Review: Exploring Plato and Online Dating, Gibney Dancers Give Their All

From the first moments of the Gibney Company’s “Up Close” program, at New York Live Arts, the troupe’s superpower is clear: its strong and versatile dancers, artists who appear to be physically capable of anything. Since reinventing itself last year — with a shift toward presenting commissioned works by a variety of choreographers, rather than those of its founder and artistic director, Gina Gibney — the company has seemed to both fill a gap and replicate more of the same in American contemporary dance.

The gap: stable employment and resources for dancers and choreographers within a company structure. (Jobs!) The more-of-the-same: choreography that doesn’t always do justice to the dancers’ talents.

In its current season, a triple bill of new works that opened on Tuesday, the most inspiring contributions come from Rena Butler — the group’s inaugural resident choreographer and a striking dancer herself — and Yin Yue, the founder of the New York-based YY Dance Company. The final and longest work, Gustavo Ramírez Sansano’s “To the End of Love,” about online dating, demonstrated that all-too-common phenomenon of great dancers giving their all in the service of not-so-great choreography.

In her ambitious and thoughtfully assembled “Re/Build/Construct (Part I),” Butler takes cues from Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” to explore how external structures shape internal landscapes and social dynamics. Recorded passages of the text, increasingly warped as the piece progresses, bookend and punctuate Darryl J. Hoffman’s tension-building electronic score. Resembling windup dolls in their robotic yet elastic motion, six dancers deftly manipulate the walls of Tsubasa Kamei’s set. These lightweight panels begin in the form of a house but come apart to create other kinds of boundaries and enclosures.

Jesse Obremski, in an early solo, is especially uncanny in his puppetlike physicality, an eerie hollowness possessing his eyes and limbs. As they rearrange their world, sparring and conspiring with one another, the dancers periodically erupt in garbled, frustrated speech that feels less fully realized and integrated than other aspects of the work. Movement is the more efficient and expressive language here, right up to the dramatic culmination, which finds the powerful Jie-Hung Connie Shiau trapped within the walls of the reconstructed house — safe shelter turned prison — and ultimately breaking through them.

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Yin’s “A Measurable Existence,” performed on Tuesday by Obremski and Jake Tribus, begins in calmer territory, a seemingly placid duet. Yet it takes a sharp and satisfying turn when a section of the lighting grid drops down, a slash through the space, casting the dancers in a harsher glow and revealing a more sinister side of their relationship. (Asami Morita designed the lighting, which continues to mirror, or lead, the dancers’ energies.) Fluid and intricate partnering carries the duo through phases of tenderness and distance. Yin allows them to find detailed and surprising points of leverage, like a shin nestled into a hip crease, as they volley between a kind of symbiosis and separateness, between being one and two.

While not exactly breaking new ground, “A Measurable Existence” said more about the complexity of relationships, with much less, than Ramírez’s “To the End of Love,” a 28-minute critique of online dating and its alienating effects. Sheets of paper inscribed with dating-profile quips and confessions — “makes dinner naked,” “I have two kids” — cover the floor. Eight dancers wade through these pages and hold them up as they walk around the stage, sometimes stopping to share a flirtatious or longing dance, before getting distracted by other love interests. (One cast member was missing on Tuesday, which might help explain why some parts felt unfinished.) Ramírez delivers a similar message again and again. Though perhaps intentional, it’s a little bit too much like swiping.

Gibney Company

Through Saturday at New York Live Arts, gibneydance.org.

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