Make 'Em Laugh

March 8, 2009

Modern dance is notoriously solemn, even grim. The stereotypically intense “modern face” doesn’t crack easily into a smile. That’s why it was refreshing to see, this weekend, two modern choreographers so at ease–and so successful–with humor.

Israeli dancemaker Ohad Naharin can do serious; there were many haunting moments in his Max, performed by Batsheva Dance Company on Friday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Yet he also knows how to use silliness to his advantage. Max‘s score is composed entirely of recordings of Naharin’s own voice, and at one point he makes a low, pulsating noise that sounds strikingly like the wah-wah of a hard rock bass guitar. Although the dancers have just completed a series of intensely dance-y steps, it seems totally natural for them to pause, extend the the thumbs and pinkies of their left hands, and headbang along with the beat. The audience giggled, and I imagine that Naharin was laughing right along with us.

In sinister works like Last Look and Cloven Kingdom, Paul Taylor seems to thoroughly enjoy exploring the darker side of the human mind. Taylor’s newest work, Beloved Renegade, which I saw this Saturday at New York City Center, was slightly gentler than those pieces–wistfully melancholy rather than perverse and bleak. Inspired by the poems of Walt Whitman, Beloved Renegade tells the story of a man (Whitman himself?) who journies through war towards death. One of the things that keeps that journey from devolving into hopelessness is a sweetly funny episode in which the dancers behave like children at recess–playing leapfrog, plugging their noses (“You stink!”), giving each other noogies. The scene not only demonstrates Taylor’s incredible range as a dramatic artist, but also lets the audience relax for a moment. It’s OK to laugh a little bit, Taylor seems to be saying, even though you’ll be crying by the time the curtain falls. (On Saturday, we did laugh–and many of us cried, too.)