How much of remembering is an act of love? That question suffuses every molecule of Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life and other works by John Bernd, the unequivocal highlight of my first day in New York this trip.
The first time I saw Ishmael Houston-Jones it was like the first time I heard Monk or Joni Mitchell; the first time I heard Amiri Baraka; the first time I saw a Rauschenberg combine. So I went into this revival presented by American Realness barely knowing anything about John Bernd, to whom tribute is being paid, and only a little more about Houston-Jones’ co-director Miguel Gutierrez. That instinct didn’t disappoint.
The cast of dancers is perfect, Toni Carlson, Talya Epstein, Alvaro Gonzalez, Charles Gowin, Madison Krekel, Johnnie Cruise Mercer, and Alex Rodabaugh. They feel like they like each other. Physical chemistry is paramount and abundant but there’s a warmth that’s much harder to capture. For a show about communion and tending to one another that sense means everything.
Sweet moments of singing syllables that boil down to “Oh, hi, heya” stretching out and sparkling like stardust (Nick Haslett beautifully reworks Bernd’s original compositions) master the supple stillness of being together many of us only strive for. There’s a gorgeous, subtle glow in the way these bodies slide through the original music; themes build, go through a chrysalis, then spark between the dancers.
Toni Carlson’s warm intensity, especially in concert with Charles Gowin, is a highlight; they ground the more abstract sequences in a heightened, best-selves version of the world we know too well.
There’s a delightful slapstick edge here, most prominent in a sequence about fighting illness by “Taking control of [your] diet” making a parody of a smoothie. This shifts into a thesis statement as everyone puts their hands on the blender like a sorcerer’s talisman and chant in tones equal parts defiance and desperation words of hope like “I will not die before I do justice to my gifts.”
The use of pre-existing songs here is remarkable, with nary a cop-out crutch or easy wink for miles.
Copland’s “Hoe Down” section from Rodeo gets jubilant irreverence. This only piece from a traditional ballet gets razor-sharp use of that post-Balanchine narrative dance language but also the childlike play at Cowboys and Indians and some frankly erotic “playing at cowboys.”
Prince’s Dirty Mind grows out of the kind of hard triplet stomping Houston-Jones says is a signature of Bernd, a thudding, sensual shudder that’s a call to attention that could turn into “Walk this Way” at any moment. With this Prince song, the dance vocabulary that served as a quicksilver carrier for many moods, flowers into an electric bacchanal. Pairing off, tossing each other around, finding space for one another’s body. The highlight for me was Epstein, split off from the others, dancing in shadow back by the audience, twitching like a power-line violently ripped from its moorings; the kind of intense, erotic defiance of gravity and death it takes this much craft to look natural. I blushed and wanted to look away but I couldn’t take my eyes off her. New Order’s Age of Consent captured the bursting joy and melancholy of that song in a way I’ve never seen any movie or TV use pull off.
The coup de grace (double-entendre sting on “grace”) came with Lou Reed’s Street Hassle. Circumventing what most people gravitate toward in this song, the hustler narrative, Variations drops us right into Part C. We get strings already growing lush and Springsteen’s cameo before the sweet, keening melancholy of “I need you, baby. Oh please, baby… Please don’t slip away.”
I know how reductive this is for such an intense and complex work. But what I left with was: no energy is wasted. Bernd was an unlikely candidate for the canon but his friends made a zine 10 years after his death in tribute. 20 years after that an oversold crowd had the privilege to sit in a church built in 1799 and marvel at all the work in this recreation.
I don’t want to get all “Can I get an Amen” on you, but… May we all be so lucky to have someone love us that much. To love even one thing we made that much. To be some small part of reflecting or amplifying that love in some small way.