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Flash Review Journal, 5-17: As the Dance World Turns
Two Week-ends in Gotham: 3D Graham in Midtown; DTH Disappoints in Harlem; Fuchs out-Forsythe's Forsythe in the Lower East Side; Swan Song for Helene of Lincoln Center; ERS Turns the Dance-Theater Screw in the East Village

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

NEW YORK -- Whenever we hear the occasional complaint that The Dance Insider is more interested in big ballet companies than small modern dance ensembles, I think of that Martha Graham quote that goes something like this: There are two kinds of dance: good and bad. Whether a concert can be categorized as ballet or modern is never among my personal criteria for reviewing or for suggesting another writer review. In choosing which concerts I go to or ask others to attend, my considerations include newsworthiness, impact a review might have, and personal taste. This of course describes my best estimation pre-concert; at the actual event, I am often surprised. In a flurry of dancegoing last weekend, encompassing the Martha Graham Dance Company, Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Jordan Fuchs, I was thrice-surprised. More surprises may await NYC dancegoers this weekend, uptown in the farewell performance of that ballerina's ballerina Helene Alexopoulos, and downtown in the latest work-in-progress from the dance-theater collage-ist collective known as Elevator Repair Service.

As my colleague Tom Patrick has already reviewed the historic one-night only Graham concert at City Center, I'll be brief so as not to repeat what Tom can say so much better. A relative newcomer to dance -- the Graham company was already in a spiral when I arrived in NYC in 1995 -- prior to May 9 I had actually seen more Graham action in the courthouse than the dance house. In fact, I'd probably seen more Graham take-offs, from the likes of Mark Dendy and Richard Move, than complete Graham works. The nice surprise was that the satire, while coming from a good place of tribute, can be rather misleading if it's all you know of Graham. The loin-clothed boy, for example, is there in "Night Journey," but Kenneth Topping's Oedipus only bares his chest in the final section of this intricate re-telling of the Sophocles myth. And just as big a male presence in this seminal work is Gary Galbraith's Tiresius, who is heavily robed throughout. As well, the chorus -- also frequent fodder for Move -- has a method to it's ritualistic parading: They're the Furies, and that's what furies do, move in unison and seemingly as automatons. Second Graham neophyte's observation: After an evening-length program of Graham, it is very clear that, however much some may tease this style as being out-of-date and overly melodramatic, pared down to the architecture the roots of most modern dance are to be found here.

Speaking of roots, there's a duality to Dance Theatre of Harlem's: Technically, the base of the company founded by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook 33 years ago comes from Mitchell's mentor, George Balanchine. Socially, the company is an institution and leading citizen of Harlem, which it never forgets. In recent years its performing presence in the 'hood was offered mostly in monthly open houses uptown. Beginning last year and being reprised last week and this, DTH is also offering an annual Spring season at the equally legendary Apollo Theater. How very odd that these two classiest of Harlem institutions should combine for a program opener, Louis Johnson's 1971 "Forces of Rhythm," which presents, anyway, as utterly without taste.

Spoofs of blue and black clad Balanchine men, patterned to classical music, follow derbied mardi-gras tricksters who are followed by loin-clothed two-dimensional er -- sorry, no other way to say this -- jungle dancers. It's a superficial assessment of everything DTH does right, mixed into one tacky dance, performed to low-quality recordings of the music to boot.

The evening can't help but be recouped by DTH's brightest etoile these days, the sparkling and sexy (yikes! I used that word!) Caroline Rocher, albeit in a choreographically inconsequential Arthur Mitchell duet to Stevie Wonder music, "Ribbon in the Sky," in which she's ably (yikes! I used that word too!) partnered by the durable Kip Sturm.

I'm not a fan of classical pas de deux presented apart from their source ballet, but Duncan Cooper's Slave in the pas de deux from Petipa's "Le Corsaire," in a re-staging by Shook, was an interpretation that every ballet student should see. The problem with extracting pas de deux from their source is that the meaning is often lost, leading to incorrect interpretations and even inappropriate additions to the choreography. At the recent "faculty concert" at Steps on Broadway, for instance, the way the role of the Slave was interpreted by DTH's Ikolo Griffin cast serious doubts on, at least, the faculty member who rehearsed this particular dance. Griffin's slave kissed his partner's hand, a noticeable breach of protocol. Noble this slave is; royal he ain't. (As to the rest of that concert, at least the first half that I saw, while it would be incorrect to damn all the choreography on view, let's just say that Steps appears to be doing little to counteract the popular confusion of dance with sex.)

Cooper, not quite so fleet as Griffin, nonetheless understands the role; even at the curtain call, he stayed in character, waiting for Andrea Long to exit before he, hunching his shoulders a bit, followed. It was also nice to see the male's solo variations interpreted by an artist more concerned with achieving poise than circus-like heights.

As for John Butler's one-act distillation of Shakespeare's "Othello," well -- after Limon's "Moor's Pavane," do we really need another distillation? The stellar cast did its best to imbue originality in what might have otherwise come off as campy, particularly in a grappling duet between Donald Williams's Moor and Ramon Thielen's show-stopping Iago. When Thielen flies into Williams's arms and nestles there, cradled by Williams as he whispers alternately in each ear, Iago seems to become part of Othello's conscience, a devil living within him, feeding on his insecurities, and prodding him to insane evil deeds.

Not evil, but lamentable, is how the eloquent Kelly A. Saunders's expressive talents were squandered in this ballet. Saunders is born to play Desdemona, but as sketched here, the role gives her little to do besides reacting to Othello's disintegrating trust until she unceremoniously croaks in his lethal arms.

This concert reminded me of the double-edged sword of seeing all the great dancers NYC has to offer: I love seeing how they can uplift even so-so choreography, but I hate seeing how tasteless choreography can demean if not degrade them.

....No such worries from Jordan Fuchs's concert last weekend at University Settlement, where one could find fierce dancers in killer dances, principally Fuchs's new "Rest Stop Rendezvous."

If I can be permitted a generalization, post-modern dancers sometimes seem more concerned with capturing an attitude than capturing specific positions. Besides distancing frequent dance-goers like me, this approach is unnecessary; expressive choreography will naturally produce an expressive mood. As opposed to the Petronio-esque posturing of guest choreographer Kristina Isabelle's "Boxed in," which she also danced, Fuchs and his dancers aimed to direct mood physically.

First off, if a regular pace is 60 beats per minute and a techno pace 200 bpm, the tempo for "Rest Stop Rendezvous" was about 30 bpm. I loved seeing a dance in this go-go-go, time-is-money town which was not rushed. Every move and gesture was extended, stretched out, elongated, without losing definition -- particularly as danced by Carolyn Hall. Articulation is more often used to describe ballet dancers, but they have nothing on Hall, who seemed to stop at each delicious frieze, presenting and savoring it with the same marvel a ballet dancer might frame a phrase en l'air. Her transitions, too, were deliciously felt and thus riveting to watch. The only gaze emanating from Hall's face was in regard to what the rest of her body was doing. Etched still in my mind is her twisting torso, knees and waist bent slightly, her eyes and mine following an arm around to where it reached behind her. This was a pre-amble to the accelerated finish, where several duets and solos were in play simultaneously. With Andy Russ's commisioned ambient sound-scape also going deeper as Fuchs's movement burrowed, I was reminded of William Forsythe, whose work often builds to a similar fever pitch. The Forsythe resemblance was probably enhanced by the equine work of former bunhead (and my friend and colleague) Veronica Dittman, who always presents quite a vertical line, not just because of her height but because of her comfort with it. This time around, Dittman added a lateral suppleness, particularly in her hips and abdomen, and seemed withal more centered.

Fuchs has Forsythe beat in at least one area -- justifying the extra-dance elements with which he infuses a work. Where Forsythe seems more fascinated than facile with genre-mixing, Katie Glicksberg's slide projections of, yes, rest stops and the blue highway scenery between them were an essential part of the work's dramatic arc. Simply put, the effect of these photos, seen on a ceiling to floor screen upstage, was to make it seem like the dances were taking place as the dancers disembarked at the various rest stop picnic grounds. This effect of a dancing family frolicking at various scenic pit stops was accentuated by Joy Havens's bright pedestrian travel wear.

Rounding out this ensemble were the fiery and appropriately named Storme Sundberg, Jennifer Digman, the droll-limbed and visaged Toby Billowitz, and Fuchs.

About the only frustrating feeling associated with discovering performers who dance large in these small venues is wondering when one will be able to see them again. I'm happy to report that you can catch Hall later this month at Dance Space Center, where she appears May 30 - June 2 with Shannon Hummel/CORA. For more info, please call 212-625-8369.

....Also equine-limbed is Helene Alexopoulos, a New York City Ballet ballerina somewhat less hard to find; at least until tomorrow night, that is, when she gives her farewell performance with the company. The term ageless is politely trotted out, it seems, for any ballet dancer who leaves the stage voluntarily before she embarasses herself on it, but in describing Alexopoulos's forever youthful dexterity, it seems to apply. Doing the math, having joined NYCB in 1978 she's gotta be about 40. What's miraculous is not just that she doesn't "look" it -- dancers usually look younger than they are, notwithstanding the occasional Merrill Ashley on whom the toll of a long career can be seen in the hobbled gait -- but you can usually detect age in the way their legs, for example, don't rise so high as they once did. Not with Alexopoulos, who seems forever liquid-limbed. She's stylistically dexterous too; if you're able to make the State Theater tomorrow night, in one evening you'll see her employ those legs in the sexually and physically arch angles of the Siren in Balanchine's "Prodigal Son" and the softer sweeps of "Vienna Waltzes." As important, Alexopoulos is one of those ballerinas who finds her natural habitat on the stage, making it seem her natural environment and thus natural for us to inhabit it with her. (Unfortunately we won't be able to review this concert; no one in the press department bothered to inform us that it would be Alexopoulos's swan song.)

...We also won't be reviewing Elevator Repair Service's "Room Tone" this weekend, but for different reasons. It's a "work-in-progress," so we'll be waiting until it's "finished" (whatever that means for plays, of which Frances and Albert Hackett once said, they're not written but re-written). But that doesn't mean you should avoid this weekend's showing. One of the delicious aspects of living in NYC is that audiences get to be in on the development process, particularly when they're hip to a theater like PS 122, which not only welcomes but courts artists to use its stages (and smart audience) like a petri dish. In terms of dance criticism, being considered more theater with a dance element than dance with a text element, ERS sometimes eludes critical attention from dance critics. This is a pity, really, because it's not just the actors' bodies that are in constant motion in ERS's productions, but also its seemingly free-form found-text collages. The artists wouldn't want us to promise that you'll find a finished work in the two-weekend run of "Room Tone" which begins tonight at PS, but you will likely have the rare treat of watching this ensemble creatively grope for the dimensions and shape the contours of its latest texts, which here include works by those wacky James brothers -- William's mystical "Varieties of Religious Experience" and Henry's "Turn of the Screw."

Have a great week-end, dance insider, whatever turns your screw!

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