New Bodies

Jared Angle, Sara Mearns and Gretchen Smith in "New Bodies," a work created in collaboration with Jodi Melnick, performed at Spoleto Festival USA 2018.

The two works by award-winning choreographer Jodi Melnick were wonderful examples of how the creative process of an art form can be just as illuminating as the final product. The performance Thursday evening at the Emmett Robinson Theatre of two innovative works was thrilling not only because of the concepts put to use but because of the spectacular performances of New York City Ballet dancers Jared Angle, Sara Mearns and Taylor Stanley.

In the first piece, a solo for Melnick called "One of Sixty-five Thousand Gestures," the choreography is a collaborative effort between Melnick and the late post-modern icon Trisha Brown. Pivotal to both of these choreographers' work is elevating everyday movement, like walking, running, falling and rising, into dance vocabulary.

Melnick’s performance of isolated and joint-initiated movement is ethereal and succinct with a matter-of-fact flare. Her costume, a brown billowing silk dress, is as much about shape and movement as the dance, which is accompanied by the dissonant chords of strings in music by Hahn Rowe.

In "New Bodies," three ballet dancers leave the domain of classical ballet and step into the post-modern world of Melnick. The result is profound for both participants and observers. The work was originally created at the dance mecca Jacob’s Pillow, and later presented by the Guggenheim Museum for its Works and Process series. Here, the performers, musicians and the director transform the theater into an electrifying realm as they investigate the space around them and their relationships to each other.

It is especially thrilling to see Columbia-native Sara Mearns walk through the audience and enter the stage from the front of the theater — quite a different perspective than the usual majestic Lincoln Center stage entrance. She is joined by fellow dancers Angel and Stanley (the latter new to the role after the original dancer suffered an injury). All three are commanding in this exquisite performance which is stripped of the adornment and affectation often seen in traditional ballet. The sheer simplicity and straightforward dancing makes the powerful presence of the dancers extraordinary.

The dance is arranged into different sections accompanied by music by Gyorgy Ligeti, Robert Boston and Benrich Biber. Boston plays the harpsichord and is joined by violinist Monica Davis. In one silent section, the dancers connect in a powerful way with partnering work and intricate phrases of movement.

In the final section, the dancers are joined by Melnick and sit in chairs in various shapes of repose and attention. Soon this gives way to a humorous exchange between dancers and director which then culminates in a talkback complete with a moderator and questions from the audience in a most unexpected ending to a magical evening.

Reviewer Eliza Ingle is a dance instructor and writer in Charleston.