Voices Carry at La MaMa, but Only a Few Rise Above the Din

“You’ll hear our voices, and you’ll see us dance,” the choreographer Arthur Avilés said on Thursday. He was introducing “Naked Vanguard,” his half of one of three double bills in the second week of this year’s La MaMa Moves! Dance Festival. But he could have been speaking about most of the other works sharing the week. The ratio of talking to dancing was especially high, as if to make the low-budget avant-garde more welcoming.

In Avilés’s case, the talk was explanatory. “Naked Vanguard” was a retrospective of work from the 1990s to the present, most of it involving nudity (or as the program put it, “costumes by mother nature”). The voices included those of his younger collaborators, Hunter Sturgis and Nikolai McKenzie, who introduced themselves and joined Avilés in a lecture-demonstration of his Swift/Flow technique.

In “Morning Dance,” a stripped Sturgis matched the movements of an in-the-buff Avilés as captured in a 2001 film by Richard Shpuntoff, projected on the rear wall. The differences between the media (close-ups, for one) added interest to the endless-ribbon quality of the choreography. In “A Jamaican Batty Bwoy in America,” McKenzie adapted a here-I-am naked solo from a 1996 (its title flagged Avilés’s Puerto Rican heritage and queerness with a slur) by adding marks of his own identity, like Mel Greenwich playing Bob Marley on the cello.

Along with these generational transfers, Avilés also danced. In his 60s, he remains a marvel of gyroscopic elegance, a small man who devours space largely. His 2021 solo “From the End, Let’s Begin” had the wittiest moment. After stripping, he clothed himself in a plaid scarf by laying it on the floor and rolling in it.

“Electric Blue,” Pioneers Go East Collective’s contribution to the same bill, was almost all talk: recitations of poems, speeches and court testimony by Allen Ginsberg; memories of the Human Be-In and Chicago in 1967. Some of these (like the antiwar chant “Hum Bom!”) were more theatrically effective than others (like the policy prescriptions of “New Democracy Wish List”), but best by far was Alexa Grae’s rendition of “A Supermarket in California,” half-spoken, half-sung in a pure countertenor.

The program shared by Ilaria Passeri and the group Nuu Knynez (pronounced “New Canines”) was the weakest. In “Black Butoh,” David Adelaja (“Twice Light”) and Tyrell James (“Rocka Jamez”) demonstrated their combination of krump and butoh: basically krump slowed down and made more sinuous. While the force of krump occasionally broke through — these elastic dancers can grab the beat with chest contractions — the show was slack, with wispy scenes, interlaced with speeches of introduction and empowerment, that kept petering out.

Time spent with those happy warriors, though, was far more enjoyable than the blank bleakness of “Y.” Directed by Passeri, it was performed by Evelyna Dann, who rearranged construction materials and dirt while wearing a black dress and a white mask. Why, indeed.

The strongest program paired Chris Yon and Taryn Griggs with Yoshiko Chuma and the School of Hard Knocks. Yon and Griggs are married, and they brought along their 12-year-old daughter, Bea. As Bea explained, her parents are criminals on the run disguised as starving artists, and they were all performing a family newsletter in the form of dance.

Yon and Griggs are deadpan comics of rhythmized eccentric gesture — loops of simple steps with rock, paper, scissors on top. Part of the comedy lies in the contrast between his melancholy schlumpiness and her manic Broadway flair. With Bea, clearly the child of that combination, they became something like a family in a Wes Anderson film. As they straight-faced through sketches about customer service holds, cut-up poems and layers of cat T-shirts, the incorporation of the preteen increased the domestic charm.

But Chuma was the champ. Even more than Avilés, she is a veteran, one who has been making performance collages with an ever-changing list of collaborators since the 1980s. (Yon and Griggs are alums.) She called this one “Extreme Classics,” and it centered on footage of nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll. Dennis O’Connor performed some of Merce Cunningham’s “50 Looks.” Dane Terry played piano and lent his golden voice to some of his lovely songs (one was about how drunk people are here to stay). Dozens of wooden sculptures (by Tim Clifford) littered the stage, resembling stunted bowling pins.

With her theatrical authority, Chuma could hold all this together without speaking and pull off blunt gestures like portentously exhibiting symbolic objects: a kaffiyeh (Palestinian solidarity), a series of mirrors (reflecting audience complicity), a child from the audience (innocent victims). Chuma’s unpredictability, kicking the pins with a force recalling the nuclear explosions, gave the show its charge. And its humor, too — as when she crawled all over Terry and his piano while he tried to keep playing.

Ellen Stewart, who founded La MaMa in 1961 and died in 2011, will always be the institution’s matriarch. But at this La MaMa Moves!, Chuma felt like the mother.

La MaMa Moves!

Through June 2 at La MaMa; lamama.org.

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