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Flash Review, 3-22: Bright Eyes, Big City
Pluck, Play by Play: Of These, Hope

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider

My putative reason for skipping Day One of the "Who Owns Martha Graham?" trial yesterday in Federal Court for the Southern District of Manhattan was that I had to wait for the refrigerator repair man, scheduled to stop by "between 8 and 2." When 2 rolled around with nary a site of the man from Speedway, starving me hustled down 8th Street to 3rd Street Cheese. When I returned an hour later, the Speedway van was parked in front with the Speedway man huddling from the rain. "I'm here to fix your stove," he announced -- the stove being the one that had exploded in my face two months ago, and in whose place the landlord had given me a hotplate, forcing me to contemplate taking him to court for a real stove. Actually, for two months I contemplated not paying the rent with the defense that I was cooking on a hotplate and my fridge was leaking, but Monday I paid for February and March, warning that I would still take the landlord to court for the stove, refrigerator and, oh, did I mention our building buzzers have been broken since February? Welcome to life in the big city, baby!

When you're a dancer in the big city (I'll return to the Graham theme later, and by the way, this IS a review of the Pluck Project, the North Carolina School of the Arts student-produced concert which opened last night at NYC's University Settlement and closes tonight) the battles of day-to-day living are just where your day starts. Your morning next takes you to the dance class which you can't really afford, unless you pay for it by providing free labor to the dance studio, which then likely doesn't pay the dance teacher for your student self. In the afternoon maybe you'll go to a nice little social where you get to be intimate with 150 other women, unless you're a man and then it's a more intimate intimacy, a club of maybe 20, tops. These gatherings are also called "auditions." In the cruelest months, they START with a director or choreographer lining you up and saying, "You -- stay; you -- go." The choreographers that expect you to exercise some creativity might give you the time it takes to do a diagonal to demonstrate it. Then you're off to your temp job, or your waiting job, or, if you're lucky, your personal training job where, to start, you'll clear $25 while the gym owner gets the rest of your $100 an hour rate. Soon those rosy eyes start to dim just a little, even if you're the only one that can notice it. Just don't tear up, baby, or you might lose site of that Parsons gig that's the Holy Grail if only because it pays so relatively well, with, even, dental insurance yet.

Yes, for a dancer, this is life in the big city, baby. And yet, ever since Martha G. made the cross-country trip from California to found this Crazy Church of Modern Dance, dancers have flocked to New York as soon as they graduate from college. Only three years ago, a group of bright-eyed upper-classwomen from the North Carolina School of the Arts decided they weren't going to wait 'til they burst from the embryo. No, while they still enjoyed the insulated luxury of time and resources college allowed them, they were going to not just put on a show, but take it on the road, to New York. Taking a cue from Sara Hook (who, with David Parker, was advising them that first year), who hailed their "pluck," they called their show the Pluck Project. I've checked their act every year since, and every year it makes me forget the dancer's often dismal daily NYC life, not to mention many a dismal performance, and restores my hope in the utter hopefulness of this art, and its practitioners. Do I go expecting great choreography? No. Do I go expecting heart to the nth degree? Yes.

This year's model was no disappointment in the heart category. And, to the degree that it gave me some food for critical fodder -- my pen was going non-stop with ideas, for all 12, count 'em 12 presentations -- the content offered some meat. And now I'm going to chew on it, in public, with the proviso that, since the idea of this concert -- which the students produce, in all its aspects - is to simulate a professional experience, I'm going to give them a professional, not a patronizing, review, with all that entails. Fasten your seat belts, dance insiders, it's going to be a bumpy ride!

After last year's concert, I complained at the apparent Dorfmanization of the NCSA composition class. Oh these kids, I nagged -- they love David Dorfman, and you could see it in the over-abundance of gestures like that upside-down V, butt-in-the-air one. I also suggested that perhaps, if the goal of the Pluck Project was to display the student, about-to-be-professional dancers' dancing ability, they were perhaps not best served by their own very green choreography.

Well, that observation riled not a few of the students, and now I'm about to make them pull their hair out with this one: This time around, they appear to have gone to the other extreme, with many of the dances having simply too much crammed into one 5-minute-or-less piece. At this length, these should be thought of as danced short stories, only the NCSA comp. teachers appear not to be teaching their charges the fundamental rule of short-story writing: It's not a novel. Stick to one idea, one feeling, and tell it well. LESS IS MORE. Dance-wise (I'm NOT a comp. teacher, so here I'm going to reveal my own limits in identifying elements of dance vocabularies), stick to one gesture, perhaps unfurled in different ways, different tempos, or even in different limbs. With few exceptions (speaking here just about the choreography), these dancer-choreographers were all over the place -- the floor, the various corners of the stage, eyes looking to the side, legs whipping round the sides, somersaulting, going on tippy toe, clasping hands together with arms akimbo. You notice my description is already seeming a bit blurry? The problem with so much over-abundance -- even if the intent is generous -- is that in the long term, you're not really giving the audience something they can take home with them, because it all blurs: the gestures in your dance, and the degree to which they're differentiated from the others on the program.

Having said that, there is a positive reason arguing for these choreographic tour-de-forces. From a show-off-the dancer perspective, they're actually dancer tour-de-forces, showing everything the dancer can do, and how well she (no boys again this year -- what's up with that?) can do it, and with what spirit and focus. If anything, the problem is perhaps not so much an inherent one with the choreography, but with what still seems to me a confusion of mission. What is the Pluck purpose? Is it to show off the dancers, enabling them to make a splash before they actually hit NYC to live, and have to deal with all the daily distractions of surviving in the big city? To get them hired, or at least plant that idea in the minds of choreographers who might see them at these concerts? (Catherine Miller, a Pluck co-founder who was seen by NCSA alum Mark Dendy the first year, is about to start working for him. Props to Ms. Miller! Summer Robertson, also a co-founder, is dancing for Avila-Weeks and has also worked with Michael Mao. She's also decided to go back to school, as has last year's most promising choreographer, Emily Tschiffely, but not before she produces some of her own work this June. Props Redux!) Or, is it supposed to be a showcase for their choreography? I don't think it can be both, and hope to fully succeed; I don't see any Mark Dendys or Sara Hooks here, choreographer-wise, at least at this stage, although three hint at that promise. (See below.) While this year's efforts, in the maximally increased movement diversity within the individual pieces, do show more of what the dancers can do, they also reveal limitations in the choreography, with three exceptions.

Three dancer-choreographers did stick to one idea, in each case with a promising choreographic effort that also displayed them at their dancing best.

Cheri Paige Fogleman, in Pippy Longstocking pony-tails jutting out from either side of her head and natty checkered paints and striped shirt designed by the NCSA costume shop, offered a Petrouchka-esque interpretation of Antonio Bazzini's frenetic "Dance of the Goblins" that, while clearly evoking a marionette moving to forces beyond its control, as if on hot coals, did so without any of the usual stereotypes. Fogleman jutted limbs, spun out of control, dropped, clawed at the music, suddenly shot up and froze -- in all, piled inventive gesture upon inventive gesture, using the whole stage, and all this while maintaining a deer-caught-in-the-headlights startled gaze that didn't waver, until she suddenly backed up to the back of the stage, groped at the wall while shrinking from some evil force in the audience, and disappeared right before the music ended. A brave choice, this, because this was neither a pretty nor graceful dance.

Jennifer Kaye Smith also made an unusual and brave choice. Dancing to "found" music -- a colleague found it on a mix tape (for one assignment, the NCSAers have to create a dance to music provided by a peer) -- Smith presented a clear contrast between, well, movement and music. To the percussive -- percussive like a truck, with a decided factory astringency! -- score, Smith, in red leotard with reddish-blonde hair bunned up, did a graceful dance to this most ungraceful of music. And pulled it off! She kept her focus, often directed into the audience, and ate the stage with traditionally lyrical movement.

If there was a weak spot here, it was that in this exercise in differentiation -- the movement really fought the score -- Smith concluded rather patly. Can I remember this ending? NoŠjust that I wrote down that most of the endings of these pieces seemed to say, in very large letters like those at the end of the old pictures, "THE END." Again, what I detect here is a weakness in teaching, the weakness being that these earnest choreographers don't seem to have been taught that dances don't always have to end with An Ending. If anything, a short story leaves you with the sense of a complete beginning, as if what you've seen isn't the whole story, but just a vignette that captures a moment in the story.

Amy Page, in "Unease RePete," did seem to be going for one feeling, and she definitely stirred me. I saw a general lurch, as if in fear of something offstage -- both by how she kept looking to the side of the stage, and by the way she hunched her body, causing her blue satiny gown to rustle and scrunch in reaction, tho it was more than that. Page ever so subtly gave us an exquisite moment right from the top, when she furtively flexed her toes. She also had a clear relationship to her costume (by Breanetta Mason), using it to extend her body's expression, to particularly contrasting effect when, after a hunch, her body would expand, the lushest instance of this being when, one leg on the ground, the rest of her body floated into a vertical plane. She also seemed to have found movement that in its slightly melancholy, more than slightly haunted feeling expressed, or at least matched, Eugene Ysaye's Sonata for Solo Cello Op. 28, Movement 1.

Now then, for the rest. Er, I don't mean to lump them together as in, There were the above three and then, yeah, yeah, the rest. The following were certainly distinct dances; I'm just saying the above three were the most distinct of the evening, and in an evening that included 12 dances, I can't give a lengthy paragraph to each one, or you won't even make it to my boffo, tie-it-all-back-into-who-owns-Martha ending, dance insider!

So, the most I can say about Isabelle Provosty's "Falling Open" is that it was lyrical, and that I like the way Provosty caught the light. (Oh, and speaking of lighting, as this was also produced by students, I gotta grade it, or at least evaluate it: Too many of the dances ended with -- wait for it -- a slow fade! When a dance required more than one lighting scheme with the requisite fade, the transitions were heavy-handed and choppy.)

In Katie Swords's "Falling UP," to Medeski, Martin and Wood's "Nocturne," I liked the choice of Takemitsuesque, Asian percussion with Western strings music. My notes include: "How does she bend her back like that?" "Body seems carried away." "She keeps falling." And, underlined, "Supple." Swords's ending, in which she collapsed and arched backward, was distinct.

Amanda Oakley's choice of music for "Soften," Michael Nyman's "The Heart Asks Pleasure First," could be considered either brave or easy. When I see a dance set to Nyman, my first reaction (er, before the dance even starts) is, as it is when I see one set to John Adams or Philip Glass, "Oh, imagine that: a dance set to Nyman!" And yet, as danceable in their overt rhythm, melody, or just plain emotion as these works are, they can also make a bad choreographer's lack of innovation transparent. When the choreography is insipid -- Peter Martins, op. Cit.! -- you conclude, "He/she is so lacking in imagination they can't even create a dance to this eminently danceable music."

All of which is to say that Oakley, in her luminosity and sweeping movement, was up to the music. Notes include: "How does she whip that purpley-garbed leg around so swiftly?"

For "Imprints," Lindsay Davis chose "Acentuado" by Astor Piazzolla. (That's another one which makes me say, "Oh look, someone set a dance to Astor PiazzollaŠ." Did you know that Peter Martins set a dance to Astor Piazzolla, as arranged by John Adams, and "succeeded" in making a dance so bad that it made even Wendy Whelan look bad, succeeding also in creating the first dance to make me expostulate, "It's crap!"?) Davis -- oy, my handwriting -- hmmmŠ. Looks like I've written: "Beautiful in floor movement." "Heart-thumping presence." (Hey, if Chris Dohse can quote his companion as extolling a dancer's perky butt, I can say a dancer caused my heart to thump!) "Lots of sweeping."

Oh, and here I've also noted that a good trend I see overall, in this year's concert, is to address the audience directly, looking into our eyes -- an unabashed, welcome rebuff to the detached, "I Can See You But I'm Going to Pretend You're Not Here and I'm Dancing for Myself" trend that still prevails in much post-modern dance, at least in NYC. Anyway, many of these dancers were direct in their dancing, and Davis particularly made me note that.

Kathleen Hahn, in "Closet Artist's Vehicle," took what on its surface might be called a brave choice, but one which she didn't back up with the actual choreography. Her costume -- a white leotard that swathes her from foot (?) to head, with only a little room for her face, also painted white -- is an obvious attempt to stand out, and then there's that briefcase. But the dance doesn't live up to the uniqueness of the costume. It's robotic, it's machinic, its reactive, it's teetering, it's groping, she gropes at something on an imaginary table, picks up her briefcase and walks off. It's too harsh to say this is weirdness for wierdness's sake; let's just say Hahn couldn't come up with weirdness distinctly weird enough to match the weirdness more than promised by costume and briefcase. And that I didn't see a clear choice in how to manifest that weirdness.

We're back to straight-ahead lyricism with Brea Cali's "Perforated Edge, " to Antonin Dvorak's Slavonic Dances, No. 1 in C Major Presto. This dance provoked me to write that I like the program structure. I've also written, "Grace -- Modern movement, body pulls, and groundwork to traditional music. Now a tightrope, falling, rolling, but too much of a polyglot." And, "I don't see enough definition in the relation of the movement to the music." Yes, this one demonstrates my over-arching criticism of many of the dances -- namely that too much is jammed into them, to the extent that I start to ask, Was this really dictated by the music, or by your desire to throw as much dance into one piece as possible? And, again, where was the guidance from the instructors? Teach your children, teachers: LESS IS MORE. And more can sometimes be less.

I've written the same about Helen Simoneau's "Pieces" -- that I don't' see the relation of the movement to the music. There are more floor slides, here -- this year's Dorfman V.

Camille Brown's "In the Arms (Phase 1)" started with a refreshing difference -- to silence. (Tho this did remind me that none of the dances had been made to silence. I prefer music, but as silence is the choice of more and more of our post-moderns -- and not always to distracting effect -- I found it strange that, so to speak, silence did not have a voice in this concert.) But then the music -- Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" -- kicked in. And while I liked the cleanness of Brown's articulation, with finely etched lines, and the stark way her body caught the light, I wasn't sure where the intensity was coming from. And, again, there was too much. Brown can certainly do anything -- but that doesn't mean she needs to do everything.

Finally -- Still with me, Dance Insider? That rave of a Graham-tied-in ending is careening towards you with the speed of a whipping 20-year-old leg! -- Janice Lancaster also offered more whipping legs. But it all seemed, if anything, too quick, especially to the Wendy Mae Chambers music, "Wild Ride." But Lancaster did offer some nice freeze frames when the music paused. On the other hand, her fleetness also made me note, "I'm worried about the Juilliardization of NCSA," Benjamin Harkavy having turned Juilliard into a facile Parsons II or Ailey III company.

We can't afford for NCSA to go that way. This is the school -- yow, I was going to lead with this, but I guess these dancers so moved me with their own unique spirits that I forgot -- that produced Mark Dendy, Mary Cochran, Sara Hook, Peter Pucci, Ashley Roland, Chrysa Parkinson, Eric Hoisington, and others who are still making an impact on the field today. It also -- thanks to some pretty warped Graham disciples who reigned as teachers at NCSA for too many years, only forgetting the "love" part of Martha's "tough love" approach -- produced a lot of basket cases, or, at the least, a pretty dysfunctional family.

Right now -- and don't worry, I say this knowing that the greater responsibility lies with Darth Protas -- right now the Graham entity itself has turned into a pretty dysfunctional family, as it continues to argue over Mama's will, and the question of who owns her creations.

That answer will be decided in court. But I'm here to tell you that, when it comes to the question of who owns Modern Dance, the verdict is already in: It's those plucky great-grandchildren of Martha who were in the house last night at University Settlement, and who will be in the house again tonight. Catch 'em while you can at 184 Eldridge Street, dance insider: I guarantee you'll leave with eyes brighter than when you entered. (And if you want to make sure you get in, call 336-631-1203.)

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