Review: Graciani’s local debut fails to meet expectations

RG Dance Projects’ first showing in the region, during SaratogaArtsFest on Saturday night, was disap

When New York choreographer Ruben Graciani announced he was relocating his company to Saratoga Springs, dance lovers twirled with delight.

The Skidmore College associate professor’s resume alone can make dance fan swoon. He studied at the North Carolina School of the Arts, the Juilliard School and SUNY Purchase. He also danced with the Mark Morris Dance Group.

So, more dance, especially from a choreographer with his impressive background, could only be auspicious, right? However, his RG Dance Projects’ first showing in the region, during SaratogaArtsFest on Saturday night, was disappointing.

The main problem was that his works felt tongue-tied. Graciani stumbled as he had difficulty fully expressing his ideas in his dance, which aptly all seemed about struggle.

The company, as seen at Universal Preservation Hall, wanted to make its area debut special by presenting the world premiere of “We Fall Down, We Get Up.” Created for five dancers and a chorus of 24 singers, the work was an elaborate piece that explored boundaries and obstacles. Graciani clearly defined borders with a long red canvas strap. The singers, tethered to the line, crisscrossed the space, hemming in the dancers in triangles and boxes.

Along the edge of the stage were driftwood and mirror sculptures. A large sculpture stood upstage in the corner, looking like a massive Christmas tree, as the red canvas strap bunched up like ribbon candy at its base. But its presence was a puzzle.

Nonetheless, the dancers began “We Fall Down, We Get Up,” walking backwards in a hunched, defeated stance. They let their shoulders fall and then clung to their inner thighs. They staggered, but recovered.

As they strove to hold up their seemingly defeated bodies, conductor Philip Frazier led the singers in angelic vocals. They were the guardians and sentinels, directing the dancers to keep moving forward despite their troubles and limits.

Leslie Saint-Jour was especially compelling as she slapped her arm as if an addict begging for a fix. Long and lean, she has all the qualities of an outstanding dance artist. Yet, Graciani chose Emily Pacilio as the main character who stood atop the shoulders of Stephen James, only to repeatedly fall into the arms of the others. Unfortunately, the rise and fall became predictable.

The piece, like the other two dances shown, did not gain momentum until its end. Graciani is a master of crescendo. He can grab his audience’s eye, but often drifts too long in monotony before he dashes toward the kinetic rush.

The company opened with two other dances that support the theory: “Swing and a Miss” and “Rapture.” Of the two, “Rapture” was the better. The dance was backed by a film by Jon Betz and Elissa Nadworny, which intrigued as much as baffled. It mirrored much of the movement of Emily Carver and James, whose moods swung from maniac running and jumping to somber awareness of our sick planet.

Their relationship was ambiguous — lovers, perhaps, but mainly competitors and survivors. Either way, they appeared to rise to heaven in the end.

I hope Graciani allows his audiences to follow at the next showing of RG Dance Projects.

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