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Flash Review 2, 7-26: Baganova Triumphs When Pigs Fly
International Choreographer's Work is Season's Strongest at ADF

By Byron Woods
Copyright 2001 Byron Woods

DURHAM -- It's so regular an occurrence at the American Dance Festival that it's almost no longer newsworthy. A foreign choreographer with only a fraction of the resources and rehearsal time available to the visiting professional companies creates a dance in less than six weeks time -- with a cast of amateur undergraduates -- that defines some of the strongest work of the season. In recent years, the achievements of Shen Wei, Brenda Angiel and a host of others have demonstrated repeatedly that a hungry choreographer with an equally hungry cast is capable not only of stealing a show. Sometimes they steal the whole season.

When they do, it's a fitting reminder to all that, at this level of achievement, artistic vision remains the great equalizer -- particularly when it's nurtured for a month and a half under a blue Carolina sky.

Which is why you should probably remember the name of Tatiana Baganova. She's the artistic director of the Provincial Dances Theater of Ekaterinberg, surely an ironic name translation for one of the Russian Republic's premiere modern dance troupes. Five years after enrolling as a student at ADF, Baganova's acerbic "Crows" was featured in the 1999 International Choreographers concert.

This year her trenchant "Wings at Tea" proved the strongest new work of the season at the American Dance Festival. The premiere of the work came at the end of an already lengthy International Choreographers concert last week at ADF.

Perhaps it was too easy. For artistically this was in some respects the year of the miser at ADF, as a number of choreographers tried to somehow stretch a small handful of motifs or ideas over an evening-length frame. In contrast, Baganova simply outbid them, with artistic capital to spare. Only Merce Cunningham packed more fresh moments and ideas into an evening this season.

To striking images, movement and music, "Wings at Tea" asked when will men and women get over sexuality. Thus spake Baganova: when pigs fly. If Dorothy Parker had repeatedly gotten pawed while growing up somewhere near the Ural Mountains in the 1970s, the outcome might have looked something like this.

Actually, a mechanized toy pig with wings does fly, suspended at the end of a string, throughout the work while a group of oafish, bulky men in grey suits and cigarettes moves women around the stage with all the grace and tact of teamsters wrestling packing crates across a loading dock. These unsuitable suitors unreel dyspeptic variations on the dance of love in sequences that range from the merely grubby to the truly desperate.

Demon-cellist Chris Lancaster's live musical accompaniment veers between tender irony and caustic sarcasm when it's not blended with the jaded musings of German cabaret singer Zarah Leander. Patrick Holt's costumes place women in a dress in a wooden frame -- one with pulleys and strings attached at all the articulation points. Of course, men will pull those strings repeatedly and with little reservation or skill. Later, long-haired women are accompanied by courtiers who appear to be carrying designer ice chests. They're containers of water, which the women use to saturate their hair -- and then fling the liquid in wild joint parabolas across the stage, whipping the men who've been so singular in their attentions. Similarly arresting visuals riddled the evening, stole the show, and defined a new, strong feminist voice in dance.

But getting there was less than half the fun. Earlier in the concert, Sabine Dahrendorf's new "Knistern" opened the evening on Matthew Eggleton's portentous precipice set, but, ironically, its repetitive imagery of pilgrimage never seemed to coalesce or go anywhere.

"A Time of Darkness" followed, Sukarji Sriman's new setting of a work by classical Javanese poet and mystic Raden Ngabei Ranggawarsita. Sriman's unconventional solo and ensemble vocalizations were evocative, as were the geometric group movement patterns. Still, we watched as twelve women choreographically devolved into an undifferentiated chorus line suitable only for framing the lengthy and not terribly compelling actions of three men.

Sriman played an old man abused by a younger (and jarringly tone-deaf) master, before appealing to an unlikely deux ex machina: Donald McKayle. The famous African-American choreographer walked on in what seemed an increasingly arbitrary, last-minute search for an ending to the piece. McKayle's singing narrated this last section, but his vocals, inflected with more than a trace of the African-American spiritual tradition, failed to mix that well with the microtonal Indian music in place. All in all, it made for an unsteady end, vocally and choreographically, to a work that started strong.

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