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Flash Review 2, 5-23: Gender Dancing
What do Sex, Booze and Catholicism Have in Common?

By Faith Pilger
Copyright 2001 Faith Pilger

With a childlike fearlessness, Vanessa Paige stood center stage Saturday night and introduced herself to the audience at Williamsburg Arts NeXus. In the wake of the Soundance studio of which she was executive director, which most of us are aware became "another casualty of the gentrification of Tribeca" (in the words of Paige), Paige continues to teach and choreograph and help direct the Gender Project. Her spring season, Cocktail Dances, named after her 1998 work (performed again last weekend) included dances by a variety of additional choreographers, as structured and directed by Paige, in a new piece inspired by the Gender Project. And so you might ask: What is this Gender Project!??

Well, there has been more and more discussion of late about the painful realities faced by the female modern dancer, the female choreographer, and the female company director. The Gender Project intends to facilitate constructive dialogue about gender and explore career strategies for women artists through a variety of means: research, interviews, panel discussions, performances and more. (Find out more about G.P. from JoAnna Mendl Shaw at 212-924-1336.) So, a cross-section of NYC dancer/choreographers are doing something pro-active. Fantastic! But that project, "Women Hitting the Wall," involves mostly established artists. So Paige recruited a number of younger female artists to be involved in a similar project for her season at WAX.

The evening of work was divided into three parts, concluding with the G.P.-inspired "Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board," a.k.a. "It's Just That Simple." Part one alternated new solos by Paige dubbed "What God Really Wants" with excerpts from the group work "Ash Wednesday." It also alternated in temperament from the witty political theater-dance solos to the more pensive, confessional and, dare I say it, more traditional modern dance, though all of the works in Part One dealt with the subject of religion.

Paige is a natural performer (she is quite animated off-stage as well as on) and possesses a refreshingly frank writing and theatrical style. I laughed out loud at her stories of growing up in the 70s, in a world obsessed with the Vietnam War and addressing racial and social (in)justice. She spoke and moved with a youthful compulsion, surrounded by red and green apples. The apples were her toys, but also her fundamental tools for explanation of the mixed family she grew up in (mixed religion, that is). She prayed to Michael Landon (her true father -- shsh, don't tell!) over the guilt she felt for hating another girl. And later in the program she returned with a third episode, "The Age of Reason." Here she revealed the juvenile crime committed when, disturbed by comments made at the birth of her baby brother ("It's a boy...great...now you can stop trying") she convinced her younger brother that he was not just adopted, but that he was, in fact, A GIRL!

The combination of family history and humor was very effective in the solos executed by Paige, and well balanced by the group dances performed by a diverse and talented ensemble. This company reminded me that Bill T Jones is not the only choreographer to use dancers with and for their differences from one another. The cast included the aggressive Chaya Gordon, Isadora-like Angela Rauter, Elmer Moore Jr., Christopher Higgins -- who had me laughing the loudest later in the show -- and the truly enigmatic, stand-out performer Jill Meadows. Meadows possesses an ember-like presence and poise that had us riveted to the stage whenever she graced the boards.

When I was a little girl, I had at least one music box, and certainly one with a twirling ballerina inside it. Part two of the program began with "Nostalgia," a quirky, sardonic dance by guest choreographer Carrie Ahern which made me wish I had this different kind of toy. The music for Ahern's accompaniment was recorded live inside the Musee Mechanique in San Francisco. The tinkly ragtime jazz was the machine which powered this strangely self-conscious doll and masochistically forced her to repeat tricks for her audience.

"Cocktail Dances," concluding this part of the program, was an ode to alcohol with recorded text from interviews with devotees of the swing/lounge scene. The company re-emerged with the glamour of night-lifers, in tightly choreographed numbers as well as a wandering in and out of each other's arms and finally their own clothes. There was certainly a sense of the dirt behind the fingernails that is inherent in all adult games.

The entire evening had a sense of lightness, even as it dealt with some weighty subjects, and this continued into the gender-bender work, "Light as a Feather...." The 13 sections were woven together with circus-like transitions in which all performers passed through the space in ways unique to their own styles, ranging from the Lordess of the Dance, Darrah Carr, to contact-inspired lifts and rolls. The music enhanced this circus feeling, with playful mixes by Hajji Majer and James Keepnews.

These transitional pieces had a raw feeling of improvisation (whether or not they were actually set) while remaining focused on specific themes of desire: for achievement of success in the piece "Try Harder," for gaining experiences and material items in "Get" and for validation by others in the critical nightmare, "It's too." The latter followed Darrah Carr's modern take on Irish traditional dance with its fancy footwork. Carr danced with a particular brightness and then stopped, looked sincerely at the audience and asked us for some constructive feedback. This made even more poignant the endless list of qualities that critics often use to define a work (too romantic, to edgy, too long....).

The effect was eerily psychological, and worked well with some role-reversal monologues written by Paige and performed by Elmer Moore, Jr., Angela Jones, Christopher Higgins and Sharon Reiner. In the same way that the movie "White Man's Burden" moved me with it's race role reversal, these monologues were very effective in clarifying the obvious differences between the male and female roles in the field of dance, with a sense of humor. The highlight came near the end of the piece when a smoke machine puffed from the wings (like steam) and a tall, muscular Moore, Jr. painfully weighed and re-weighed himself, calling out the new numbers, while a defeated Higgins binged on potato chips and talked about the brutality of weight issues. (E.g., How do you expect girls to lift you when you've got such a big ass.... I'm paraphrasing.) Behind them, the ensemble cast danced a take on "La Bayadere" with the lightness of feathers.

Throughout, we were fortunate to see excerpts of Angela Jones's "L'amour est un Oiseau Rebelle" (performed beautifully by Jones and Catey Ott), Kristen Mangione's mysterious "Skin Deep" (performed by herself), "Our World" -- choreographed and performed by Eun Jung Gonzalez and Catey Ott (in wild costumes of bubble rap and a huge clear rubber ball) and surprise interruptions by an insane old man with white beard and cane, honking a red horn (attached to cane) and singing "this old man, he played one..." while harassing the dancers and audience. The finale was a perfect conclusion, with the sweetness of a great song by the Velvet Underground accompanying an ensemble of dancers with brown paper bags over their heads (a comment on the corps de ballet???): "If you close the door, the night will last forever...."

In retrospect, I realize that this was a true evening of ideas, CLEARLY communicated through and about dance and theater. And these ideas linger, for much longer than the actual dance movements, which are sometimes easy to forget, like the many faces we pass on a street or at a large party. The text of this program was well edited, so that only the refined product remained, and it made connections which sometimes are lost to more absurdist/abstract dance theater works. It's just that simple, as they say.

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