The choreographer Donna Uchizono does not shy away from political work, but it is not openly so either. During her new “Wings of Iron” I couldn’t help but think back to her acclaimed “State of Heads” (1999), in which, as a new millennium began, a new presidential government began. She imagined the leaders as detached from the land, and that’s how the dancers moved: with their heads seemingly disconnected, almost dislocated, from their bodies.
“State of Heads” was about waiting for a hero. Now, more than 20 years later – with the world in even greater peril – the search continues. In “Wings of Iron”, to a score by cellist and composer Okkyung Lee, Uchizono places four lively dancers – Bria Bacon, Natalie Green, Molly Lieber and Pareena Lim – in a charged landscape, where unrest bubbles just below the surface and movement is covered with a rough edge.
Rich in choreographic inventions, Wings of Iron is full of nuance and detail – although both can sometimes feel too thickly piled up – as the dancers, clad in silver party dresses, gradually let fragility and intimacy seep through their mobile bodies.
During this full-length work, a presentation by the Chocolate Factory and the Baryshnikov Arts Center, where it premiered on Wednesday, the cast constantly searches for balance and orientation, despite the power of their spinning feet and weighted walks.
Their movement may not always be gentle, but the dancers are hardly alienating; everywhere there is a sense of connection with the audience. At the start, the dancers stand on chairs placed in a U-shape in front of the small audience; behind them is a different kind of audience – magnified black-and-white photos by Michael Grimaldi of the dancers in costume, staring straight ahead.
We in the audience are not just anonymous spectators, but in a shared space. Sometimes you find yourself locked into a non-confrontational gaze with a dancer. And often a question is asked: “If you could dedicate a dance to anyone, who would it be?”
Later in the evening, four spectators got the chance to do so. They chatted privately with a dancer or, in the latter case, two, who composed a dance on the spot – short bursts of movement, seemingly full of secrets. As the work progressed, it became clear that we had already witnessed one of these private dances during the opening moments.
Uchizono was first seen in the back corner of the stage talking to a woman. She then performed a nervous solo that sent her across the room in decisive, thumping steps, holding her fists on her hips or raising them above her head. Under his resistance, it was tender and emotional – setting the stage for what was to come. When it was over, both Uchizono and the woman took a front row seat.
“Wings of Iron” unfolds gradually, showing Uchizono’s ability to slowly emphasize and magnify shards of hidden virtuosity in inventive, aberrant steps. Standing in demi-pointe, the dancers circle their hips until their bodies come alive with vibrations. They beat themselves and eventually create a collective rhythmic beat.
Lieber, amazing in both her moments of strength and stillness, holds Bacon tight and twists her so that her legs fly through the air. Bacon returns the favor and the action is repeated as they take turns. Their exhaustion makes their effort heroic, their trust in each other becomes more acute. But there are also moments that turn more inward, such as in an extended passage of footwork for Lim and Bacon: their side-by-side steps – crossovers, brushes, toe lifts – sew intricate patterns onto the surface of the stage, which sometimes looks like a jewelry box.
Under the ever-changing wintry light of Joe Levasseur, the dancers radiate a feminist spirit; they have each other’s backs. There is no story, but somehow they are to be a story. In a short video about the beginning of the work, Uchizono talks about finding inspiration in Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem ‘Jane Addams’. Almost at the beginning is a line about “giant time,” which resonates with how Uchizono sees the world now. Where are the giants, who, as the poem goes, who ‘must disturb’, who, in other words, persist anyway? To Brooks, Addams is a giant; for Uchizono are the dancers. They persevere calmly and with purpose.
In “Wings of Iron,” that idea of perseverance — and tenacity — is the skeleton of the dance, both in favor and against. Sometimes choreographic passages seem too interchangeable to be effective; others drag on. But the point Uchizono makes with her exceptional cast is in the title. These dancers aren’t just waiting for life to happen to them. They are the wings, and their humanity has weight. It is made of iron.
“Wings of Iron”
See you Saturday at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, Manhattan; bacnyc.org.