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Flash Review 2, 1-14: Horseplay
In Garfield's Green Pastures

By Nancy Dalva
Copyright 2003 Nancy Dalva

NEW YORK -- Quite a few years ago, on a mixed bill at the Cooper Union, two slender, grey satin slip-clad women emerged on the shallow stage to dance a silky duet, formalist, sleek, hot, and cool. Their faces were different -- imagine Imogene Coca dancing with Margot Fonteyn -- but their bodies remarkably alike: slender, small boned, with long, pretty legs. They could have been sisters; they could have been lovers; they could have been witches.

Last week, on the opening night of Keely Garfield Sinister Slapstick at the Joyce Theater (part of Altogether Different, January 3-19), the curtain went up on the same pair, only now they were wearing summer shifts, and now they were engaged in a power struggle. They appeared to be acting out a mother-daughter relationship, but you could have seen it differently, especially if you didn't read the program first. (I didn't. Sometimes I just like to see what I see, and not what I have been told I am going to see.)

I found the duet, called "My Mother was a Four-Alarm Fire" and dating from 1998, enchanting, and the "new" specificity (all that role playing) provocative, in a "What did that make you think of?" kind of way. The dancers were Keely Garfield and her longtime dancing partner Rachel Lynch-John, both of whom have Cunningham training in their background, which would account for the formalism.

As the evening went on, it occurred to me that the qualities I valued in Garfield (and Lynch-John, who is a beautiful dancer) were not necessarily those most enjoyed by the majority of Garfield's audience, or, indeed, necessarily those of most interest to herself. For second on the bill was a premiere of a number called "Deep," which is a deconstruction of "The Wizard of Oz." Even though I know the movie backwards and forwards (to say nothing of the book), it took me a while to realize Garfield -- whose primary role was Dorothy -- was also playing a witch, and that both Glinda and the Wicked Witch of the West were ladies in summer dresses, dancing (cool, elegant) duets with male partners. I would say that the duet is definitely Garfield's form, but that wouldn't begin to take into account her erotic pas de deux with Larry Goldhuber, who did a combined Jackie Gleason-John Goodman schtick as the Wizard (sort of), wearing an emerald green suit and a bad wig. And a beard. Their coupling took place in an inflated silver swimming pool (which also served, rather cleverly, if you like that sort of thing, as the upturned house from Kansas, among other things), with their feet sticking up from the depths. Just in case we didn't know what was going on, Garfield mounted one edge of the pool, and Goldhuber bounced up and down on the opposite side, so that she rose and fell with his exertions. This must be what Garfield means by "sinister slapstick," and it has its audience, though I'm not a fan. Among the other devices brought into play was doubling -- except that it was quadrupling, so that there were four Dorothys.

That's a lot of ruby slippers, but I missed Toto.

There were, actually, more than four pairs of red shoes. Across the front of the stage was arrayed a variety of vermilion footwear: ruby platforms, ruby sandals, ruby baby shoes.... This deployment of props reminded me of an arrangement of little houses Art Bridgeman and Myrna Packer used in a piece at Dance Theater Workshop (a good long while ago), though of course their aesthetic is quite different from Garfield's. Another familiar element was a motif of thumb sucking, a memorable specialty of The Bang Group's David Parker and Jeffrey Kazin, in their ribald and subversive signature duet (choreographed by Parker).

I guess that, as Balanchine said, "if you live in water you become a fish," for there was yet another familiar element in the last number on Garfield's program, called "Free Drinks for Ladies with Nuts," and dating from last year. That element would be wedding gowns, worn by the three women in the cast (Garfield, Lynch-John, and Lisa Wheeler), who are runaway brides -- at least that's what I think they are. The use of the dresses reminded me at once of Ann Carlson, who has made such potent use of bridal attire, but, the work itself doesn't remind of Carlson, any more than it did of Parker, or Bridgeman and Packer. ( It would seem that these ideas get into a kind of downtown -- shall we say DTW? -- group subconscious.)

In this number, Garfield employs bluegrass, which she does not really appreciate in the same buoyant way she does the old American popular standards (Connie Francis, Dusty Springfield, Ella Fitzgerald) she used in her first piece. Otherwise she would never have used a bluegrass band, Rachelle Garniez and the Sin City Scramblers, which has a woman doing Bill Monroe covers. (Garniez substitutes a soprano howl for that "high lonesome sound" inimical to the music. I find this toxic, but I'm a purist.) There were also some little horses, which also reminded me of the little Bridgeman-Packer houses. Choreographers, take note: If you put ten plastic ponies on stage, the viewer will spend the time leading up to their use wondering just when they are going to come into play. As to why, I think it has something to do with the identification of adolescent girls with horses -- their freedom to run, their manes of hair. Or maybe it has to do with the music, which took a turn for country western.

All of this content and context -- family, Oz, the female psyche -- makes for a kind of dance theater pitched to an in-crowd of the like-minded. To my mind, this kind of horseplay fences you in, but ineluctable formalism isn't everybody's idea of heaven and green pastures.

Nancy Dalva is the senior writer for 2wice.

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