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Flash Review 1, 2-26: Man or Mechanimal?
Neumann's Own & More at Symphony Space

By Faith Pilger
Copyright 2001 Faith Pilger

In a time that feels precariously balanced upon the ideals of pragmatism, materialism and capitalism -- with fatalism lurking just around the corner -- artists seem to have taken on the roles of magicians. They create something from nothing, answer questions with riddles and display illusions that sometimes still shock and amaze.

On Saturday, an audience swarmed about the entrance to Symphony Space in anticipation of a particularly exciting evening of collaboration. This final performance of Face the Music and Dance, a program curated by Bill Bragin and Kay Cummings, was absolutely sold out. Perhaps it was Laurie Anderson's widespread appeal partnered up with the ever-growing buzz about the talent of David Neumann. For whatever reason, the theater was live and wired for this double program of premieres in electronic invention and modern dance which began with Allyson Green Dance and Paul Dresher.

Both choreographers presented a new group work created in collaboration with a composer as well as a related solo. In the case of Allyson Green, she performed alongside composer Joel Davel in her solo, "Shadow Catcher." Mr. Davel literally plucked his music from the air using two wands which triggered a wide palate of samples. The Buchla Lightning (invented by electronic music pioneer Don Buchla) is as fascinating in theory as it is in performance. As you might imagine, the result is quite visual, and yes, it is a brilliant and magical illusion. Unfortunately for this collaborative conversation, the musician upstaged the dancer and left the "conversation" unclear. The best moments were unison gestures and the few times that Ms. Green departed from an established vocabulary of prettily abstract movement to explore stranger gestures herself.

Ms. Green's larger work, "In The Name," was much more successful. Apparently developed in Slovakia and inspired by the choreographer's experiences working in Eastern Europe, the dance seemed to express an atmosphere more than a specific story. This mood was created through a choreographic cross-section of folk dance and more physical, Contact-based partnering executed by a strong and diverse group of dancers. Composer Dresher and Mr. Davel performed behind the ensemble in the shadows. This solved the problem which occurred in the previous solo and, although I was curious about the instruments (Mr. Dresher playing his recently invented "Quadrachord" and Mr. Davel on the Lightning and another new instrument, the Marimba Lumina), I think it was best left to the imagination. This allowed for more focus on the layers of expressive sounds and rhythms which seemed to physically drive the ensemble into the space.

Green stated in a program note that she was inspired by the artists who persevere even as their environments experience enormous cultural transformations. It is to her great credit that I believe she succeeded in communicating that complex idea through dance. I felt as if I met travelers who carried with them nostalgia, loneliness and hope. They moved in a universal dance vocabulary, but they retained a sense of individuality. Through a series of solos and duets performed within a semi-circle of lounging bodies, I felt like I was watching a pack of gypsies tell stories by firelight.

The second part in this double program instantly found something that had been missing in the first...a sense of humor. "So That You Could See Us Coming," the collaboration between Mr. Neumann and Ms. Anderson, was a complete theatrical experience. From the moment the curtains parted, I was transfixed. A Seuss-like tree sprung from a furry trunk and bore branches that swirled like metallic brushstrokes to hang strange illuminating fruit. (Thanks to Paul Clay for this incredible set design.) The music which Anderson mixed live from the sound board was dense and pervasive, suggesting the distant past or the inevitable future. Naoko Nagata dressed three of the dancers in pale unitards awkwardly patched with fur, the other three girls in sexy cyber-gear, metallic and tightly fitting. Neumann led this talented cast of performers through a series of sapient sketches that begged the questions: Where are we? When are we? (past or future) and who are we? Are we the "insane animals" that Nietzche suggests we might appear to be?

In the written program, Mr. Neumann quotes Nietzche and Stephen Jay Gould and he introduces cerebral ideas about the unpredictable nature of our origins. However, the work itself is not cerebral or heavy. It is indeed like a walk through the Museum of Natural History after dropping acid and is equally inconclusive. The special guest appearance of a family of tennis balls makes for some fun and a hint of symbolism that is never quite explained to satisfaction. The choreography is very smart, a blend of apelike looseness, locks, pops and body-waves with more aggressive partnering and spatial movement (it's not just a bunch of cave folks scratching their heads.) The three cyber-chicks appear to be the workers behind this special exhibition: quick and competent, but not necessarily more aware. This work seemed to express in a curious new voice the paradox of man as mechanimal. I must admit that I missed Ms. Anderson, who did not perform on the stage. She is always an incredible performer and musician at once, and so it was an unusual choice.

Last, but absolutely not least, the program hit its climax in Mr. Neumann's ingenious solo, "It's Gonna Rain." Choreographing to Steve Reich's early fragmentation of a preacher's quotation, Mr. Neumann has created a piece as unforgettable and universally effective as David Parsons's "Caught." However, Mr. Neumann uses no tricks or triggers, but relies on his own impeccable speed, accuracy and timing to create a fantastic special effect. He is as expressive as a blade in the hand of a master swordsman; as sharp in wit and as seemingly possessed. Thanks, David.

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