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Review 2, 2-13: Diverse Discourse
Grimes, Kawai & Anderson Skirt the Boundaries
By Lisa Kraus
Copyright 2004 Lisa Kraus
PHILADELPHIA -- It's
cause for pride in Philly that the local dance scene is overflowing
with diversity. Within it, several talented young black performers,
some working with Rennie Harris PureMovement, make art that begins
with hip-hop and street culture and goes way beyond. Among those
is d. Sabela grimes, seen here on February 7 on a program with Roko
Kawai and Charles O. Anderson, as part of DanceBoom at the Wilma
From the opening moment
of grimes's "Forty Acres and a Microchip: Salvation or Servitude"
we know we're watching a virtuoso. He's nearly still so we can check
him out, looking like nothing so much as an updated African dancing
forebear in a skirt and ankle ornaments of a rag-tag collection
of strips of fabric and a red muscle shirt with medallion. A trail
of black feathers are a shifting Mohawk on his shaved head. He starts
in, surrounded by eye popping color in the light and his own clothes.
From the moment he moves
his hands, with extended nails like a Balinese dancer, it's clear
the guy can articulate the most isolated muscle of any part of his
body loud and clear. He shivers, he trips over his own feet. Not
one molecule of him is still, he's delicate and massive. He pops,
he waves. Then he lopes, weaving his feet around each other. At
one point he covers vast ground in a few easy bounds. Grimes's movement
looks like something that happens to him, his eyes surprised at
the wonder of it. He snakes, he collapses; he could never walk a
straight line. His body slumps and he reconstructs it as he pushes
it back out of the floor, away from gravity, reconstituting it again
and again as if growing back out of the earth.
Meaning cues are everywhere
in grimes's "Forty Acres" soundscore, which alternates between layered
text and music fragments with eminently danceable funk. Images of
oppression -- "How 'bout a good ole nigger work song" -- and fragments
of field holler are shuffled with the whining tune of a modem singing
its way onto the Internet. One rant repeats the theme of an African-American
artist as commodity, coming to you "gift tagged." Here a loose weave
of movement with meaning sits just fine.
Grimes drags a computer
monitor from one end of the space to the other. The program notes
refer to the computer as contemporary mule. Okay, from it he pulls
earth which he shapes into a mound. Grimes fashions himself as a
griot for the computer generation, channeling frustration, perplexity
and dance fever. He points to the co-existence of ways of being
-- fully in the computer age and fully in the dirt, being segmented
and whole, being broken and reconstructed, inch by inch.
D. Sabela grimes is
not an easy act to follow. Roko Kawai, as if to say "and now for
something completely different," lets us feast our eyes on her diminutive
purple kimono- clad form to begin "Improvisation in Kimono (Four)."
She stands in silence before a vermilion and gold-leaf backdrop
by Hiroshi Iwasaki, two stage-filling paintings really. She's in
traditional Japanese garb with tabi sox and a gilded red obi. But
what's that for a hairdo? Pigtails and spangly silver elastics!
She starts small and silent, with tension in her hands and small
shifty steps. All it takes is one deft jerk of the head for Kawai's
pigtails to bounce and the audience to chuckle. The picture is humorous
-- a small, bouncy creature, executing moves and postures from the
traditional Japanese lexicon but always with a twist. There's a
heady cleverness to how Kawai plays off the contained forms. Suddenly
her hands slice with dexterous swiftness every which way, and she
performs little jumps lifting off the ground -- whoever saw a Kabuki
dancer do that?
Kawai looks out at us,
the dancer aware of herself as tantalizing object and of the game
she plays, stretching out of constraints. Suddenly, surprise, she's
on the ground, on all fours, the world having tipped utterly sideways.
Kawai plays with silence,
with non-doing. It demands an attention to detail on our part, a
willingness to see how the stream of her discoveries flows onward.
In silence she examines her obi (the wide swath of brocaded fabric
that belts the kimono) and undoes it, beginning the unlayering of
a surprising number of garments, which when neatly folded, form
a line along the length of the proscenium. We hear her on tape recounting
familial stories of the curious disjunctures of East and West. Down
to skivvies, Kawai dons the clothes awaiting her at the end of the
line of removed clothing -- they transform her into a trendy Westernized
youth complete with bell bottoms and wedgies.
Having heard Kawai speak
earlier about her ongoing studies of traditional Japanese dance,
it's clear they're largely concerned with character and the exact
way a given person of a given gender and rank would move. A walk
isn't just a walk; it's the walk of a courtesan, of a noble prince
or a gruff villager. And so the three main characters of Kawai's
improvisation each have their own approaches to dancing. She goes
from the contained lady breaking her bounds to the rocker playing
with the traditional prop of an umbrella to her last character --
a post-modern mover with a Japanese ability to facet movements finely,
to use the hand as a blade or to shift the eyes expressively. This
is the clearest hybrid and a fine vehicle for Kawai's fluid inventive
moving. There's something touching about watching the forms being
undone, slipping out of the ties that bind. Kawai's rocker in a
raincoat manipulates her traditional transparent umbrella with gentleness
and subtlety but she's long past wanting to play any traditional
Despite big movement,
an ambitious unfolding scenario and color-splashed set and costumes,
in the end I'm reminded of something small -- the paper mache tigers
whose heads will bob at the slightest touch. You can hold them in
your hand, they are loose and fun, and though they're a toy, they're
crafted with great care.
The program notes for
Charles O. Anderson's "Funky Suite: Body and Soul" state the choreographer's
intent to make a tribute to black and gay culture and the forces
of dance and music within them. There is rousing dance and propelling
music. But Anderson is a curious character in his own work and the
confusion of his role makes it difficult for this reviewer to fully
enjoy the dynamism of his tribute.
"Funky Suite: Body and
Soul" is brash and vivid. With washes of saturated color on the
cyclorama and sumptuous copper-tinted costumes drawing inspiration
from tribal dress by Heidi Barr, it's a rich picture. The ensemble
of six powerful dancers (Elrey Casanova Belmonti, Sidney Johnson,
Yaqshaan Abdul-Malik, Samuel Reyes, Michael Tindal, and Michael
Velez), stripped to the waist, delivers big leaps and sweaty exertion,
rhythmic stamps and African-derived moves along with the arcing
sweeps of the leg and the shaped arms of modern dance. The performers
reach and thrust, aspiring and proclaiming their own power. There's
energy to burn.
Sometimes the dancers
engage in brief allusions to fighting or flirtation -- a face-off,
a hit, a look -- but nothing is fleshed out. The ensemble seems
uncomplicated, shifting from unison dances to duets; pairs, canons
-- it's by the book. Later 'show-off' solos delight the audience.
There's live, driving percussion throughout and a mixed score on
tape with snatches of provocative text. The sound score taunts "faggot,"
and says "If you're gonna tell me you're a fag I don't think I can
handle it." Is this language where our sense of context for the
piece is to come from? Is it what gives rise to Anderson's own role?
Anderson plays an outsider,
set apart from all the other vibrancy onstage. He shakes. He walks
the periphery of the space. While others dance with robust abandon
he's shuffling, eyes downcast. He skulks in briefly from the wings
as the most exhilarating dancing's onstage and disappears just as
forlornly. I expect some kind of transformation to occur. There
isn't one. Is Anderson hiding? Outcast? Nothing in the action brings
real clarity. Anderson dances fully primarily for himself and never
really joins in with the others. There's plenty of dance where a
literal meaning is not the point. But if Anderson were not aiming
at a literal narrative here, he'd have to go lighter on this characterization.
The unfussiness of the ensemble dancing as compared with the heaviness
of his own performance just doesn't jive.
I'd wish for Anderson
to mine his material more deeply so that rather than pasting text
or lyrics on a confusing stage picture, he'd communicate more fully
through action. I'd wish for his group choreography to develop further
subtlety, mirroring the complexity of actual relationships rather
than the simplistic connections of all-too-familiar choreographic
devices. All the same, the audience is thrilled, cheering for the
display of physical prowess and dynamic spectacle. Curmudgeon that
I am, I want more.
Lisa Kraus's web logs are "Decoy
Among the Swans" and "Writing
My Dancing Life." Lisa will teach this spring at Philadelphia
Dance Projects and perform at Movement Research at Judson Church
on March 29.
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