Dancing Restraint

Written by Susan Reiter on . Posted in Dance, Posts.

Ben Munisteri likes to keep things disciplined—and tightly
focused. The postcard for his Dance Theater Workshop program promises “three
12-minute dances,” and it’s clear, from watching his six dancers run through
them in rehearsal last week, that he’s a choreographer who’s firmly in control
of his materials. Less can certainly be more, and within a condensed time span
Munisteri knows how to introduce, layer and vary his dance phrases into
something that’s qualitatively rich. The dancers’ clean lines, the brisk yet
fluid footwork, the satisfying yet unexpected ways in which patterns fill and
divide the space—all of this suggests someone who knows his own mind and
approaches his craft with rigor and sophistication.

Munisteri has a low-key yet consistent profile; he has
presented his dances around town since 1994, after performing with Doug Elkins’
company. A Brooklyn native, his background ranged from tap lessons as a very
young boy, to backyard ballet lessons from his sister, then private ballet
study when he got more serious and realized he needed to catch up, and modern
dance at Oberlin College (where he majored in English and minored in dance).
Ten years of serious piano study also informs his choreography—as did the time
he spent dancing in downtown clubs as a teenager in the early 1980s.

“I was never a ‘ballet dancer,’ but I took to it quite
naturally and enjoyed it; it made sense to me immediately,” Munisteri says.
“The steps found themselves into the dance phrases I would create, because I
created them on my own body.” Once he stopped performing in 2002, he found his
creative process altered. “I tend to be much more verbal now. The vocabulary
has changed somewhat as a result, but I still like the turnout, the arabesque
line, pointed feet and I like petit
—which you don’t often find in anything modern or post-modern.”

The DTW program showcases his three most recent works—though
not necessarily in the form they were originally seen. “I sometimes make two or
three versions of the same dance—a re-composition of the original. So they are
made up of the same choreography, but I’ve re-sequenced it, and re-cast it, and
put it in different parts of the stage, changed the music and changed the

As its title suggests, Binary 2.0 represents such a
process. Last year, Munisteri presented Binary, a duet set to three
songs by The Pixies. Binary 2.0 is for three men and three women, and is
set to two contrasting Debussy compositions: the driving, lush orchestral
textures of La Mer, and a delicate piano solo. It emphasizes partnering,
for which Munisteri clearly has a flair, with bodies combining and re-combining
unpredictably, and a sly inner logic guiding the proceedings. “The idea of
rearranging and re-sequencing the same material is something I find eminently
refreshing and thrilling,” Munisteri explains.

a quintet he created for the 2009 Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival, grew
out of five movement phrases that he reordered. It has a pristine, rigorous yet
lucid quality, and eschews the partnering at which he is adept. He set the
dance to three Radiohead songs, “mostly for the structural qualities, which are
rhythmic. The first has a strange but a steady and repetitive metric
structure,” he says. “I just choreographed to that instead of thinking about
the melody or the lyrics, or the overall tone: I concentrated on the shifting
time signatures. With Catalog, I hope you’re seeing a very inventive
spatial and rhythmic design unfolding on a very limited movement palette.”

Before the dancers run through Robot v. Mermaid, a
premiere, he urges them to be “efficient and industrious.” This work for the
full ensemble, set to an orchestral score by Kirk O’Riordan, evokes and hints
at a variety of movement sources as it unfolds—fluid one moment, rigorous the
next. Munisteri explains he began it by imposing limits on himself. “I started
with the idea of restrictions, and differing movement qualities set against
each other. The sharp, more aggressive movements come more naturally to
me—maybe that’s the Robot part. The Mermaid is softer, lighter: movement that’s
more difficult for me to do personally. With two minutes left to go, I
abandoned all the restrictions—on jumping, on turning, on touching. There’s
something thrilling about abandoning all those rules, and for the last two
minutes including anything I wanted to do. Restraining myself at the beginning
allowed me a lot of freedom at the end.”

Ben Munisteri Dance Projects

June 16–19, Dance Theater Workshop, 219 W. 19th St. (betw. 7th
& 8th Aves.), dancetheaterworkshop.org; $20.