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Review Journal, 2-27: Spectacles
'Muscle'-Flexing from Dunn & Co.; Osta Surprise; Merce Mugged by French
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider
PARIS -- The past few
weeks have provided a rare opportunity to catch three, count 'em
three, American choreographers presenting wares new and old to Paris,
where the presenters are notoriously close-minded to U.S. dancemakers.
"Muscle Shoals," Douglas Dunn's collaboration with jazz composer
Steve Lacy, videographer Charles Atlas, and lighting designer Carol
Mullins, premiered at the Theatre de la Bastille as the leanest
(that's a compliment) Dunn creation since I began watching him in
1996. Claire-Marie Osta, headlining Balanchine's "Rubies" for the
Paris Opera Ballet, proved herself that rare POB dancer who is able
to apprehend American ease of style and Balanchinian specificity
of gesture. And the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, opening both
the Exit festival and the Biennale de Danse at the Maison des Arts
de Creteil last night, was sabotaged by sloppy presenting (by the
theater, not the dancers).
In Paris, the number
of U.S. choreographers allowed to tour regularly can be counted
on one hand: Merce, Trisha Brown, Bill T. Jones, Simone Forti and,
um -- okay, make that one amputated hand. The other way for Americans
to be treated seriously is to actually move here (thus demonstrating,
if not intentionally, that they don't just want to play here, they
PREFER it). This group currently includes Carolyn Carlson, Meg Stuart,
and flavor of the year Jennifer Lacey. The reasons for this import
limit include a degree of protectionism and the mistaken belief
that American post-Modern dance has not progressed much since the
1970s, a simplified view which excludes the many streams of American
Modern dance. An exception to this rule is also made for Belgium-based
Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, who may work in the minimalist, occasionally
long-winded, and often inscrutable post-Mod idiom, but who is allowed
to do this because she's not actually American.
An exception to the
innate prejudice of Parisienne presenters is the Theatre de la Bastille,
directed by Jean-Marie Horde and where, until this year, critic
Jean-Marc Adolph programmed the dance. "Muscle Shoals," which premiered
at the theater Friday, is a co-production with Danspace Project
at St. Mark's Church, funded in part by the Mertz Gilmore Foundation,
the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, and New York State.
In "Muscle Shoals,"
Dunn & Co. have produced a work that is fantastic and simple at
same time, alternately droll and straightforward.
In his own dancing of
his own work, Douglas Dunn often seems to stand apart from it, as
if in intellectual fascination at what his body is capable of doing.
For "Muscle Shoals," he separates the two intelligences. After five
other dancers (Miriam Hess, Sean Mueller, Beth Simons, Christopher
Williams, and Kindra Windish, all wonderfully flexible), lolling
about on the stage in space-age costumes (conceived by Atlas) with
inverted lampshades covering their heads, have established a movement
environment best described as instinctive, Dunn, also brightly clad
and with a lampshade, enters and announces, "In arriving from the
7th dimension, I have discovered these creatures" gamboling about.
"I have disguised my invisibility and taken the form of a Stick
Man, in order to infiltrate them. But they have not seen me, I don't
know why not." Later, the creatures gambol to an upstage camera
and speak -- we see their faces and lips in close-up on the backstage
screen -- but in no sequence. Still later, they awake with large
growths around their waists or torsos. Their mood fluctuates between
frenetic and languid.
The Stick Man's fascination
with the 'creatures' evolves into a desire to mix with them, and
a mounting frustration that they cannot see him; to them, he is
still invisible. For the second day, he announces, he will essay
the Stick Dance taught to him on home base, maneuvering, if not
gamboling, between, around, and about two crutch-like pieces of
wood. The dance proceeds the next morning with much ceremony on
his part, but to total non-response by the creatures.
Dunn, the exception
to (my) rule that choreographers should never write their own texts,
comes up with some clever dramatic ideas to justify his dancing
with the others. At one point, he reports -- all this is being broadcast
to or taped for home base, we assume -- that during the night he
dreamt that the creatures had invited him to participate. "I will
now send you a mental projection of my dream," he announces, and
proceeds to dance with the creatures.
This may sound condescending,
but as creaky as Dunn's body has sometimes seemed in recent years
-- though not in this concert, where he was superbly fluid -- when
this 60-year-old participates with dancers half or less his age,
he doesn't give himself easier tasks. He lifts, he is lifted, and
he scurries about just like them. So the conceit of having him be
an interloper commenting on the gamboling and interacting of the
others is not just a device to let him off the hook for the more
demanding movement. Rather, it serves the dramatic and dance plot,
the disarming idea of, essentially, having the choreographer comment
on how strange and weird and ultimately undecipherable his own movement
is. I don't know that any other American choreographer, or choreographer
period, has the humility or insight to be able to make this confession.
Dunn does, and in this work, he also presents his most coherent
dance-drama in years, at least of the handful I've seen.
In that, he has some
help. All the artists here are working for the overall effect, not
to show off their own devices. You know a collaboration is truly
a collaboration when you forget to notice, or at least isolate,
the individual components. Lacy's score, comprising of his "Framework,"
performed live by Lacy on saxophone and Petja Kaufman on clavier,
seems if anything to be a sounding of the dancers' unpredictable
impulses. Mullins's lighting contributes, I think, to our being
able to suspend disbelief even with someone as much a part of our
dance-consciousness as Douglas Dunn up there, believing by the end
that he is an investigator from the 7th dimension who is earnestly
stricken that his mission has failed because he's been unable to
integrate with the creatures. The subtle lighting takes us to this
other dimension with him. Atlas gets the most props of all, perhaps,
precisely because he is so constrained, using only perhaps 10 percent
of his visual and conceptual arsenal. The images are deceptively
ambient, including waves crashing against a shore, in slo-mo, close-ups
of the dancers or of Dunn's face, having Dunn himself take a camera
and amble about the stage, capturing images of the creatures to
send back home, and brief segments where the images of the dancers
go into negative. George Hudacko realized the costumes.
There are many lessons
here to be learned by less experienced choreographers, videographers,
musicians working with dance, and lighting designers. New York artists
will have a chance to learn them in April, when "Muscle Shoals"
has its U.S. premiere at Danspace Project.
Balanchine's neo-classical vocabulary was alien to U.S. audiences
when it first surfaced, even moreso in the black-and-white ballets
of the 1950s, and it continues to be so most of the time to the
dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet. A rare exception to this rule
is Claire-Marie Osta, who always surprises. I've been to several
spectacles now where Osta has replaced a scheduled soloist. And
almost without failure, after at first uttering a disbelieving "No,
I don't think so" at her appearance in a role that she does not
seem to be made for, I am proven wrong. She surprised me again in
"Rubies," seen earlier this month at the Garnier. While a dancer
doesn't need to be tall or svelte to essay Balanchine, she does
need to be angular. Osta is not that, but, rather, round -- that's
not a euphemism, just a description. On first emerging, she can
also present as relatively meek. Not the ideal tools for the fiery
red-garbed lead in "Rubies." And yet there she was, after a few
minutes, paying more attention to not just arm but hand subtleties
than POB dancers usually do, and drawing on her easy manner and
comfort on stage to dazzle her partner and the audience. To read
more about Osta, just go back to our Home page and enter "Osta"
in the search engine.
Not so admirable in
this Paris Opera Ballet production of the "Jewels" triptych, acquired
in 2000, are that the elegant and classy Karinska costumes have
been jettisoned for gaudy creations by Christian Lacroix more suited
to the stage of (today's) Moulin Rouge than Balanchine's masterpiece.
Those Karinska costumes are really part of these ballets, not just
accoutrements, and I don't think it's over-reacting to say that
their replacement by this trash is an insult.
Speaking of insulting: Conceptually, having the Merce Cunningham
Dance Company open a festival with the theme of robots was not a
bad idea. But jewels like this choreographer, and this company,
need to be presented with maximum attention to detail -- not carelessness.
Someone should have closed the door to the robot exhibit with the
ambient chalk dust permeating the air, or at least put the exhibit
as far away as possible from the auditorium, rather than right next
to it. As it was, this Merce fanatic decided that an evening of
having his mind filled with dance ideas was not worth having his
lungs filled with chalk dust, and made a hasty pre-curtain exit
from the Maison des Arts de Creteil's Exit festival last night.
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