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Rhythm Nation

Choreographer Jordana Toback on her latest work, “Poon,” and a scoop.

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NEW YORK — On churning hips, choreographer Jordana Toback and her seven dancers weave their way through the rehearsal studio. They writhe in place for an eight count, throwing more attitude than Janet Jackson when she’s nasty. Then Toback turns like a samurai on the quick draw, slashing and carving the air, before hitting a calm patch, her fingers twisting and curling like a yogi’s. If, as Jesse Ventura once said, wrestling is ballet with violence, then Toback’s latest work, "Poon," falls somewhere between the two.

Taking inspiration from Bob Fosse classics, folk dancing, the cancan, kung fu, burlesque and kundalini yoga, Toback, 34, will stage four performances of her eccentric cabaret at P.S. 122 this weekend, mixing in some of the twitchy robotic moves she first made famous as a founding member and the former choreographer for Fischerspooner. "I needed to do my own thing," says Toback, who left the group two years ago. "I wanted to make dance the star, not a lead singer. Now all you see is the beauty of the dance."

Moving in time to Tom Rossi’s electronically enhanced ethno-rock beat, and wearing costumes by downtown designers like Liz Collins, Elisa Jimenez, Peter Soronen and Zaldy, Toback’s dancers do it all, from a sexy version of a break-dancer’s wave to warped slow-motion sequences that bring "The Matrix" to mind.

"Part of what I want to express is the sensuality of nature," says Toback, who was overwhelmed by the beauty of Nova Scotia while visiting there last year. "I wanted to bring that pristine beauty back to the city." The dances in "Poon" are named after the elements; Toback’s ultramodern rite of spring — "Earth" — means clay-covered belly dancers undulating beneath an 8-foot neon sculpture shaped like a flower. With sharp sighs and gasps, dancers syncopate their breath throughout "Air," which Toback calls "a kung fu ballet," and which combines classical Indian dance with the stylized martial arts technique used by the Peking Opera. "The feeling is that you can see air because of the air the dancers are cutting through," says Toback. Between the elemental acts, slow-motion cabaret dancers will take the stage, as will a guy doing "jacking," a herky-jerky club dance popular during the Eighties.
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After its debut, producers hope to take the whole show — seven-piece orchestra and all — on the road.

Toback spent seven years toiling under the tutelage of Mark Morris, before breaking away to join the underground rock scene. And today, just a week before showtime, she is putting her dancers through their paces just like her former master. "I say the same things he did, like, ‘It’s your life, you live it,’ or ‘It’s your book, you write it.’ It’s the stuff he used to yell at me, and I didn’t get it," Toback tells her dancers. "Now, I get it."

The troupe changes into Liz Collins’ white ruffled dresses for the next dance, which, like the others, drifts between moods of aggression and dreaminess. "I don’t work in a certain vocabulary, I work with rhythms," explains Toback, who is herself by turns both hyper and laid-back. There’s a little hip-hop in this number, but there are cartwheels, mystical hand movements and a tango’s tight turns, too. The dancers tick across the room like weird windup dolls, then collapse.

"I find the rhythm of Eastern dance so inspiring," Toback concludes. "Ballet is so square."
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