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ZviDance Toasts Pioneer With Sexiness, Melodrama

This article originally appeared in the Culture section of Bloomberg News on March 15, 2007.

March 15 (Bloomberg) — It’s nearly impossible to describe the work of Zvi Gotheiner — an Israeli choreographer based in New York for two decades — without resorting to the word “lush.” “Earthy” and “robust” leap to mind as well. “Gertrud,” given its world premiere last night at the Ailey Citigroup Theater by Gotheiner’s 12-member company, ZviDance, has a goodly share of those qualities, and yet it misses its mark.

The piece is a tribute to Gotheiner’s early mentor, Gertrud Kraus, a dancer, choreographer and visual artist who emigrated to what is now Israel from her native Vienna in the run-up to World War II. History remembers her primarily as a teacher and a key figure in the growth of modern dance in her adopted country. Period photographs reveal an impassioned lyricism in her dancing that must have made her an indelible presence.

Oddly enough, Gotheiner is unable to bring Kraus to life, either as an artist or as a human being. He has his dancers quote copiously from her wit and wisdom as they emulate her idiosyncratic methods in the studio. But the tone of these passages is so dry that Kraus comes off as little more than a beloved eccentric. When dancing is allowed to wrest attention away from the words, it looks like exercises in Gotheiner’s style without any reference to what Kraus herself might have created.

Mutual Pleasure

The most moving segment is almost incidental: a brief, quiet duet for two women sharing an invisible cigarette and, by delicate implication, another mutual pleasure. The final scene — in which the dying Kraus leans on her acolytes and views the sole existing footage of her own dancing — is an unexpected and perhaps desperate resort to melodrama.

“Gertrud” features projections that include Kraus’s sketches of stick-figure dancers and abstract designs suggesting motion — a hieroglyphics of dance. The music for the piece, by Scott Killian, is neither here nor there. Among the quoted Kraus utterances is this useful one-liner: “Never walk around barefoot to Romantic music.”

Gotheiner’s own signature, torn-from-the-earth effect operates magnificently in his 2006 “Les Noces,” set to the Stravinsky score. The 10 participants indulge in a cleverly crafted rush of escalating passions — stamping, leaping, gesticulating, falling and shuddering. For the longest time, though, the choreography refuses to account for the specific characters Stravinsky had in mind in his celebrated evocation of the rituals surrounding an arranged marriage among Russian peasants.

Bride and Groom

When it does, different dancers rotate in the roles of the innocent bride and groom (same-sex matings duly honored) and the parents and friends who urge them on. The steps of the story, from the preparation of the bride and groom to the wedding night, are also left vague. So that while the physical action is thrilling, you’re never sure what it’s in service of.

The lure of Stravinsky’s vigorous, colorful score is unfortunately irresistible. Bronislava Nijinska, the first to choreograph the music (in 1923), got it absolutely right; Jerome Robbins admitted that his version, in 1965, fell short of her level. Today’s dance-makers refuse to recognize this evidence and persist in creating their own interpretations. I’ve seen three just this season. Could new dances to the score be outlawed for a while? If the state can legislate against trans fat, why not this contribution to our artistic life?

ZviDance is at the Ailey Citigroup Theater, 405 W. 55th St. at Ninth Avenue, through March 18. Information: +1-212-415-5500; http://www.92Y.org/HarknessFestival.

© 2007 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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