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Flash Review Journal, 2-27: Spectacles
'Muscle'-Flexing from Dunn & Co.; Osta Surprise; Merce Mugged by French Robots

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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