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Flash Review 1, 1-23:
Technical Difficulty: 8.9; Artistic Merit: 5.1; Execution: 9.2
By Christine Chen
Copyright 2001 Christine Chen
-- 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
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
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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