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Flash Review 1, 1-14: The Story Thus Far
Sister Oberfelder Gives Life to the Brothers Grimm

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2002 Alicia Mosier

NEW YORK -- A dance based on Grimms' Fairy Tales with music by Frank London of the Klezmatics (along with some old German songs and a little bit of Radiohead) could be, or so I thought, one of two things: very entertaining or really, really gloomy. Jody Oberfelder, in "The Story Thus Far," seen at Dixon Place Friday, manages to make it something completely original: a journey through the dark forests and bright clearings of childhood dreams. In the work's eighteen episodes, she and her five dancer/collaborators explore the ancient stories -- of love, anger, magic, and happy endings -- through symbols and leitmotifs which, in their simplicity, take us into a world of children who find themselves in the midst of a tale that's bigger than they are.

"The Story Thus Far" has a remarkable continuity. It begins with an episode called "There Was Once....," in which a single dancer, Jessica Loof gets mauled and aroused and frightened by a tattered book of fairy tales. She grabs it in her teeth, as if fighting what it tells her, then flips its pages dreamily above her head. From the outset the theme is clear: stories inspire movement! What's more, the oldest of tales can still speak to our emotions. The journey begins from there, into an enchanted world full of frog princes, sprites, juicy red apples (!), princesses, rowdy families, fairy godmothers, and very bad dreams. But Oberfelder never overdetermines the characters and situations; they are merely suggested, growing in your mind with the help of a few lines of text in the program.

One example. There is a very raucous (and very funny; it includes some bowling with potatoes) dinner at which, we suspect, one member of the family is to be eaten. The dinner ends with a game of musical chairs; having won the game, Storme Sundberg -- the most delightful of Oberfelder's dancers -- is left alone on the floor, curled up like a little girl who's afraid of the dark. The next episode is called "De-Throned," and has as its text, "Envy and pride grew like weeds in her heart and she knew no peace day or night." In a dance full of the terrors of childhood nightmares, Sundberg fights with Loof (the musical-chairs-game's runner up) with and under and around a tiny white chair. Here Sundberg is both a queen challenged by a rival to her throne and a little girl picked on by her sister. She is also simply a deliciously honest performer, who looks like an ingenue in some 1920s German film. I was also struck by Brian Caggiano, whose sturdy body is (especially in an episode called "Lost in Forest") capable of more than you'd think. Touching elegance and unassumingly witty stumbles emerge from his great strength.

The idea of "The Story Thus Far" is ingenious, and so is the design by Tine Kindermann (who also sings in the show), Juergen Riehm, and Miche Kimsa: richly colored suede skirts, a couple of props, and a single tree and a window for a set. My only reservation is that much of the impressive human-building-blocks partnering takes place at too much the same speed -- about the speed at which you can hoist a person up on your shoulder -- and there is some repetition in the choreography, which tends to drag things down a bit.

But the charm of the piece is in its truthful exploration of the noble, macabre, and tender stories human beings have told about themselves for centuries and centuries. In the end, of course, Oberfelder and her dancers (who also include Matthew Thornton and Sara Joel) make it to the end of the forest, as well as of the story. After an exhilarating dance together, they somersault into a sleepy-headed pile -- and the feeling in the house is the same feeling you had as a child, just on the edge of dreams, when your grandmother finished the last page of the story and quietly, knowingly turned out the lights.

"The Story Thus Far" continues at Dixon Place on weekends through January 26. It's a wonderful show for kids as well as adults.

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