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Flash Review, 8-26: Women's Work
Rituals from Arreola; Watch out, Pina -- Here comes Garong

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2003 Gus Solomons jr

NEW YORK -- Two concerts created and performed entirely by women, one group from Mexico, the other from California, were the kinds of lucky finds one hopes for at the New York International Fringe Festival.

"El Sueno de Sor Juana," presented at the Greenwich Street Theatre by Dora Arreola's five-woman troupe Mujeres en Ritual, is based on a classic poem by the 17th-Century poet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. The thousand lines of the poem "El Sueno" constitute the text, spoken live and on tape by the dancers, principally Mara Maciel, who represents Sor Juana. Fluency in Spanish might have been helpful here to understand the words, but a helpful Fringe volunteer informed me that the poem deals with the path from ignorance to enlightenment. Choreographer/director Arreola takes us on a journey from nightfall to daybreak as her metaphoric structure.

Maciel speaks the text in rich, clear tones; Daniela Rodriguez, Grissel Aviles, and Maria Vale huddle on the ground with backpacks. The three then move slowly toward the silver fringe curtain upstage, and take off their hiking clothes to reveal garish club-going outfits, wild wigs, and three-inch platform pumps with nine-inch heels. Like a trio of Tina Turner impersonators, these ladies of the night strut and tease to blasting house music.

Soon, modern dance movement replaces in-your-face bump-and-grind on the tiny stage of this intimate venue. Showing influences of mime, gymnastics, and classic modern the danced passages, though hardly original, gain authority through intense concentration by these deeply committed dancing actors. As we move through the night, costume changes go from mauve to black and camisole tops and stretch pants; moods shift from seductive to sober to reflective to penitent.

In a duet, the two smaller women pitch into forward pitch falls, Graham-style, over each other's prostrate bodies. In the ensuing solo, the larger woman builds a universe with simple dramatic gestures and the electric intensity of her focus. From time to time, guitarist Magdalena Loza behind the silver curtain backs the action with delicate melodies, momentarily replacing the atmospheric soundscape.

Director Arreola also designed the set, which includes a hanging, knotted rope for the dancers to climb on, and the lighting, which enhances the atmosphere with sparse resources. A nasty seductress in a silvery sheath and cascading blonde wig tries to seduce us but gradually disintegrates emotionally, staggering around in one blood-red stiletto, clutching the other in her hand, until she finally collapses in a heap.

Accompanied by the guitarist, now in a white robe, the other two dancers strip to beige bras and black briefs and dance together. They seem to be moving from sin toward redemption. Then all four women stroll and chat in elegant black dresses -- the socially respectable counterparts of the oversexed vixens we met at the beginning.

As we progress towards morning, the dancers don filmy white ponchos. Maciel, looking priestly in long white robe with black surplice, concludes her impressive monologue-with-movement, and all kneel facing the sunrise behind the cascade of silver fringe.

The second all-female troupe landed at the Wollman Lounge at Cooper Union, another unaccustomed venue for dance, where two rows of seats on risers, accommodating only about 30 viewers, face a parquet floor. Six ladder-back chairs, evenly spaced along an expanse of black drapery covering the windows, stand empty, waiting. The six women of Garung (German for "disquiet"), making their East Coast debut, enter the space and proceed to enrapture us with their eponymous movement-based theatre piece.

For 80 fascinating minutes, they dance, sing, and speak. Recorded accompaniment ranges from Prokofiev's "Romeo & Juliet" to old standards in unusual arrangements: "Isle of Capri" sung in French; Jack Benny's themesong "Love in Bloom," sung in German; Marlene Dietrich's rendition of Lerner and Loewe's "Accustomed to her Face." The piece is a continuum of images, featuring this cast of fierce women, ranging in age from 27 to 50. Maturity and presence give meaning to their every action, however non-linear it be. "Random acts of lunacy pop up at every corner," muses Susan Averitt, and that sums it up.

Averitt stacks the chairs into a sculpture that tries to defy the physics of balance; Terril Miller basks topless on a bubble-wrap beach towel, popping the bubbles as she lolls; all five applaud Madeleine Dahm (the performing choreographer) when she stands on a chair and yanks up the skirt of her red gown. We don't need reasons, nor do they; we can read whatever meanings we like into the actions -- or, better, just enjoy the spirited madness.

Tall, wide-eyed Miller holds her hands in front of her mouth and plays ventriloquist when Krystyna Hughes moves her lips. Denise Pazienti, a contained, thus far outwardly reserved woman, violently smashes a bouquet of chrysanthemums on the floor to a tinkling piano rendition of "Falling Leaves" in the background. Carol Katz, her cleavage accentuated by a push-up bra under her strapless gown, rants a fairy tale, peppered with kibitzing by the others.

The women boast about their accomplishments and abilities; they hocket the lyrics of a song among them; they imitate Jimmy Durante "ink-a-dink-a-doo." Pazienti does a strenuous jig; Hughes lip-syncs "Que Sera;" Miller does an over-the-top flight attendant's demo. They all ride brooms and recite witches' lines from "Macbeth" into corners of the room. Zany, raucous, tender, thoughtful, surreal, Garung, this group of fabulous women puts one in mind of Pina Bausch's vivid characters, but they are their own women. There's a collaborative spirit about the work, and Dahm uses the unique traits of her mature performers expertly.

At the end, Pazienti calmly repots a plant, while the others race around her relocating the chairs, then climbing onto them and reaching upward. After the audience's hearty ovation, the women just sit there in the chairs, spent, until we have left the room. Garung premieres on the West Coast at the Ivar Theatre in Los Angeles in September.

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