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Review 2, 12-12: Crashing & Soaring
In All-weather Conditions with Dayton's Flight Project
By Christine Chen
Copyright 2003 Christine Chen
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NEW YORK -- When DI
editor Paul Ben-Itzak first asked me to review The Flight Project,
a program designed to honor the centennial of the Wright Brothers'
first flight, I skeptically dreaded an evening of chiffon-clad dancers
performing lyrical swirls, leaps and lifts, gratuitous Peter Pan-esque
wire work, and stereotypical group bird flocking formations. After
all, the idea of making a dance piece about flight seemed ripe for
cliche potential. However, when I learned that this was the undertaking
of the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC), a well respected
repertory company rooted in the African-American experience, and
when I read the A-list choreographers the company had commissioned,
I promptly changed my expectations and arrived at the Brooklyn Academy
of Music's Harvey Theater earlier this week ready to experience
flights of body, spirit and fancy. As it turns out, the program
lived up to both sets of expectations.
The six-piece project
is divided into two programs. Program A features work by Bill T.
Jones, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Warren Spears, while Program B
includes work by Dwight Rhoden, Bebe Miller, and Doug Varone. In
addition to honoring the 100th Anniversary of flight and the 35th
Anniversary of DCDC, the project also serves as the finale for BAM's
Next Wave festival, which closes tomorrow.
Program A opens with
Jones's "and before," a piece which, as Jones writes in the program
notes, is about "a moment before something has to change." Specifically,
the choreographer seems to be invoking a collective memory of a
world right before the Wright Brothers took their historic flight.
But overall, the piece is anything but literal. Set to Bach's divine
"Chaconne," the dance work is transcendent in its formality. Jones
himself says of the score, "One would be hard pressed to name a
more formal composition, yet the levels of emotional expression
are immense." I would say the same of the choreography. Jones treats
his score with reverence without kow-towing to it. He notices and
visualizes a delicate tremolo or a subtle counterpoint, while letting
a soaring crescendo speak for itself. The movement is classic Jones
style -- alternately lush and quirky, linear and melting. Group
formations evolve and dissolve and the dancers seem to be soaring
spiritually, carried aloft by the dialoguing choreography and music.
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar,
the founder of Urban Bush Woman, takes some liberties in interpreting
the idea of "flight." She imagines flight as a descent, and uses
the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to explore Eurydice's descent into
the Underworld. Zollar envisions Hades as a place of escape and
freedom where Eurydice is able to find a new life in a world unbound
by earthly trappings -- thus "soaring" in spirit. Zollar writes
in her program notes, "Orpheus represents bondage to societal expectations
and restrictions and maybe the Underworld is the forbidden world
of self-knowledge.... (Eurydice) delights in her self-discovery
and therefore 'flies.'"
Set to selections from
Miles Davis's album "Bitches Brew," the work starts with a sexualized
duet between Orpheus and Eurydice. On opening night, Sheri "Sparkle"
Williams was cast as Eurydice while Alvin J. Rangel played her disappointment
of a lover, Orpheus. The two lovers, dressed in skimpy red silk,
begin with provocative tango-esque interactions, then progress to
the more explicit pelvic partnering of a "bump and grind" style.
This devolves further to a game of footsie gone awry. With arms
slashing and gestures of disgust and despair, the two fight until
Eurydice ends up in a headlock and dies. Eurydice is whisked away,
and Orpheus is left drawing a cross on the ground for his dead lover.
As we descend into the Underworld -- cue fog machines and dancers
in black underwear holding flashlights under their chins -- men
and women writhe on the floor in hedonistic sexual satisfaction.
Eurydice appears upstage as a mere shadow and begins to move downstage
into increasing light and confidence with taut leg extensions and
sternum-exposing movement. She is soon joined by a chorus of six
women (the hedonists). Orpheus enters this world and the two resume
their routine of violent antics. Finally Eurydice is thrown on the
ground and focuses her attention directly at a small floor light
near the ground at downstage center. Orpheus backs slowly away from
her while miming motions of slapping. Lights out.
In the classic version
of this myth, Orpheus and Eurydice are more idyllic lovers. While
frolicking in some grass, Eurydice is bitten by a snake and dies.
Orpheus mourns her death with such vigor that he risks life and
limb to descend to the Underworld to plead for her life. He is permitted
to bring her back provided he does not, under any circumstance,
look back at her during their ascent to the "real world." At the
last moment, Orpheus looks back and Eurydice slips back into the
Underworld. Why did he look? Did he not trust that she was there?
Did he think he was out of the woods (so to speak)? Did he just
so desperately want to see her face that he forgot his promise?
Who knows? There have been plenty of interpretations and explorations
into the minds and motivations of Orpheus and Eurydice over the
years, including the wonderful "Eurydice" by the poet H.D., but
I digress. Zollar thought Orpheus was "a cop-out," and thus re-imagined
the myth from Eurydice's point of view. An interesting and intelligent
concept, but the experience of the piece does not meet the noble
intentions Zollar articulates in the program notes. As it stands,
the piece fails to make the bridge from mythological soap opera
to social commentary, and instead reads like a PSA for domestic
violence. Zollar is known for her socially challenging work, and
DCDC is dedicated to diversity and the African-American experience.
It therefore seems unlikely that Zollar has intentionally portrayed
an African-American couple in such a stereotypically violent way.
But, viewing the piece, we see a sexual and violent relationship
turned deadly. We see a woman who finds temporary empowerment in
a strange world, but who then returns to a familiar and destructive
relationship. In the end, it appears that she has rejected the relationship,
but sprawled on the ground, she seems anything but empowered (in
fact she seems more desperate and angst-ridden than ever), and Orpheus
seems to have learned little about the negative consequences of
his violent tendencies. The piece exhibits stereotypes without providing
enough commentary to read them for anything more than their face
This problem is perhaps
a performance issue. Williams, while technically strong, is not
very subtle, and her hardness can read as harshness. Her furrowed
brow rigidity prevents us from seeing her exaltation in the self-discovery
she supposedly has in the Underworld. We see no transformation (no
flight!). Rangel plays Orpheus as a two-dimensional villain, but
in this case, I do not think the choreography gives him much of
"On the Wings of Angels"
by Warren Spears is set to the music of John Adams and Steve Reich,
and is a clear homage to the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. Simple
and accessible, the transparency of the composition is almost distracting.
The work starts with a "training section" in which six strapping
African-American men in their military whites fall in line (literally)
and perform gestures of patriotism (salute, hand to heart, point
at the sky, repeat) together, in canon, stage left, stage right,
etcetera. This transforms eventually into a bonding session where
they stand and perform similar sequences arm in arm, then progress
to supporting and lifting each other in turn overhead. The stage
clears and the backdrop turns blue (sky?). Daniel Marshall is left
for a solo. He begins to bound around a little more, finds extension
and expression in his limbs, and seems to become lighter in body
and spirit. His verve is infectious, and so the piece continues
with a duet of duets where the dancers explore the momentum of flight
with the aid of their partners. Finally, the piece ends with a big
group leaping section and a final swirl of unison phrase material.
The performers dance with clarity and earnestness, and the choreographic
simplicity seems intentional in order to give clear reverence to
the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, but the piece comes across as
a bit sterile and predictable as a result.
Program B opens with
Dwight Rhoden's "Sky Garden," a work inspired by the recent death
of Rhoden's mentor and DCDC founder, Jeraldyne Blunden. "Sky Garden"
has a similar trajectory to "On the Wings of Angels" -- grounded
movement that builds in momentum, finds buoyancy and culminates
with swirls and darting leaps. The movement style, use of space
and striking lighting design (by Michael Korsch) is linear, angular
and highly specific. The piece begins with Williams and Rangel (Orpheus
and Eurydice together again!) performing a duet of resistant counterbalances
and leg extensions. Four more couples are eventually added to the
mix, performing similar movement. As the momentum builds, the pairs
break apart and occasionally re-form while the movement quality
begins to become less mechanical and more pulse driven. With the
exception of one exciting and unpredictable male duet, most of the
choreography feels like neatly arranged codified movement. The audacious
costumes, designed by Miho Morinoue, consist of strappy iridescent
torso coverings with Lycra hotpants (men in turquoise and women
in oranges and reds) -- imagine something JLo and Ricky Martin might
wear to the MTV Video Music Awards. And yet... they oddly fit with
Bebe Miller's "Aerodigm"
is like a tab of ecstasy on the program. Miller, like Zollar, took
the idea of flight on a tangent. She explored the "flight of an
idea, the rush of thought, the surprise of invention." The result
is an impulsive swash of titillating fun and randomness. Monnette
Bariel, an absolutely scrumptious mover, begins the piece as a smirking
pixie of a woman. She seems to know something we don't, and is confident
and stimulated by this. Her movements are perky and unpredictable,
yet totally organic and fluid, off-center yet completely in control.
Every once in a while a man darts in, freezes in front of her, and
darts back out. Then he picks up three yellow balls that have been
sitting on stage and juggles them. A similarly engaging quartet
follows. These dancers are like molecules bouncing around, affecting
each other in surprising ways, with light collisions and interactions
that lead to unexpected lifts. The dancers really seem to delight
in the movement, and indeed, the falling, off-balance sensibility
of the vocabulary is the closest approximation to flight in the
entire program. The piece continues to shift in group dynamics until
the end, when Bariel returns to the stage on a pair of roller-skates
for just a moment before the lights go out (the "aha!" of invention?).
This final image is one of many unrelated ideas in the piece that
inexplicably seem to fit together. The rambling, nonsensically articulate
soundscore by Giovanni Sollima, Jurgen Knieper and Laurie Anderson,
and the alternately sparse and saturated lighting design by David
Covey are other integral elements. The piece feels light and enjoyable
in its stream of consciousness, and is buoyed by the mirth of the
Doug Varone's "The Beating
of Wings" rounds out the program. "Wings" is set to Stravinsky's
dramatic "Firebird Suite," and is meant as an inspirational tale
about rising above skepticism to achieve the impossible (flight).
Varone is no stranger to Stravinsky (he recently re-choreographed
Sacre du Printemps" for the Metropolitan Opera), and
his knowledge of the music is evident. The piece is best when Varone
uses the group of dancers to visualize the dizzyingly frenetic nature
of the music, but unfortunately this is not the thrust of the piece.
It instead focuses on the music's more ominous sections and features
Williams, who this year celebrates her 30th anniversary with the
company, as the figure who is constantly trying to get off the ground.
The group lifts her slight frame around and lets her walk on them.
Then they stand around a lot, watching her while emoting concern
and skepticism as she tries to lift off on her own. Towards the
end of the piece the stage goes dramatically black with only Williams's
torso left illuminated. Two men writhe around her, she shakes uncontrollably,
then is lifted into the air by wires (so that was the purpose of
the writhing -- to hook her up!). She then spends the next few minutes
soaring around being passed from man to man. She has a final convulsion
before her dramatic apotheosis rockets her, to the amazement of
all the skeptics below, into the sky.
So in the end, The Flight
Project produced some of the moments I dreaded (obligatory wire
work and predictable use of leap/spin/lift as flight), but there
were also some delightfully original moments where the choreographers
used the idea of "flight" as a springboard to explore metaphorical
or tangential ideas.
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