Review: A choreographer's of-the-moment brand of 'not knowing'

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Review: A choreographer's of-the-moment brand of 'not knowing'
Dancers perform in Colleen Thomas’ “Light and Desire,” at New York Live Arts in New York, Sept. 14, 2021. In Thomas’ new work, created and performed by women, the sense of pent-up release was strong. Caitlin Ochs/The New York Times.

by Siobhan Burke

NEW YORK, NY.- As the grand reopening of Broadway continued this week, a smaller theatrical enterprise, far across town, was also revving up again. For the first time since March 2020, Target Margin Theater welcomed a live audience into its no-frills warehouse space in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, presenting a new work by choreographer Julie Mayo.

Mayo’s “Nerve Show,” as wacky as it is melancholic, straddles the time before the pandemic and the not-quite-after where we find ourselves now, an era of stuttering starts and stops and collectively frayed nerves. The process of creating it began in 2019, with a cast of four dancers (in addition to Mayo) that has since expanded to five: Justin Cabrillos, Ursula Eagly, Doug LeCours, Eleanor Smith and Jessie Young, all of whom are wonderfully idiosyncratic (and credited with contributing movement and sound).

Mayo, who has been choreographing for more than 20 years, has described her work as “predicated on ‘not-knowing,’ ambiguity, shifting landscapes.” That describes a lot of dance, but for her, it seems, the pandemic has brought these qualities closer to the surface. At its premiere Thursday, “Nerve Show” shared a kind of woozy uncertainty with the past year and a half, compressing into one hour the sense of not-knowing we have come to know so well.

From the opening scene, an erratic solo for the alert and sensitive Mayo, thwarted impulses express themselves through both movement and attempts at speech: the body tugged in conflicting directions, or trying to shake something off; words escaping half-formed, sometimes as no more than a grunt or a stuck-out tongue. Alone and together, the dancers often exude the flustered energy of trying to rein in a chaotic situation. Yet while they might look agitated to an outside eye, they also appear to know right where they are internally, a shared awareness that keeps the work from spinning out of control.

Even in simpler moments, tensions run high: At one point, Smith and Young pace back and forth in unison, the meditative rhythm of their steps undercut by the worry in their darting eyes. A moment of release — everyone laughing in the dark — ends as the lights snap back on, their fluorescent buzz filling the sudden silence. (Ben Demarest designed the lighting.)

The work’s jumbled and fragmented speech edges toward coherence. Near the end, the dancers lie on their backs and take turns speaking complete words, seemingly selected at random: “mineral,” “irksome,” “bicentennial,” “pizza.” But “Nerve Show” eludes any clear arc or resolution, and its subtle sadness deepens. As LeCours unleashes a wild, spindly solo to Alice Coltrane’s “Going Home,” the others stride and sit along the risers that function as a backdrop, casually looking on. He is going through something; they just watch it happen.

If “Nerve Show” has a piecemeal structure and moments that churn in place rather than moving forward, that might be a reflection of a creative process punctured by obstacles and interruptions. Intentionally or not, it also echoes how we don’t know where we’re going, or what will happen next — and never really have.

'Nerve Show': Through Saturday at Target Margin Theater,

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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