Who is Betsy? What is Betsy? For Neil Greenberg, Betsy is a dance — the title of his coming premiere — and more. The new work is a subtle and intimate excavation of racism, white privilege and gender freedom that confronts offensive stereotypes that still haunt beloved ballets like “The Nutcracker.” It’s slippery and ornate, dealing with its sometimes heavy subject matter with a strange, often sly sense of humor.
“Betsy” is an accumulation of turning points in Greenberg’s life, from the AIDS crisis — which he survived, while others in his life, including his brother Jon, did not — to the Black Lives Matter movement that found greater momentum during the pandemic.
Greenberg, 63, has been a fixture in experimental dance for years: He began choreographing in his early 20s, when he was a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. (He danced with the company from 1979 to 1986.) “Betsy,” which has its premiere at La MaMa on Saturday, is in conversation with some of Greenberg’s previous works. At its start, text will be screened on a wall, a practice he first used in 1987 with “MacGuffin or How Meanings Get Lost,” which featured text that was “kind of tongue in cheek about meaning-making in dance and processes of choreography,” he said in an interview.
When Greenberg made his acclaimed “Not-About-AIDS-Dance” (1994), it was the first time that his text, shown throughout the performance, was nonfiction, mirroring what he and his cast members were living through. In it, we learned that his brother and eight friends died during the dance’s creation.
If AIDS was the condition for “Not-About-AIDS-Dance,” the text for “Betsy” wonders: “What is inescapably a context of this work? Covid? The segregation of the dance world? That I finally see the underlying racism of some of the jokes I used to tell?”
Or, finally, “What is it to show a dance in 2022?”
The text also reveals that at one point the framing title for this work was “Not-About-White-Supremacy-Dance.” Instead, Greenberg settled on “Betsy.” It’s something of a personal joke. “And then with that joke,” he said, “I started really enjoying the analogy of a person — of a dance as a person. It isn’t that the dance is about a person. It isn’t about a Betsy. It is a Betsy.”
He likened the choreographic process — a brisk two months, which is unusually fast for him — to watching “Betsy” grow up, just as a person would. “I was sometimes being surprised, like, Ohhh, ‘Betsy’ is turning into a wild child,” he said. After watching a studio showing, the dancer Paige Martin, a longtime collaborator, told Greenberg that it was the weirdest dance he’d ever made. That made him feel great.
The cast features Greenberg — though his presence, and much of his movement, seems separate from the others — with three others: the exceptional, multigenerational trio of Paul Hamilton, Opal Ingle and Owen Prum.
In “Betsy,” the dancers, with as much power as grace, move with the kind of awkward, long-limbed elegance that Greenberg is known for. Sometimes, as the choreography and music play with and confront the tension between race and masculinity in dance, they seem as if they are intent on seduction.
Proximity helps. “Betsy” is performed with audience members on four sides, with the dancers occasionally breaking the fourth wall; they tease the possibilities of an audience-viewer relationship by pausing to gaze at viewers or to give a barely there smile. They sit, at times, with the crowd. It’s a little disconcerting, though not exactly distracting. “We’re trying to develop that kind of play,” Hamilton said. “You can’t really plan for the reaction of the audience, and I’m sure every night will be somewhat different — and that’s exciting as well. But it’s the nervy part.”
The dance is one element. The layered, textured score is another and a first: a collaboration between the much-admired composers James Lo and Zeena Parkins, whose work scoring dances is an important part of their musical identity. It was Parkins’s idea; she has been a fan of Lo’s for years and had suggested that he compose a score for Greenberg — “To the things themselves!” (2018) — when she was unavailable.
“I wanted to know how his brain worked when he made music for dance because he’s obviously devoted to it,” she said. “And that’s the way it is for me. It’s not an extra sidebar of what I do as a composer. It’s a major component of my work.”
She added: “What better way than to propose collaborating with somebody to get into their brain? It’s like being a spy.”
For “Betsy,” Greenberg gave Lo and Parkins source material to respond to — music from “Shaft” and selections from “The Nutcracker,” including the Chinese, Arabian and Spanish dances. It’s a provocation. In recent years, these ethnic dances have been criticized (and in some cases amended) for the way they feed into stereotypes, from the sexually charged exoticism — and eroticism — of the Arabian dance to the insulting portrayals of Asians in the Chinese dance.
In “Betsy,” sections of “The Nutcracker,” as Greenberg said, “live in there. People recognize it, people hear it, but it isn’t like we just play a track of anything.”
Long beaded headpieces, originally inspired by Ingle’s flowing hair — during some early improvisations, Ingle flung it in a way that Greenberg appreciated — are also part of the look of “Betsy.” (No one else in the cast has long hair.) “That started a train of thought, and then my imagination kept going,” Greenberg said. “They’re a little like Las Vegas’s idea of a sheikh, like Arabian.”
When he was laying out the groundwork for “Betsy,” Greenberg started to think about his own history with “The Nutcracker,” which he performed while training at Minnesota Dance Theater. The Arabian variation was usually assigned to a dancer of color. “It’s like, this is where the sensuality and the sexuality come in,” he said. “It’s the primitive, but oversexed. It’s horrible.”
When he learned the Spanish variation at 15, “we had a ballet master that year who told all of the men that we were supposed to look like we wanted to rape our partners,” he said. “He wanted that look of violent, aggressive desire.”
And in the company’s Chinese variation, Greenberg played an Asian man who pushes four cygnets onto the stage in a rickshaw. “I had to act like I fell asleep in the rickshaw and at the very end of the dance wake up and freak out that I was caught falling asleep and run offstage,” he said. “It’s supposed to be comical. This is how whiteness deals with otherness.”
What do otherness and white supremacy mean for Greenberg choreographically? “Part of it has to do with using white and nonwhite dancers onstage,” he said, adding that he had often heard from nonwhite and especially Black dancers that they didn’t want to be the sole performer of color. “Like, ‘I don’t want to bear the weight of being the go-to person to ask questions or to represent,’” Greenberg said. “And then the way this project ended up, there was only one Black person.”
That dancer, Hamilton, was once Greenberg’s student at Purchase College, where he danced the Arabian variation in a student “Nutcracker” production. Of “Betsy,” he said: “I definitely believe that my presence in the piece, my body being in the piece, is part of the story that he’s trying to tell.”
Though they have a long history, Hamilton, a much in-demand dance artist, has never worked with Greenberg until now. He’s enjoying the process in all of its ambiguity. “‘Betsy’ is everything,” he said. “We can have it be whatever meaning we want. It could just also be this beautiful dance that unfolds over 55 minutes. But for me, ‘Betsy’ is kind of a lifelong dream come true: of being able to work with Neil.”