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Flash Review 3, 6-12: Sit Down and Eat; No Exit
Dance and Drama at the Church

By Jenai Cutcher
Copyright 2001 Jenai Cutcher

An evening of performances at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church Friday turned out to be a relatively lukewarm dance experience. In two separate programs, Daniel Safer's production of Sartre's "No Exit" was preceded by that evening's entry in Food For Thought: six works curated by Peggy Cheng, which offered little more to chew on than the usual ingredients of modern dance. The evening of duets was generally comprised of safe and predictable material in terms of concepts and choreography; disappointing as this was in that respect, it was -- luckily -- not pervasive enough to overshadow some of its merits. For example, that these relatively young performers are technically proficient is a good thing.

This skill was certainly admirable in Jennifer Chin's "The Simple Story." Displaying impressive strength and extension, Chin danced with a rope tied around her left ankle that stretched the diagonal length of the space to the accompanying pianist (Arthur Solari) upstage left. The string of stuff -- or set, as it is referred to in the program -- was made by Colleen Kong. Although initially interesting to look at, its purpose never became clear, nor its presence fully acknowledged choreographically. As it laid, it served primarily to map out Chin's direction of travel before it happened and she indeed delivered, with some developes and Graham gestures along the way.

Comparatively, in "Queen," Erin Reck's most striking image was the dance's first, which was predictably cited again at the duet's close. A female dancer in a long red gown stood on a white pedestal in the center of the space and immediately evoked thoughts of Napoleon's Josephine -- a queen of sorts, I suppose. Sharp arm gestures suggested giving orders, placing a crown on her head, and other queen-like functions. Perhaps it was the pedestal and eventual entrance of a second dancer, playing the part of an ethereal guiding figure for the first, that made me feel I was privy to the world of a museum after its doors closed for the night. Queen was performed by Reck and Amelia Derezinski.

The last two pieces were both choreographed by Maura Nguyen Donohue. "Brother" opened with Brian Nishii walking the same diagonal Chin established at the beginning of the evening. He played the flute as he walked, stopping both activities as he reached Nguyen Donohue sitting in the corner. The two dancers then engaged in a series of partnering phrases, some impressive for the strength they required and ease in which they were performed, others nothing more than typical lifts seen in many dance pieces.

Partnering differed in style in "Both," a work in progress performed in two segments, first by Nancy Ellis and Nicole Marshall, then by Nguyen Donohue and Nishii, clearly the stronger two performers of the four. The choreography, influenced by martial arts, was the least codified movement of the concert and when "Both" ceases to be a work in progress, could be even more interesting to watch. As it was performed Friday night, however, moments of contact -- especially bigger and riskier lifts -- were met with flashes of hesitation that, albeit slight, managed to give the movement away milliseconds before it happened. Anticipation did this, too, as Nishii's head would invariably duck even before Nguyen Donohue lifted her leg to kick over it. Still, their attentiveness and focus were refreshing following many instances of the familiar glazed-over expressions on other dancers throughout the program.

.... Despite being produced by Danspace Project and being "directed and choreographed" by Daniel Safer, the late Friday night production of Jean Paul Sartre's "No Exit" featured no movement outside the realm of typical stage blocking. Nevertheless, it was a well-crafted theatrical production.

For Safer and designer Ruth Pongstaphone, Sartre's existential world of hell existed as a tiny, white Styrofoam layer of floor in the middle of the space, the surrounding audience acting as a barrier through which there was no exit. Stark white lights shining down at each corner conveyed the isolation of the characters while also reminding the audience members of each others' constant presence. (The glue holding these lights to their plastic posts melted early on in the performance, causing each to fall, one by one, at the joints. Although unintentional, this random punctuation of lines and even the absolute interruption of the production to clean it up was regarded as a welcome coincidence and perfect illustration of chance in a live theatre experience.)

The cast (Laura Avery, Aubrey Chamberlin, Heaven Phillips, and Fred Tietz) offered intelligent and complex performances of intelligent and complex characters. As Inez Serrano, Estelle Rigault, and Joseph Garcin find themselves locked in the same room for eternity, their dialogue revolves around concepts of life, afterlife, self-destruction, and the tortured nature of interpersonal relations. The confident development of such characters and concepts, especially in such close quarters, was admirable. Deliberately or not, Safer managed to torture his audience -- at least this member of it -- with expectations of dance. As the play progressed, I became more and more anxious to see how movement would be incorporated into it. Waiting for it and eventually attempting to predict it for the majority of the performance proved futile and, in the end, a major distraction. Had that anticipation not been there, I would have been free to receive the production for what it was. But, exactly like those subtle forms of torture that plagued each character, this agitation lingered in me, just underneath the surface. Sartre, I think, would have been proud.

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