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Flash Review 2, 1-22: Happy Apart
Durning & Yu: A Tree Plus a Tree is Naught

By Diane Vivona
Copyright 2001 Diane Vivona

Jeanine Durning and Cheng-Chieh Yu, seen Friday at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church, are two performers not to miss. Yu is plush and fluid; Durning a fireball of explosiveness. Both performers revel in understatement, allowing the body to speak its own expressive language. Each is hooked to the postmodern adage that movement has simultaneous meanings (two, three, four and up) which are equal as well as contradictory. With subtle sophistication both performers hint at their own amusement at this, as if to say, "We know what we're doing." And, indeed, they do, individually. When they get together to collaborate, however, a backslide occurs.

Durning and Yu were students together at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts; the premise of their collaboration over the weekend was to bring together two performer/choreographers who had developed in dance in distinctly different ways. This is not a very strong premise for collaboration, but whim and fancy may lead to greater things. For Durning and Yu, their experiments led to, guess what? Explorations of identity and culture. This is not surprising as the multi-culti-ethnicity thing breeds on thin air, but their explorations of this are... astoundingly... dull. It is as if, in tandem, each cancels the other's sparkle out, leaving a flat matte surface.

In Durning and Yu's duet "A Tree Plus a Tree is a Forest," the stage is lined with an odd assortment of objects: blank cards, a water bottle (filled), a thick organizer, two large red fans, a potato on a stick, an Asian-style 'to-go' container, and another potato. Yu dances and Durning joins her, carrying a blank card and wearing thick rubber slip-ons. Durning confronts Yu, forcing her to stop. She steps out of the shoes and Yu steps in. So the metaphors begin: a potato and some Irish step dancing; a scene in which the potato is swallowed by the 'to-go' container and a duet in which the potato keeps popping out; and a final dance which combines Irish and Asian folk movements, each dancer sweeping the air with the large red fans and slipping her legs in variations on an ethnic theme. In between there is plenty of propless, athletic movement. Durning spills to the floor and Yu embraces the air. The two help each other fly across space or struggle to prevent it. The difference in their execution and presentational style is immediately established, but rather unnecessarily. This could have been easily accomplished with less sweat and more imagination by a post-performance compare and contrast study of any of their works. This tree's fruit may have been better savored in private.

The other two works on the program were significantly more engaging. Yu's "My Father's Teeth in my Mother's Mouth" is a sly consideration of heritage and genealogy via orthodontia. I had the pleasure of seeing this piece at the Kitchen in December as a work-in-progress. (For a more detailed discussion, please see Flash Review 2, 1-3: Courage at the Kitchen.) On second viewing, it is still delightful to watch. Yu exhausts every possible analogy in this precept and her use of an aluminum soda can as a kind of crap-shooting, orifice-filling, teeth-holding container is rather astounding and magical.

Durning's "A Good Man Falls" has this choreographer/performer up to her old tricks. The set-up is a space-station-cum-'70s-discotheque which is peopled by two vixen/robot/television broadcasters. The disco ball spins and the dancers move with fragmented gestures through the ether. Add to this Durning herself who enters in a full-on space suit with space gloves and Jetson style bubble helmet and we have a recipe for tongue-in-cheek that would make Julia Child salivate. Performers Steffany George and Andrea Johnson provide the launch, taking photographs and interviewing our hero who fell to earth. Hero Durning is dry and deadpan, which only makes her delivery funnier. This send up of television journalism is hilarious, but is only half the story. Later the soundtrack reveals that Durning's answers are unoriginal. She is repeating Gwen Verdon's answers to a journalist in an interview after the Broadway opening of "Sweet Charity." Our easy laughter deepens to thoughtfulness of context (i.e., context is everything and nothing all at once). And amidst all of this there is dancing -- lots of it, precisely executed; but its context seems to matter not. The same steps appear here and there and here again and each time they convey an equally flat affect. The glittering production design by Naoko Nagata and provocative sound score by Robert Gould override all the frenetic energy of the dancing, primarily because of their specificity. Even Major Tom was floating somewhere.

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