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Flash Review 2, 2-21: 'Sara Wookey Breaks Out!'
An Original American Finds Fame and Fortune Abroad

By Joshua Monten
Copyright 2002 Joshua Monten

AMSTERDAM -- "Fields on the 4th Floor," seen last Thursday at the Frascati Theater, was choreographed by Sara Wookey, who got her degree from Ohio State University (a few years before I went there), after which she headed to Europe to become rich and famous. "Rich and famous" I use in the relative context of an American trying to work as an independent dance artist. With her second group project in Holland, Wookey pays her dancers and collaborators a living wage, is supported by two production houses, is touring a dozen European cities, and is on the cover of this month's'"Uitkrant" magazine with the headline "Sara Wookey breaks out!" It's hard to imagine such support and recognition being possible for a young independent choreographer in the States.

In "Fields on the 4th Floor," for 70 minutes four dancers wander around a small, plush square of carpet. One is reminded of Jean-Paul Sartre's "No Exit," but here the idea that "hell is other people" seems incomplete. The very title suggests that more idyllic turns of events are possible. Someone puts on an old record, and Hillary Blake Firestone rubs her skin against the carpet like a daydreaming cat. Wookey and Jacob Nissen have a rather athletic make-out session at the back of the stage for almost ten minutes. Sometimes a groove gets going, and a sullen cast practicing interminable square-dancing exercises suddenly breaks out into a wide grin. "It's a feeling you get in your chest," read the posters for the show, "when the atmosphere is right and there is no one around."

"Fields on the 4th Floor" is of a piece with other tanztheater work being done in the Benelux area. You would hardly know that the choreographer was an American, were it not for the accent of her voice, and perhaps for the extreme specificity of her choreographed movement. It is unrefined and pedestrian at the same time that it is refined and quite special. Back in the day, of course, to be an American Modern Choreographer meant to develop and then copyright a personal technique, teach it to dancers, and use it from which to derive your choreography. The lingering effect of this is, I think, the care with with which a carefully-pruned, well-maintained movement idiom is maintained. In Wookey's case, the pruning has been severe. The dancers in "Fields on the 4th Floor" rarely give the viewer that I've-Seen-That-Movement-Before Feeling. No angsty floorwork, no fully extended limbs making patterns in space, not much of anything you'd do in a dance technique class.

The surprise is that the results of this self-imposed austerity are so distinctly personal, so different from other post-Yvonne Rainer Just-Say-No choreographers. We're left with incomplete gestures, meaningful twitches and wobbles, and pedestrian movements altered by Butoh-like distortions of timing. Perhaps the most memorable episode is danced with artful cluelessness by Nissen. His fingers swerve back and forth like a school of fish and he stumbles off balance, grating his teeth and rolling his eyes.

"Artful cluelessness" is, in fact, a recurring feature of the work. Some movements are danced with a Get-Me-Outta-Here grimace, others with the blithest of ease. Some of the fragments of text sprinkled throughout are overladen with actorly inflections, others are mumbled and barely heard. Wookey has assembled a motley cast of dancers and actors. Styles of acting and dancing abilities are not uniform. To some extent, however, this deliberate unevenness contributes to the unpredictability and excitement of the work -- as when the numbers 1 to 20 are recited with the corniest possible enthusiasm, or when the earlier-mentioned hands-like-fish movement is performed with the barest of polish.

The Dutch Gods of Funding are wise, and benevolent -- but they don't seem to encourage their charges to travel abroad. The majority of Sara Wookey's performances have been in nearby cities. If a Dance Inside reader in the U.S. wanted to see her work, he/she might have to book a flight to Amsterdam, or wait a long time.This is a typical situation for many independent choreographers in Holland, bringing a sense of isolation and parochialism to a country which is otherwise exceptionally cosmopolitan. Luckily, with the airline industry struggling as it is nowadays, quite cheap tickets to Amsterdam can be found, and an enterprising traveller could discover a flourishing micro-habitat of experimental dance.


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