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Flash Review 2, 10-10: Birdbrain
Throwing Eggs at Ballet, Again

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2001 Alicia Mosier

NEW YORK -- Australian Dance Theatre, "Birdbrain," at the Joyce, last night, in New York City. Slight headache; ears still ringing. My first thought is this: the main trouble, in the arts, with many acts of deconstruction, or post-structuralism, or whatever is the term of the moment, is that you can usually figure out the game within the first few minutes -- then it's up to you to find something interesting to watch. With the game of "Birdbrain," it takes less time than that. While parts of the production are impressive, fun, and even thought-provoking, the prolonged spelling out of the conceit behind it is mostly numbing.

Here's how it begins. In front of a wall covered with simple Baroque-era drawings of people dancing , a pretty young woman walks onstage wearing a white t-shirt that reads, "Overture." She sits down beside a turntable, drops the needle, and listens to a few bars of Tchaikovsky's score for "Swan Lake." Brrrrrrrp goes the needle: next track. Brrrrp: she skips to the next one and listens for a while, then the next, then the next. (Implied message to audience: "See how irreverently we treat this venerable Russian music!") The woman listens to the whole of the score, both sides of the record, in about 60 seconds. Then, on comes the blasting techno music, on come the flashing blue lights, and on come the troops -- similarly young and good-looking, similarly clad in t-shirts and gray pants. For the next hour and fifteen minutes, it's barefoot, breakdancing, hair-flinging, lip-pouting, contact-improvising, muscle-exploding action. ("Birdbrain" is too long by half.) The audience was so visually and aurally assaulted that they didn't even think to applaud for a particularly nice spot of spinning until the spinner himself glared at them as he walked offstage. It wouldn't surprise me if the brief, rambunctious cheers at the end of the night were judged by medical experts to be the result of a collective neural collapse among the patrons of the Joyce.

I don't want to be too tough on the director/choreographer, Garry Stewart, perhaps best known in this country for "Thwack!," a dance show that visited New York not long ago. It's not as if he was aiming for, say, "Swan Lake." Indeed, part of the fun of "Birdbrain" -- which Stewart describes as an affectionate deconstruction of the legendary ballet -- is that it knows it can never be "Swan Lake." That ballet simply is what it is, and the very fact that it still has such a grip on audiences can be cause for admiration or disgust or plain old stupefaction. Stewart chooses to respond with a (mostly joking) thumbing of the nose.

Some of what interests Stewart and his team about "Swan Lake" is all the surface business that often interests postmoderns when they analyze classic works of art: the artificial emotions, the boxed-in vocabulary, the stereotyped characters, the melodramatic ending. Hence "Birdbrain" puts the "emotions" that are supposedly expressed in "Swan Lake" on its dancers' t-shirts: "Lust," "Longing," "More Pointless Revelry," "Royal Disdain." One woman, a white swan, has a ghastly, spastic bird arm. The black swans twitch with claw-like hands. A flowery cascade with corny music erupts on film when the lovers, Siegfried and Odette, are reunited. (That is, when *someone* is reunited. There are no stable characters except for the sorcerer von Rothbart, played by a long-haired contortionist behind a video of reptile scales. This interpretation of Rothbart has promise; we just didn't get to see how it fit into anything here.) The classical port de bras fuses into locks and pops; floor work is extensive and contact work is plentiful; every arabesque is sarcastic, simultaneously a statement and a joke. The prevailing style is a mix of genres from gymnastics to yoga -- monotonous after a while, but well-blended and impressive in the sheer power and speed it requires from the dancers.It can also be brutal and machine-like. (Sometimes I found myself thinking, "Compared to this, you say ballet is dehumanizing?!" But of course, "Birdbrain" also portrays that which it comments upon, and vice versa, and so forth. . . . )

Beyond the surface bits, there is also the myth of "Swan Lake," which encompasses myths about women and men and the way romantic stories are supposed to go, as well as myths about ballerinas and classical dance in general. From time to time lists of words scroll down a screen, meant to clue us in to the idea being skewered. First appear the by-words of the hated patriatchy -- among them "marketing," "hierarchy," "meaning," and "transcendence." Later, the names of great ballerinas scroll by -- Karsavina, Pavlova, Hightower. (A couple of the names were misspelled.) Later still, the numbers 1 to 32 flash on -- you guessed it, during a series of fouettes (done by several dancers). At one point, a grainy black-and-white photograph of a ballerina in full swan get-up comes closer and closer until we're looking up her nose and her eyes detach into little gray digital blocks.

To this sort of thing, I don't know what to say. Most thinking dancegoers are well aware that ballet deals in (among other things) symbolic language, myths of female grace, and sometimes arbitrary tests of physical perfection. A continuing curiosity about what those things mean is part of what keeps ballet fans coming back for more. And it's not as if no one has ever noticed that some of the things dancers do in the old ballets are pretty absurd. In short, the jokes in "Birdbrain" aren't terribly brainy, and they preach to the choir of those who already don't much like ballet.

There was, though, something affecting about the ending of "Birdbrain" (yes, something more than the fact that it was finally over). I won't describe it in detail, but suffice it to say that it involved Natalia Makarova, a classical gesture known as reverence, and the actual conclusion to the score of "Swan Lake." In its final moments, even though it was still making fun, this piece came close to some of the emotion -- some of the real longing, something with a human touch -- that can readily be found throughout a good production of the very ballet it tried, just for the hell of it, to take on.

Then again, maybe I'm taking this all too seriously. There's really no good reason for the existence of "Birdbrain," aside from poking bad old Ballet in the ribs and letting the amazingly strong, skilled, energetic dancers of Australian Dance Theatre loose onstage for an evening. They would be reason enough to see it, if only the music weren't so loud.

Australian Dance Theatre's "Birdbrain" continues at the Joyce through October 14.

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