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Flash Review, 7-3: Grappling with Grace
Pilobolus Meets the Klezmatics at the Joyce

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2001 Alicia Mosier

Pilobolus Dance Theatre's play with rites and fables, explored through the body's possibilities, reached a new dimension in the New York premiere of "Davenen" last night at the Joyce Theater. Set to a keening, ecstatic score by Frank London (performed by the legendary Klezmatics), and choreographed by Robby Barnett and Jonathan Wolken in collaboration with the dancers, "Davenen" is an inquiry into the nature of prayer. (The piece was commissioned by the National Foundation of Jewish Culture.) Like many a Pilobolus invention, it began with inquiries among the dancers; the conversation expanded to include discussions with rabbis, a study of Isaac Bashevis Singer's novel "Satan in Goray," and an exploration of the Kabbalah. In the midst of its 30th anniversary year, and at the start of its month-long season at the Joyce, Pilobolus (a six-member ensemble named after a fast-growing fungus) is still spreading its spores in adventurous ground.

A program note quotes from the Baal Shem Tov:

"When a man stands in prayer and desires to join himself to eternity,
And the alien thoughts come and descend on him --
These are holy sparks that have sunken and wish to be raised
And redeemed by him;
And the sparks belong to him,
They are kindred to the roots of his soul;
It is his own powers he must redeem."

These lines provide the outline of the dance, in which the dancers's own bodies become those alien thoughts that batter people in prayer, as well as the vehicles for their assimilation and transformation. The familiar elements of traditional prayer -- meditation, self-denial, thanksgiving, contrition, and so on -- are shown here to be not so straightforward as they often appear. The desire to join oneself to eternity doesn't mean a straight shot to heaven. It means a lifetime of desiring, being tempted, being distracted and bored, rejoicing, falling hard, and getting up again to stand in prayer once more.

That's what Otis Cook, Josie Coyoc, Renee Jaworski, Matt Kent, Gaspard Louis, and Benjamin Pring do in "Davenen" (the word means "prayer" in Yiddish). From a heaving knot of bodies, Pring looks up and out into space. The dancers, in Angelina Avallone's simple Israeli-style costumes, spiral out from center stage and back again. Cook falls out of the group and is glued to the floor; by sheer force of will, he yanks himself up again and again, then is lifted by the group. All six dancers bob their heads as at the Wailing Wall; this movement shades into hip swivels for Pring and Jaworski, who curl through each other's encircled arms. Pring does an extraordinary solo in a shadowed corner, waggling his head and springing up from a crouch to leap on Cook's body -- is he a spirit of grace or a demon? Cook wrestles him down and knots him up until Pring is rolling back in knots of his own creation. Then Jaworksi attacks Pring, poking him and sitting on him as heās praying -- he bounces back, grinning ecstatically -- and Coyoc (really a devil!) does the same to Louis, who tames her with powerful arms and offers her to God. He flinches under a golden light, then shudders wildly as if possessed, his body quivering in rage and rapture. Next Kent goes for Louis, who grabs him by the skin of his stomach and makes him beat his own chest (or start his heart beating like a human's again?). In a frenzy of mortification, Kent, the most accomplished clown in Pilobolus's lineup, does a solo that looks like a film run backwards in fast-motion. Under Neil Peter Jampolis's wondrous lights, all of this seems a potent private struggle, each new encounter an image of a different dark night of the soul.

But the darkness of "Davenen" never overwhelms, thanks in part to the sweetness that comes up through the cracks of London's wonderful (and wonderfully danceable) score. At the end, all the powers have been redeemed; in twos and threes, the dancers spin with arms wide open and run around each other in a braid of blessing. They all come together, opening and closing their arms in a gesture of acceptance, covering their eyes with their hands, then turning back to look up in a shaft of light. This image -- so simple, so reverent -- concludes a powerful piece that's unafraid to be surprised by faith.

Last night's Program A also included three works that have been covered in detail here in the past. In a review posted last year (Flash Review 1, 6-17: Tantra Tarantula?), Byron Woods gave what to my mind is the last word on "Tantra Aranea," a sweaty erotic tangle of spidery tantric sex performed last night by Coyoc and Kent. (I was about as un-taken with it as he was.) Jaworski gave "Femme Noire" a kooky glamour, whirling herself into a funny deadpan frenzy in her big black hat. And "Tsu-Ku-Tsu" -- with its gorgeous totems of dancers on top of dancers, its launching leaps, its arcs of arms and legs moving like the hands of Taiko drummer Leonard Eto, who provided the score -- is a tremendous example of the tests of strength, weight, and balance that have become Pilobolus's trademark.

This program alternates with two others (both including NYC premieres, as well as classics like "Day Two") through July 28. Please visit the Joyce website for more information.

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