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Flash Review Journal, 11-27: Why that's a Queer Thing
Ducking Pink Balloons Under the Radar with Brian Brooks and Cathy Weis

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2002 Chris Dohse

NEW YORK -- Two recent concerts, "Electric Haiku/An Abondanza in the Air" by Cathy Weis (at Dance Theater Workshop) and "Dance-o-Matic" by Brian Brooks Moving Company (Williamsburg Art Nexus), provide an opportunity to consider the plurality of contemporary Queer vision. I don't mean to imply anything about the choreographers' sexualities. I mean theoretical Queer, any celebratory subversive identity at odds with the legitimate, the dominant. The two programs share practical components: both alternate projected film segments, including animation, with live dancing. Weis's work is visually perverse and alternates between wacky and poignant. Brooks is a flesh peddler who knows how good it feels to be naughty.

"Electric Haiku" is a series of seven episodes. The fact that the sections are shortish doesn't justify calling them haikus really, for each is radically different from the others, without a haiku's rigorous, similar formal structure. Most of the segments have an awkward performative quality, the slapdash impact of a half-baked drag show or an impromptu, bewigged, shoestring Halloween parade.

During a short preshow, Weis and collaborator Jonathan Berger enact a dysfunctional Tweedledum and Tweedledee on the wrong side of the bed. She certainly can screech. He cavorts somewhat aimlessly while she rearranges a puppet's arms and legs or dances a hoochie-koo. Then, in her inimitable Appalachian drawl, she welcomes the audience and asks us to turn off our phones.

Two sections evoke earlier uses of live action and the simultaneously projected image of that action. Scott Heron as clown/acrobat in "The Trickster Gets His Comeuppance" shares the distorted visual force and daring physicality of recent work by Caden Manson's Big Art Group. The impossibly enlarged screen presence of Heron's two feet lends them distinct personalities.

A solo by Ksenia Vidyaykino, "With a Shadow of Turning," recalls the disturbing power of Tharp's 1982 milestone "Bad Smells." Vidyaykino does little, but creates an oddly moving, haunting visual. Her double image on the back wall -- cold, gray and almost swan-like in the Petipa sense -- is juxtaposed against her warmly lit figure isolated on the stage, an earthy Hestia. She stands like an acolyte before the graven image of herself.

The soundscore, played live from a station at the side of the action, then digitally manipulated by composer Steve Hamilton, cleverly emphasizes each scene. Steve Berman's constructed scaffold for "Getting the Toothpaste Back Into the Tube" honors the Dada sensibility that any old piece of junk can become art.

Why did Weis reconstruct her duet with Lisa Nelson from 1990, "An Abondanza in the Air"? To demonstrate how far she's come as an artist or the rapid development of technology in the last 12 years? This irritating artifact might have looked great in DTW's old space, but its charm is lost when viewed from the new theater's raked seating. Throughout, the two movers manipulate black-and-white television screens in a dark space. From row F, the screens' images are mostly illegible. When the lights are on, only the most occasional lucid tableau occurs.

The hot-pink, unisex, marabou-feathered halter tops and frilly fringed trunks worn in Brooks's "Dance-o-Matic" are authentic Vegas lounge, not the newfangled Cirque du Soleil or Blue Man Group pyrotechnic Vegas, but the historic Strip, where a little soft-core titillation, glitz and physical beauty still sells.

Brooks's vocabulary has evolved since last year's "Faster!" It's become more complex, but is still built around the tense, somewhat inarticulate torso of the gymnast. Is this a stylistic choice or physical limitation? It doesn't matter really, because Brooks has coached his dancers, especially Alexander Gish and Jo-anne Lee, to carry themselves identically. Weena Pauly has a looser, more fluid approach to the material.

The simplest sections kinesthetically -- not simple so much as narrowly focused -- are sustained by the dancers' affect. Their glib smiles could be worn by a lap dancer or a Stepford wife. Brooks zooms in on what most choreographers disregard, connecting steps like how a body negotiates getting from the floor to standing and back again, and makes his variations all about style. Gish, Lee and Pauly maintain remarkable unison during a puzzle-like, windmill-armed trio.

And everything is pink. From the neon tubes surrounding the dance floor to the floor itself, Brooks uses a palette from bubble gum to Valentine. Voyeurs become participants too. When dozens of pink balloons are blown up and thrown into the audience, I make a unique realization: it's hard to preserve critical distance when being beaned in the head by a pink balloon.

So what makes these two very different projects Queer, and in Weis's case, feminist? None of the strong, empowered, odd characters portrayed by Weis fit comfortably into our dominant heteronormative American jingoism. Brooks simply exalts in his freedom to be fabulous. I posit that any dance, in addition to being "about" its maker and performers, is a product of its surrounding culture. The act of presenting under-the-radar identities like these undermines the underlying relationships of power in that culture. At least we see two oddballs strutting their stuff and having fun.


Choreographer Chris Dohse is the Dance Insider's senior critic, and has also written for the New York Times, the Village Voice, and Dance Magazine.

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