Inside the glamorous, gleaming marble cube that is the Perelman Arts Center, all the reconfigurable theater space is right now occupied by dance productions — “The March” and “Is It Thursday Yet?” From a dance lover’s perspective, it’s quite impressive that the Perelman would devote its new building to dance for a few weeks. Unfortunately, the productions themselves don’t rise to the opportunity.
For “The March,” one of the theaters has been arranged in-the-round, with three levels of steeply tiered seating surrounding a circular stage. The show itself is a three-parter. Three choreographers share the same distinguished, multigenerational cast of dancers (whom the program identifies as women and femme) for three works, each investigating the idea of unison, of moving together in time.
In the first piece, Donna Uchizono’s “Big small feat,” the unison sections are purposefully low-key. Although the dancers occasionally yell like cheerleaders, their motions are mostly small and delicate: a shifting between basic positions of the feet, a light hammering of heels into the ground. The way that four older dancers sometimes join in and other times supervise gives the whole thing the look of a ritual for novices in some order or coven. The performers all look up at the audience with weird smiles, and the tone is unstable, oscillating indecisively between surreal and sentimental.
Tendayi Kuumba’s “NYSea” is an intervention or a wellness cure. It starts with a ticking clock and Kashia Kancey alone, furiously scrubbing or scribbling, stressed out by life in the big city. Kuumba appears like a fairy godmother, doling out advice like “Take your time” in beautiful, soulful song. As a choreographer, Kuumba takes some advantage of the theater’s technology, projecting disorienting ocean waves onto the stage floor, but while the rest of the cast eventually appears, she doesn’t do much with unison. When everyone mouths what Kuumba is singing, the words seem shallower, not more powerful.
Annie-B Parson’s “The Oath,” which comes last, is the most controlled. (The Perelman commissioned Parson and the company she directs, Big Dance Theater; she invited the other two choreographers.) As in “Big small feat,” the dancers sometimes seem sororal, like nuns, but here they wear backpacks and recite parts of the Girl Scout Promise and Law in unison. They also sing in unison and recite dialogue, with studied pauses, from Sally Rooney’s novel “Conversations With Friends.” They do some group formations and actual marching, but this is perfunctory. The unison is arch, like quotation marks.
The odd fact about “The March” is that the cast isn’t very good at physical unison — not close to your average drill or stepping team, much less the Rockettes. It’s hard to tell how much of this is a choice, how much a cop-out. “The March” is very ambivalent about the satisfactions of unison, which can be taboo in postmodern dance. The word that jumps out from “The Oath” is “cult.” For Parson and maybe Uchizono, unison activity is suspicious. They hold it with tongs.
“Is It Thursday Yet?” is much more conventional, except in subject matter. In two small theaters combined into one, the audience faces a stage littered like a garage with boxes, old electronics and TV monitors (set design by Rachel Hauck). The dancer Jenn Freeman appears. This is her story, which she created and choreographed with Sonya Tayeh.
At 33, Freeman received a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. The show recreates her struggle to understand herself in the light of the diagnosis, using home movies from her childhood, text of sessions with her doctor relayed in voice-over and the occasional friendly message from Freeman to the audience in the form of projected text.
She isn’t entirely alone onstage. The composer Holland Andrews, joined by the percussionist Price McGuffey, picks up fragments of the text and transforms them into angelic song. But that’s not enough to lift the production.
The show is much stronger on telling than showing. The words inform us about the defining characteristics of autism, the anxiety in social situations, the loneliness in a crowd, but the theatricalization of that experience lacks impact or is groaningly obvious, as when Freeman acts out gender ambiguity by dancing with a baby doll and a toy truck.
The title comes from something Freeman used to say as a child. Thursdays were the day she had dance class, which was a refuge. Curiously, though, dance is the show’s least expressive aspect. Not much registers apart from some spinning, and that is explained not as a mode of expression but as a symptom.
And for all of the home movies and personal quotations, not much of Freeman’s inner life comes across. The work effectively conveys the explanatory power and psychological comfort of a diagnosis but also largely reduces Freeman to that diagnosis. “You know who you are,” Andrews sings at the end. That might be true for Freeman, but for all the bravery of her confession, she hasn’t shared that self with the audience.
Through Saturday at the Perelman Arts Center; pacnyc.org.
Is It Thursday Yet?
Through Dec. 23 at the Perelman Arts Center; pacynyc.org.