Choreographer Clare Byrne's new evening-length ensemble work, "Tetrapod," presented at the Flea Theater, is superb.
Its opening quartet, to lively Mozart music, is built of fast, risky moves -- big, strategically timed leaps, falls, backbends, rolls, and fan kicks. But despite its dangerous thrills, Byrne's choreography is surprisingly lyrical. She makes pushing the body to extremes and testing the limits of its strength and agility feel natural, playful, and nonaggressive. Subtitled "Social Dances for Four-Legged Vertebrates," Byrne's work is "social" indeed. A sense of cooperation pervades the choreography, support runs rampant, and competitiveness is nowhere in sight.
Skillfully performed by Byrne, Sharon Estacio, Meredith Mandel, and Jeffrey Peterson, the dancing becomes even more challenging as the piece shifts into a supercharged sequence accompanied by rapid jazz. Byrne accepts the challenge of trying to keep pace with the music. The result is electrifying and remarkably innovative in its array of tricky partnering maneuvers, all done at breakneck speed.
Act II of "Tetrapod" opens with smartly crafted manipulations of movement vocabulary from the work's opening. Byrne reorganizes, overlaps, and revitalizes the moves with new energies. Her approach to the music -- this time it's big, rich, sensual-sounding jazz -- is highly unusual. She unearths the human qualities in the music and embodies their physical properties. To musical passages full of harmonic tension, Byrne's dancers press against each other, creating a muscular force that "shows" us what the music is making one feel. It's a decidedly different approach. Most choreographers would probably "feel" the jazz and dance from that inspiration, sharing emotion rather than demonstrating the translation of one aesthetic language to another.
Inserted before the work's snappy finale is a trio from another of Byrne's works. Far less engaging than the rest of the piece, it could easily be cut and "Tetrapod" performed in one act, without an intermission.