Douglas Dunn is not afraid of color, or even dazzlingly placed patterns on colour. Costumes that slip into the bizarre? Turn them on.
This is a choreographer and dancer who fuses formalism with the fantastic. He found his match years ago in the visual artist and designer Mimi Gross. They first worked together in 1979, when she designed the body-conscious, colorful costumes for “Foot Rules.”
In “Garden Party,” Gross has taken their collaboration to a new level by transforming Dunn’s studio into a springtime oasis, in which 10 dancers, including Dunn, immerse themselves in a lush and somewhat leafy setting: a quirky and whimsical dance garden .
They also wear Gross’ costumes, beautifully cut leotards, each different but each embellished with a touch of fluorescent yellow. There are additions from time to time, such as wispy skirts and sheer capes, but they work as more than clothes. The ever-evolving costumes help turn this landscape into a living mural. That Dunn’s studio is the real deal – a dancer’s loft in SoHo where art is still not only made, but also shown – makes the enchanted view all the more beautiful.
In the work, enhanced with golden-hour lighting and projections of Lauren Parrish washing the stage in warm orange and rose tones, the choreography is full of images from nature – arms fluttering like branches or rounded backs reminiscent of withered tulips. Dunn’s dancers are always very technical; they must be to perform a choreography that requires a demanding line. But they are also people who show no tension and are not arrogant.
Within the movement – Dunn calls himself “steps” – poetry and music provide a kind of libretto, including lyrics by poets Anne Waldman and Rainer Maria Rilke and songs by John Lennon and Yoko Ono (“Oh My Love”) and Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris (“If This Is Goodbye”). For much of the first half, Dunn sits behind a colorful pulpit camouflaged as a plant; he wears a green top and pants strewn with small leaves.
At one point, he rocks a large stuffed blue bird back and forth, sending it airborne. It’s a little goofy, but that’s also part of Dunn’s appeal. Beneath the whimsy are deeper ideas, in which poetry – read in voiceover by Dunn; Grazia Della-Terza, Dunn’s partner and a dancer in the work; and others – deals with themes of loss, love and death. One line, by Rilke, highlights something that seems to reflect the dance itself: “For mysterious though death is, life more so.”
At 80 years old, Dunn is still spry. He may not jump, but his long body covers the space as always; he spins with flair. In an extended poise, he held his gaze and stood on one foot with the other knee drawn in and bent parallel. There were times when he loosened up too, swinging from side to side as he scoured the floor with quick footwork. In a fraction of a second, he raised his shoulders twice to the beat of the music. What a ham! Under his green outfit he wore a brown top and brown pants, and this costume change seemed appropriate: Dunn as a tree, weathered but still standing.
The most intricate choreography was given to an ensemble of eight, including Jin Ju Song-Begin, a dancer of serene beauty. Duets and trios turned into group numbers that gave the stage a smooth softness as the dancers waded through patterns that brought them closer to the audience or made them disappear behind plants, real and imagined. With quick turns in relevance, they floated across the floor like bits of slender grass caught in gusts of wind.
As dancers they breathed together – calmly balancing or walking in posture or arabesque – and like Dunn, they also sometimes embodied the natural world. In one scene, Emily Pope became ferocious like the owl from “The Owl and the Nightingale,” and as she crouched, clenched her hands into fists as a voiceover said, “Look at my features and you’ll find the ferocity personified.” ”
But woven into this celebration of a dance is emotion and with it a sense of surrender. When Lennon sings, “I see the wind, oh, I see the trees; everything is clear in my heart”, later followed by a piece of Bach’s “St. John Passion’, with which the work ends, ‘Garden Party’ seems to be Dunn’s way of looking at the time before death with a certain wonder. But it’s also a mischievous, eccentric Day-Glo adventure, or a dance you’d find in the middle of a Wes Anderson movie. It’s a secret garden three stories from the city sidewalk.
Douglas Dunn + Dancers
Through Sunday at Douglas Dunn Studio; douglasdunndance.com