Choreographers are often accused, particularly by non-dancers, of being too opaque with their work. If a piece is deemed too difficult to understand or even chip away at, the choreographer is to blame: She’s too abstract. He wants to confuse us. She can’t make dance for audiences. This is where the 92nd Street Y’s Stripped/Dressed Harkness Dance Festival comes in. Curated this year by Doug Varone, the festival gives choreographers the opportunity to break down the inner workings of a piece – often one that is in progress – for an audience of eager listeners. We’re given a brief but telling glimpse of a dance work’s motivation.

Amanda Kmett’Pendry and Sarah Lifson © Julie Lemberger for 92Y
Amanda Kmett’Pendry and Sarah Lifson
© Julie Lemberger for 92Y

Netta Yerushalmy is a wonderful fit for this festival. Armed with slides of cubist art, Gertrude Stein literature and her three dancers for demonstration, Ms Yerushalmy quickly exhibited that she is the choreographer’s choreographer: meticulous, cerebral, interested in construction. What could have easily become a mess of movement and seemingly unrelated phrases easily morphed into something with purpose and even clarity. 

Ms Yerushalmy is interested in the “chunky soup” of Ms Stein’s language, and it is easy to see that in the excerpt she presented from her as yet untitled new piece. The base phrase of this work was generated by Ms Yerushalmy, but its many incarnations and accumulations were earned by difficult chopping and rearranging and redirecting. For instance: She had her dancer create phrases in which they mixed an original bit of movement with some of their own, changing from one phrase to the next each time a weight shift occurred. When her three pleasingly fresh-faced dancers (all making their professional débuts) demonstrated bits of what this surely demonic exercise (and I mean that positively) had accrued, there was a nice spontaneity to it, a surprising jerkiness. This didn’t carry over as well in the full excerpt, however; it’s possible her dancers, as Ms Yerushalmy warned, have figured out how to adapt their bodies to this jerkiness until it is a long, smooth phrase – as dancers are wont to do. But I rather preferred the moments in the lec-dem where their faces looked temporarily confused and the movement didn’t flow as directly. Her carefully laid plans of structure and restructure didn’t always read – I sometimes found it hard to focus with so much individual movement happening.

Marc Crousillat © Julie Lemberger for 92Y
Marc Crousillat
© Julie Lemberger for 92Y

In her press materials, Ms Yerushalmy explains that she made a conscious decision this go-round to not work with her usual suspects (who also happen to be her friends). I had been looking forward to seeing her regular dancers in an informal setting, but I found myself very happy with the two women and one man she had chosen. Sarah Lifson in particular seemed entirely and wonderfully content with some quirky moves – prancing across the stage at one point, cupping her hands like a cat at another, bourreing around the stage’s perimeter with a mechanical pelvic thrust still later.

I was taken aback by Ms Yerushalmy’s musical collaborator, Judith Berkson. Ms Berkson entered the piece by hitting a shrill note with her own voice from the audience. It felt somewhat gimmicky and occasionally made it difficult to concentrate on the dancers. Apart from the unexpected and, at times, seemingly unrelated musical accompaniment, however, Ms Yerushalmy has created a sizable foundation for a piece ripe with intricacy and context.