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Flash Review 1, 1-23: Scoring "Aeros"
Technical Difficulty: 8.9; Artistic Merit: 5.1; Execution: 9.2

By Christine Chen
Copyright 2001 Christine Chen

BERKELEY, California -- Where is the line between art and sports? Why do we watch the Olympics with awe and amazement? How is this different from the way we are riveted when Baryshnikov steps onto the stage? Are sports still interesting (for the audience and for the athletes) when taken out of their competitive context? Do athletes, specifically amazingly able-bodied gymnasts, necessarily make good dancers? Do they make good performers? What can three world-class choreographers create with 15 Olympic-caliber gymnasts -- bodies which are physically capable of almost anything imaginable -- at their disposal? These are some questions addressed by "Aeros," a collaboration between choreographers Daniel Ezralow, David Parsons, and Moses Pendleton; STOMP creators Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas; and 15 Romanian gymnasts and rhythmic gymnasts. Unfortunately, despite having the ingredients for a stunning spectacle of movement potential and choreography, "Aeros," presented over the weekend by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall as part of a national tour, felt more like an acrobatic demonstration than an integrated piece of art.

In the course of the twenty or so brief vignettes, there were glimmers of greatness, but there were also trite portrayals, gimmicks, unseasoned performances, and uninspired composition.

Ezralow, Parsons and Pendleton are known for their acrobatic work. They are all founding members of Momix; Pendleton is a co-founder of Pilobolus; Ezralow, a co-founder of ISO Dance; and Parsons, a creator of his own company. Parsons and Ezralow, as the favorite hard-bodied flying subjects of Lois Greenfield's arresting dance photography, are poster boys for an entire generation of energetic and athletic dance enthusiasts. These three men are responsible for creating such critically acclaimed and publicly adored pieces as "Caught" (Parsons) and "Circlewalker" (Pendleton), but have also been accused of catering to the lowest common denominator (dabbling in mediocrity by creating simplistic, crowd-pleasing eye candy) in some of their other choreography. Worse yet, they have been charged with selling out their art for an easy profit (Parsons's Times Square Millennium Extravaganza and Ezralow's choreographic debacle at the Oscars a couple of years ago). As an ex-gymnast and as someone who can literally trace my interest in the dance field to one piece -- "Caught" -- the "Aeros" project seemed like a collaboration coupe. However, remembering the choreographers' misses as well as their hits, knowing that the work was originally developed as a corporate venture sponsored by Pantene, and wondering about the athletes' ability to transcend their sports mentality -- to perform, captivate, and inspire rather than compete -- I kept my expectations in check.

The opening vignette was promising for its pure driving, dynamic pace. The usually submissive Zellerbach audience hooted and hollered as they admired the beautiful bodies flying through the air. The choreography was simple: The performers leapt, tumbled and rolled across the length of the floor with military precision in unison and canon, but the virtuosity and the effortlessness with which the gymnasts catapulted their bodies was exhilarating. The movement vocabulary was elementary, by gymnastics standards, but flawlessly executed. Cartwheels, walkovers, floaters (back handspring step-outs), and variations on Shushunovas (leaps and tours to the stomach) comprised the lexicon for this section and for much of the evening.

The rest of the show failed to equal the bar set by the opening, and after the novelty of the gymnasts' unique ability wore out, so did my attention. The sections which followed, as I saw them, fell into a few distinct categories: "Boys will be boys," "Rhythmic gymnasts as Bond girls," "Boy/Girl Duets," "Recycled Gimmicks," and "Group Stunt Work."

In the "Boys will be boys" sections, men sauntered around with a certain "guy" energy, periodically ogling women (who walked by on their hands) as they attempted to one-up each other with increasingly impressive displays of virtuosity. They pressed up to handstands on tables and chairs and performed pommel horse maneuvers on tables and mushroom stoops (pommel horse-training equipment).

In acts resembling opening credits to a Bond film, rhythmic gymnasts slinked around with their balls and ropes and performed what they do best -- feats of flexibility and agility. Their feats failed to hold my interest, however, because of their even and predictable pace and phrasing. The "tricks" seemed unimpressive as well because they fell somewhere between the clean lines of balletic extensions and the "Omigod can a body do that?!" extensions of circus contortionists.

In a recurring interlude, a man chased a woman with a rose. They ran and tumbled across the stage a couple of times. He caught up to her, she flipped him over and knocked him down with a flourish, standing triumphantly with her hand on her hip as he collapsed on the floor, defeated beneath her. Cute? Perhaps. But not exactly challenging content.

In another male-female pairing, a couple performed some handstands, splits and lifts on/under/above/around each other. Again, the partnering moves did not quite meet the virtuosity of circus pair acts, nor did they have the artistry of a dance duet. Even though some of the feats were impressive, the duet read more like a set of tricks stiltedly strung together than an organically flowing connection between two people. Their attitude toward each other was inhuman and without any chemistry, intention, or opinion. Not that this duet necessarily needed to be bound to the relationship context, but if this project was truly about exploring the potential of the human body, then the movement should have really gone beyond the standard gymnastics moves. The choreographers could have found new variations on lifts and handstands, given the incredible strength and flexibility of the performers. They could have explored different ways of transitioning between moves, making choices about flow and dynamic rather than having all the transitions seem functional. They could have coached the performers to find unique and varying ways of executing the moves, and encouraged some motivation beyond simply completing a maneuver. Or, they could have situated the tricks in a different context, such as bringing out a relationship between the two (since the audience will inevitably read this into the set-up anyway). This way I might have been able to see the moves in a different light, discover their relevance to my life, or use them as a metaphor for something larger. This is, after all, the theater, and should transcend life and the sports arena.

Falling into the "Recycled Gimmicks" category were glow-in-the-dark costumes and props, trompe de l'oeil lighting tricks, and a microphoned floor. Using the magic of black light, rhythmic gymnasts adeptly controlled glowing rhythmic ropes for our viewing pleasure. The lights swirled and blurred, then came to a halt in clean lines; they entwined, then magically separated. This section worked because it actually explored different potentialities for the visual effects of a simple concept. With the black light still in effect, white unitard clad bodies then traversed the stage on their hands, occasionally meeting up with other bodies and traveling together.

A promising vignette just missing the mark was the swimming meet section. In it, a group of performers lined up and executed gestures we might see swimmers give before they plunge into the pool. The lights went out and an image of bubbles was projected onto a downstage scrim. Behind the bubbles, dancers dove off of mini-trampolines through strategically placed rays of light and rolled to the floor in the dark. The intended effect, I assume, was for the light beams to catch the gymnasts only in mid-air so they would appear to be consistently flying/floating (a la "Caught" -- sound familiar?). However, because of the light projected onto the scrim, the gymnasts were visible at all times, and the illusion was not quite achieved. The scene continued for quite awhile with little variation in the dives the gymnasts executed. Still, this was definitely one of the more interesting sections because it situated the action in a stunning environment and took gymnastics out of familiar territory.

In another one of the more successful group sections, choreographed by Ezralow, the gymnasts upped the ante and performed some more dynamic tumbling with near misses and interactions with one another. The gimmick here was that the soundtrack was provided by the sprung floor, which was amplified for this section. The rhythms were clear and intricate, but also, because they were created almost inadvertently by the performers (who were simply tumbling in their usual manner), organic. The composition of this section was handily crafted with rhythm in mind, thus layering the movement with some other agenda, and making it interesting to watch on several levels.

So, the most successful portions of the show involved the large groups of performers: the opener, the finale, and the trampoline and the mini-trampoline work, all of which kept the action moving, and really took the gymnastics beyond the sport level. The group work that used equipment (traditional apparatus like the rings, horse, and parallel bars, as well as a strange 20-foot tall slinky-like contraption, designed by "Lion King" co-designer Michael Curry) was less successful. The traditional apparatus work did not depart, at all, from a practice session at the gym, and the slinky thing was just, well, cheesy. In this section, choreographed by Pendleton, the gadget was initially wheeled out cloaked in a white fabric onto which either David (Michelangelo) or George Washington (from the dollar bill)'s face was projected. Several performers on the floor pushed it around while others climbed around the concentric circles. Women writhed at the top as a stripper might interact with a pole, and people continued to drop from the apparatus to join the worker bees pushing at the bottom. A man emerged from this group, triumphantly climbing from below, then standing triumphantly atop the peak of the slinky. Cue over-the-top musical swell.

Watching gymnastics competitions is interesting because of the high stakes. We forgive the gymnasts for appearing as though they have a pole up their butts because we understand the pressure and the importance of "sticking to their routines." Watching dance is interesting because the performers can breathe life into their movement and can potentially give us something we are missing from life. They do not have to meet a judge's standards and "fight for every tenth," but the stakes are just as high: They have to transcend the profane and inspire an audience. The great Ezralow-Parsons-Pendleton triumvirate and team STOMP neither adequately explored the movement potential of these amazing bodies, nor did they elicit that exciting but elusive performative quality from them. "Aeros," an all-star partnership on paper, contained flickers of inspiration, but overall was little more than a gymnastics pageant situated in a series of trite scenarios.

 

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