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Flash Review 3, 6-5: Avant-Garde-Arama
Crying Uncle for Jimmy at P.S. 122

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider

Back in San Francisco, back in the day -- that's the '70s and '80s to you, bub! -- it wasn't ballet, or modern dance, or the San Francisco Mime Troupe, or a movie, or even the Jefferson Starship that was considered the perfect arts date. No, it was... the comedy club. Here comics like Robin Williams and Dana Carvey, and earlier Jonathan Winters and a young comedian named Woody Allen got their starts. Never mind that an unwitting audience member might find self or date heckled by the talent; a night at the Other Cafe was still considered less threatening than a night at the ballet, an entertainment sure to please a boy and a girl. Not just because we all like to laugh, but because the comic spoke directly to the audience, and also referenced the day's events. There was a feeling that the performer was not an effete artiste, but a real person who fought the same daily struggles, and read the same news, as we did. Of course, you and I, Dance Insider, have no fear of dance, but for those still scared of the serious arts, local producers have found a new weapon to lure them in: comedy. This was in the house -- or basement -- over the weekend at P.S. 122 with Uncle Jimmy's Avant-Garde-Arama, with an added fun for girls and boys guarantor: puppets!

Avant-Garde-Arama is kinda P.S. 122 to the nth degree. If this former school-house is the veritable "petri-dish of downtown culture," as the Village Voice has dubbed it, Avant-Garde-Arama is a petri-dish with curatorial caution thrown to the wind. Things may combust, and they do! Uncle Jimmy's name -- with clown-like tuft on white-made up head, he might be described as a warm-blooded puppet -- on the matinee ensures that at the least, laughing out loud will take place, and if we weren't already assured of that, Jimmy upped the anti this time around by adding the raucous band Coocoohandler to his puppet posse of the bug-eyed Chuck-Bob, Grandpa, and other of the little creatures created by the Elementals. (The tuft was because Jimmy had recently returned from the future -- two months in the future, don'tchya know -- where, he informed us, clowns were big, big, big!)

What impressed most in Saturday's acts was the overall level of sophistication. All had one avant-garde element in common: The most unexpected was just the starting point, and then they went on to really surprise. Would you believe me if I told you the most heartbreaking performance was the one that featured slowly psychologically discombobulating puppets fashioned from foam rubber? As animated by Kevin Augustine/Lone Wolf Tribe, the foam-imals in "Animal or Animal Dream" navigated through deaths of mothers and industrial accidents, Augustine counseling them to deal with these tragedies. I have seen the puppet future, and it is violently shaking foam rubber undergoing psychoanalysis!

Ken Butler strummed his violin bow across increasingly smaller instruments made from found objects, ending with a toothbrush. He didn't stop at the strumming, thrusting the toothbrush into his mouth, where its sounds were also amplified, before concluding by playing his own amplified head with his fist.

Saint Reverend Jen's greatest gift was not her sense of humour nor any one joke -- I personally, being TV-less, wouldn't have gotten the tele-tubbie humour of "Doodoo's Story: Behind the Hugs" -- but how much she believed she was Doodoo, the tele-tubby you don't hear so much about. When an incredulous audience member answered her call for questions by challenging Reverend Jen to re-enact a tele-tubby skit, she invited him to join her.

Ayo Janeen Jackson had only one gimmick -- a film Jackson in civilian clothes danced in her apartment as we watched the glittered up live Jackson undulate to a trip-hoppy tune. But the simplicity of this dance was a well-timed tonic amidst the more avant-garde surroundings.

One of the funnest features of comedy routines is the audience interaction; you too, may be drafted to be a straight man/woman! But Avant-Garde-Arama doesn't just want you as a foil; during intermission, lead curator Salley May took sign-ups for "40-second Street," in which anyone could sign up to give his/her best shot at 40 avant-garde seconds. I liked the girls in matching school uniforms who recited an oath in unison, the guy ("Herman") who held one foot behind him as he recited a later chapter of Melville's "Moby Dick" that culminates in the launching of the harpoon; and Akim Funk Buddha, who in a cameo used found props, his own street clothes, and a good dollop of aplomb to make himself appear to be levitating.

Avant-Garde-Arama played just last weekend, but this concept -- comedy tonight at the dance performance -- surfaces again later this month, with yet another attractive incentive. On June 22 & 23 and June 29 & 30 at Gowanus Arts in Brooklyn, the Industrial Valley Celebrity Hour is in the house. Produced by dance insiders Veronica Dittman and Faith Pilger, the evenings feature Dittman and Pilger, Kristina Isabelle (first weekend only) and Henry Faulkner. First weekend host is comic-musician Louis Schwadron, succeeded by comic-opera singer Shelly Watson. And if this isn't enough, there's free food and drinks too. Your $10 -- hey, you can barely buy a glass of champagne for that price at Lincoln Center, and it doesn't include your performance ticket! -- goes to the scholarship fund of Spoke the Hub. For more info, please call 718-857-5158. Be 'dere!

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