Riener as a passionate, increasingly open pair. Their movement vocabulary is rousing but also, in the context of Lyverthey’s world, transgressive. In the second work, “Transcendental Daughter,” O’Connor strips his stage of sensuality and replaces it with a starker scene. His haunting, hollow display simply reinforces how important empathy and desire are to human connection.

“Undersweet” begins with a plucky tune from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s opera “Atys.” Lully, a master of baroque music, spent much of his career working for the court of France’s Louis XIV. That “Undersweet” starts with this track is significant: we first encounter the men in a more conservative, courtly setting. They face one another and step in sync. They even follow Lyverthey’s dictum: “Always bow to all your acquaintances whom you meet.” Soon, though, the dance devolves—or really builds—into a more intimate affair. As the score shifts to a slower tempo, the duo follows suit. They arch their backs, gyrate their hips, and navigate the stage as if they were wading through water. They are more fluid, flexible in their movements.

They are also, increasingly, at odds with Lyverthey’s rules for social engagement. “Never take your place upon the floor unless you are a thorough master of the step,” writes Lyverthey. “If it is a square dance a single person unfamiliar with the changes will interrupt the whole set and not only embarrass himself but spoil the pleasure of the others in the set.” Both men are, as performers, masterful. But in terms of their pas de deux, their movements imply a sense of uncertainty. They are “unfamiliar” with each other. And yet instead of relinquishing their “place on the floor,” they create a space that pleases them. They hold hands; Silas, his legs in a split, drapes himself over a prostrate Ingle; they embrace on their knees. In one exchange, Ingle lies near Riener and rolls in a circle; as he rotates, he never lets go of his partner’s ankles, his shins, his feet. Through slow caresses, they become comfortable with each other, not embarrassed.

Only when the courtly Lully track reemerges do the dancers reestablish a more formal movement vocabulary. And each time that they snap back into a regal sequence, their steps seem more exaggerated and unnatural. In one of these scenes, the two men stalk the perimeter of the stage and hold up their arms like they would hold a silver platter; they are stern and angular. In another moment, they hop and leap like squires. The moment that the score descends into silence or into a more fluid sequence—at times, the speakers seem to project the sounds of water flowing, splashing, and trickling—the men’s movements also morph. They alternately run, groan, and even hover over the stage floor and, on their knees, thrust their torsos.

It is this state of liberation—sexual, but also personal—that ultimately pervades the piece. Riener and Ingle show such care, such compassion towards each other; they also show, increasingly, a sense of physical consciousness and control. In this contemporary take on a partner dance, O’Connor presents rules for refinement as rules for repression. His two male dancers defy these strict protocols. And the connection that they ultimately craft is more passionate, more powerful, than that of any courtly couple.

O’Connor’s second piece “Transcendental Daughter” continues to explore the power of social and emotional bonds. In the case of this work, however, O’Connor explores these connections by way of omission: he strips his choreography of sensuality and, instead, emphasizes the shortfalls of formal structure. Eleanor Hullihan and Natalie Green join Riener on stage for this piece; kneeling, they form a tight triangle at the center of the stage. They rock their hips, then from side to side, then rise to their knees and feet. They move to the edges of the stage, still in a triangle. And it becomes clear that their movements will remain tempered, measured, and almost mechanical; the passion that undergirds O’Connor’s opening work is not repressed here so much as it is removed.

What motivates their movements? Still, perhaps, a sense of curiosity, but one that is detached, not desirous. In an emblematic exchange, Riener grabs one of the women’s legs and walks her around the stage. The dancers paw at the air and each other without inhibition, but also without compassion. In another moment, they twirl, flutter their outstretched arms, and let their limbs fall limp at their sides, like ragdolls. Again, they seem detached, non-committal. Even when they return to the center of the stage and, in a triangle, press their palms together and hook their heels, the display is not one of solidarity so much as structure.

Even when the trio eases into a more pedantic routine—they seem, at one point, to tip invisible hats and blow kisses against a track of honking cars—they are still unnatural. This is especially apparent towards the end of the work, when one of the dancers plays puppet master to her partners’ bodies. She stands near the edge of the platform closest to the audience rises. Her hands take, flick, and rise. She’s not only testifying but also manipulating; the other two dancers move only when she does.

Unlike the couple in “Undersweet,” this trio is not sensual so much as it is astral and cultish. O’Connor has deftly stripped thus choreography of its emotional instincts, of tenderness. His dancers are, it seems, only concerned with one another intermittently, and otherwise, they are fiercely independent, almost aloof. Even at the close of the piece, the dancers maintain a sort of disregard for their surroundings. They sashay repeatedly, and as the lights fade to black, we can hear their feet still moving. This distance that O’Connor has constructed among his performers is at odds with courtly tradition. In Lyverthey’s book, all parties must be attentive in a social interaction. If a gentleman is “impertinent,” he writes, then a lady “should pay him no attention whatever, and if he persists, he deserves a severe punishment.” What’s more, part of the pleasure and purpose of courtly interactions is to suss out a companion. How can a couple build connections when the ties that bind them are not emotional?

Loni Landon, who rounds out the “NY Quadrille,” toys with this concept in “Fast Love” and “Rebuilding Sandcastles,” which she debuted at the Joyce’s Working Women festival in 2013. In “Rebuilding Sandcastles,” her dancers are nimble alchemists. With a single glance, each performer has the power to turn another to stone. And with the slightest puff of air, the dancers can breathe life into each other. Throughout the work, the men and women on stage use this ability to shape one another’s movements; in the process, they push Lyverthey’s take on courtly power dynamics to their extreme.

At the top of the performance, a female dancer stands in a pool of light, her knees bent and her back arched. The matrix moment looks like a freeze frame, and even when a male dancer steps towards her, this stillness does not dissipate. He paces around her, then leans in; as he encroaches on her space, she bends even farther backwards. In another trick of sight, two dancers spin on their heads and, with their feet fixed to the stage, arch their backs. The dancers seem possessed throughout this balancing act, whether or not we see the hands that move them.

These dancers, unlike those in O’Connor’s “Transcendental Daughter,” seem to want to connect, even when they struggle to do so. When, for instance, one woman falls to the floor, lifeless, three other dancers move her limbs. She’s frozen; does she feel her companions’ touch? The dancers also vest the piece with a sense of solidarity when they move in sync or sequence. They wear socks and, under their fall-colored costumes, knee pads, and they periodically slide or shuffle as a group. And in a closing pas de deux, two dancers come into direct contact. They cup each other’s scalps, like two rams locking horns, as they canvass the floor.

“Gentlemen always rise when ladies enter or leave the room,” writes Lyverthey, “even if they are strangers.” Landon’s stage is like this room; her choreography, like a magnetic field. Some dancers are drawn to one another while others repel their partners. But all of the performers remain committed to making connections and reacting acutely to one another’s movements, even in moments that seem portentous.

In “Fast Love,” Landon again plays with the concept of partnership; here, however, her dancers’ connections are more fluid than fixed. Four electric guitars set the tone and pace for the piece with a Jerome Begin score. And, once again, a Lyverthey tip seems to inform Landon’s take on this contemporary quadrille. “As the enjoyment of a party rests in the frequent changing of one’s associates and partners,” he declares, “no gentleman will monopolize the attention of any one lady too constantly.” Here, Landon’s cohort of dancers, clad in white, fall in and out of favor with each other. When dancers seek to close distance, they cup one another’s faces, press their forearms against each other, and hold the backs of their confidants’ necks. There is a sweetness, a youthfulness, and also a naiveté to these actions.

This fondness only exists alongside fighting, though. As the piece progresses, the dancers lunge towards one another; three women hit and swipe at each other, perhaps arguing over a companion; and dancers who were, at first, eager to touch now look ready to pounce at each other. What’s more, dancers alternate sitting on the side of the stage and watching, likely judging, the action ahead. This is clearly a social stage, and there are certain stakes for interacting with or ignoring or chasing after different dancers. Riley O’Flynn, a reedy redhead, is at once caught in the crossfire of these affairs and responsible for bringing the piece to its resolution. He first mesmerizes the mercurial group, seated at the far edge of the stage, with a solo. But when he starts to slip into a more manic routine, another dancer steps in to pause him. She embraces him, but he slips out of her arms, which remain raised, now empty. Then, thinking twice, he slips back into the gap and accepts her tenderness, her affection, her support.

Landon’s combinations of dancers are exhaustive and, at times, verge on the exhausting. But the shifting relationships among her performers are fascinating; and over the course of the piece, her dancers seem to gain a sense of clarity and consciousness. They gain a better sense of how they relate to one another but also how they function as individuals.

“Never fail to keep your engagements in the ballroom,” warns Lyverthey. “It is an unpardonable breach of etiquette which will not be forgotten by anyone.” For “NY Quadrille,” Lar Lubovitch’s four commissioned choreographers offer contemporary takes on ballroom engagements. In turn irreverent, revisionist, and conscientious, these choreographers update courtly codes for modern contexts. But the question remains, what happens to these engagements beyond the ballroom or, in this instance, the stage?