Who: Sara Mearns
What: World premiere of WPA virtual commission
Where: Works & Process at the Guggenheim YouTube, Facebook, Instagram
When: Sunday, June 7, free (donations accepted), 7:30
Why: Since May 1984, Works & Process has been presented at the Guggenheim primarily in the Peter B. Lewis Theater, where arts creators offer advance looks at upcoming productions and discuss their methodology, followed by a reception. With the pandemic lockdown, the popular program has moved online with Works & Process Artists (WPA) Virtual Commissions, in which dancers, choreographers, musicians, storytellers, and others make original pieces of no more than five minutes, from wherever they are sheltering in place. Streaming live on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram every Sunday and Monday night at 7:30, the videos are later archived for subsequent viewing, including Brandon Stirling Baker’s Oh, Light, Gus Solomons Jr.’s Fac(e)tude, and Dance Heginbotham’s 24 Caprices. The standout presentation thus far has been Jamar Roberts’s blistering, electrifying Cooped, five harrowing minutes of longtime Ailey dancer Roberts moving and shuddering in dark, confined spaces. Shot by Roberts with a haunting, grainy quality and set to a screeching score by David Watson on bagpipes and Tony Buck on drums, Cooped is a dramatic statement not only on isolation but on the black body, which at times here seems to float, trapped in the ether, glistening with sweat, desperate to break free.
On June 7, WPA will premiere Storm, a beautiful, heartbreaking complement to Cooped. Filmed and choreographed by Emmy winner Joshua Bergasse (SMASH, Sweet Charity) and performed by his wife, NYCB principal dancer Sara Mearns (Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes, Rodgers and Hart’s I Married an Angel for Encores!), the black-and-white piece takes place in their Lincoln Square apartment, where Mearns, wearing a black one-piece leotard, a loose-fitting white button-down shirt, and sneakers, glides across their relatively spacious living room while, on the soundtrack, Margo Seibert (The Thanksgiving Play, Octet) sings pianist Zoe Sarnak’s poignant ballad “The Storm Will Pass Soon Now.” At one point Mearns, who has been featured in works by Christopher Wheeldon, Kyle Abraham, Warren Carlyle, Justin Peck, Alexei Ratmansky, and Benjamin Millepied in addition to Robbins, Balanchine, and others for NYCB, grasps her neck with both hands, seeking emotional comfort while echoing a canvas on the wall of a ballet dancer happily hugging a glorious swan. She jumps, twists, falls to the ground, sits on a couch with her two dogs, Ozzie and Rocky, and walks over to the large window, resting her hands on the frame as she gazes out with longing and Seibert sings, “Look out for hope and you’ll find some, you’ll see / Maybe it’s not where you thought it would be.” Whereas Roberts is cramped and restricted, his body never seen clearly in total, Mearns is caught in a more open, brighter space, which appears even larger when it is reflected in a television monitor that also shows the balcony, an escape to the outside world that is closed off to her. Sensitively edited by Lee Cherry, Storm concludes with a dramatic statement of its own, quieter and more hopeful but still aching. Together, the two works, made before the murder of George Floyd and the resulting protests, capture the zeitgeist of a nation at war with itself yet determined to move forward.