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Flash Review 2, 2-21: 'Sara Wookey
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
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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