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Flash 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 value.

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 a choice.

"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 the piece.

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 dancers.

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 "Le 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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