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Flash Review 3, 10-7: Urban Jungles
Ruminations on 'Wild Life' from Wendy Rogers

By Christine Chen
Copyright 2003 Christine Chen

NEW YORK -- California-based choreographer Wendy Rogers opened Danspace Project's Fall 2003 season last weekend at St. Mark's Church with the premiere of "Wild Life / a movement refuge." According to the press release, the piece is meant as a meditation on the intersection between urban life and wilderness settings. It seeks to break down our expectations of an "assumed opposition" between the two, and explores how their co-existence can serve as a metaphor for our internal conflicts between the frenetic energy of everyday life and a personal Zen.

The piece unfolds enigmatically. The action begins in silence as three dancers perform stationary, idiosyncratic movement with their eyes closed while a fourth watches. This scenario ends as two more dancers join in. Solos are then pulled out of the subtly shifting group activity, duets form and dissolve, and the audience is lulled into a hypnotic state. The score shifts from ambient nature sounds to those reflecting the agitations of city life (motors revving, metal clanging), and the group's movement shifts from the individual and abstract to a melange of pedestrian tasks performed with a desperate, erratic energy. The dancers often move as a unit -- all moving, then all pausing together.

Then everything stops, and we are introduced into a new, more literal landscape. Three dancers in three separate pools of light are spread throughout the space. One reads a book, another listens to a Discman, and a third sits with an antiquated radio. The soft-spoken voice of actress Susan Stone is heard reading an excerpt from "A Vanishing Land," a booklet written in the 1950s by environmentalist Hildegarde Flanner. Wendy Rogers, who has been watching from the side so far, comes out to embody and react to Flanner's description of a Californian wilderness encroached upon by an ever-modernizing society.

The action then resets, and all the material is repeated verbatim from the beginning, with the addition of Rogers to the initial trio. Initially, I assume there will be some shift in the material that will reflect Rogers's environmentalist thesis bemoaning the unilateral march of "progress" from a natural to an urban state. I soon come to realize that the material has not been obviously varied. At first glance, this might seem like a sophomoric choreographic device that Rogers has fallen back upon to fill time, or to sufficiently highlight the material. However, Rogers is no novice (she has been making dances for over thirty years) -- this is a deliberate and carefully crafted choice.

Indeed, because of the repetition, I am sucked deeper into the material this time, both remembering and seeing things anew. It is precisely because of the unapologetic repetition that I can now re-read and re-experience the layering and accumulation of both the natural and the urban movement landscapes in the piece. I realize that hints of the city life exist from the beginning, just as natural, organic sensibilities emerge during the frenetic exploration of menial tasks. The costumes, designed by Sandra Woodall, fit this idea as well. The sensible calf-length pants and sleeveless tops in a palette of lime greens, oranges, and turquoises conjure an open, spring-time feeling that is neither earthy nor inorganic in tone. Imbued with context from Stone's reading, the group tableaus take on new meaning, and a more nuanced relationship between the movement and the music emerges as well. The sound score reveals itself to be more of a palimpsest, layering sounds of water sloshing in a river with the mechanized sounds of motors, or Eastern-inspired New Age meditations with urban-hipster techno beats, rather than merely juxtaposing them. The double entendre of the title becomes apparent. "Wild Life" is intended to refer to both the "natural, uncultivated" life and to the "crazy and whimsical" life. I realize (in this piece, as in life), that the excitement of city life can be a welcome relief to the silence of nature, and conversely, that stillness (inner and outer) can be a relief to the frantic pace of urban existence. The two are inextricably linked as refuges and antidotes to each other.

In repetition, the piece finds an open-ended resolution at the point where the text initially came in the first time around. This time, the dancers find their way into a circle for a final coda. They enter the circle one by one, then return, sometimes kneeling, sometimes standing, to form a new circle. After several riffs on this theme, the piece concludes.

Overall, the work is clear and well crafted without being gripping. Rogers's noble ideas are subtly conveyed, but they verge on inaccessibility. Seasoned performers Monica Bill Barnes, Allyson Green, Michael Miller, Rommel Salveron, Jennifer Twilley and Christopher Williams give clean, unaffected performances that have integrity yet are not completely absorbing. Something ineffable is lacking, and I think of a conversation DI editor Paul Ben-Itzak and I recently had about the difference between the East Coast and West Coast dance scenes (I am a recent transplant from the Bay Area). We discussed the Californian mantra of "everything is good, everything is valid" and everyone's desire to take on a social agenda in their work (and in life: witness the current "I can be governor" delusions of so many). While these values and aims are laudable, they sometimes take precedence over the art of dance. What "Wild Life" seems to be missing is this transcendence -- it is a heartfelt yet academic description of beauty, rather than being beauty itself.

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