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Flash Review Journal, 5-26: Belly of the Beast
Playing 'Wolf' with Zhukov; Process of Illumination with Kunst-Stoff

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2004 Aimee Ts’ao

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Choreographing a ballet to be performed by very young dancers for an audience of families with children is not a simple task. Anyone who has ever spent substantial amounts of time with kids knows that they have little tolerance for things that are not interesting, and they can be very vocal in their displeasure. To successfully produce this type of dance theater piece requires engaging children on both sides of the footlights. Yuri Zhukov has just very skillfully choreographed and designed sets and costumes for his own version of "Peter and the Wolf" to the Prokofiev score for City Ballet School's Spring Concert at the Cowell Theater, seen this past Saturday. After a career as a dancer with the then-Kirov, San Francisco, and Birmingham Royal Ballets, Zhukov currently teaches at the San Francisco Ballet School and choreographs for City Ballet School while spreading his wings further afield as a stage designer, most recently for Yuri Possokhov's "Firebird" with Oregon Ballet Theatre in Portland.

As the introduction of the main characters of the story begins, the curtains part revealing a screen topped with the banner "Peter and the Wolf." The narrator explains that each role is identified with a different instrument of the orchestra, as the shadow of that character dances onto the screen and performs a few signature steps of that role. The story proper starts as the curtain opens all the way and the screen disappears. All the characters now have the opportunity to show themselves in greater detail, developing those motif steps and adding some new ones as well. Peter, portrayed by Dylan Murphy, enters through the gate and cavorts in the meadow, which is alive with giant flowers, bumblebees, butterflies and ladybugs, who all have a chance to perform their own dances. The costumes here are very colorful -- simple yet very effective. The Bird, Jeraldine Mendoza, flits about and alights in the massive tree upstage left. The Duck, Simone MacNeil, waddles around and jumps into the pond with water formed by two blue lengths of fabric held and rippled by the Flower girls. When the Cat, Alex Schneider, slithers through the grass, the Ladybugs hold up green metallic poles to represent the blades swaying in the breeze. There are many more inventive touches to come.

The Wolf is played by a young boy, Sasha Patsel, on stilts covered from head to toe in gray fur, wearing a mask with sharp teeth bared in a snarl. When he seizes the Duck and swallows her there is a blackout, followed by the Duck alone in a small pool of light, shivering and frightened in the Wolf's stomach, doing a very short parody of the "Dying Swan." Peter really does lasso the Wolf by the tail and that villainous beast is so ashamed at being caught that he tucks his fifth appendage between his legs.

At last the hunters arrive with their blunderbusses. They're portrayed by four girls (there generally aren't enough boys in this age group) of medium height, the last is a head shorter than the rest. As a running gag, this pint-sized stalker has the last word in every movement phrase, either coming out late from the wings, turning in the opposite direction from everyone else, or taking the last shots in an outburst of gunfire.

A trip to the thesaurus (a prehistoric reptile) is hardly helpful in suggesting any alternative vocabulary options that avoid the tendency toward sounding saccharine. But, in the best sense of all these adjectives, this production really is charming, delightful, enchanting, inventive and inspired. You don't need to ask any kids in the audience what they thought. Besides the laughter and applause, the feeling of profound enjoyment was palpable.

When you think about it, choreographing for an adult audience isn't any easier. The difference is that grownups have been socialized and have learned to have discussions about the value and meaning of works of art, not limited to dance, in a "civilized" manner. Tongue-in-cheekily I add that that is why we have critics, though as a critic I often find myself trying to recapture the fresh and unpolluted mind of a child, while maintaining the complex frames of reference I have developed about dance and life. Here I will try to sort through my reactions to and then reflections on Kunst-Stoff's sixth annual home season at ODC Theater. On Sunday, May 15, I saw Program 1 and this past Sunday, May 23 caught Program 2.

For the past half dozen years, under artistic co-directors Yannis Adoniou and Tomi Paasonen, Kunst-Stoff has presented some of the most unusual and innovative dance and multi-media performance/theater in the Bay Area. This season is no exception, but surprisingly, despite very different styles and formats, the essence or intent of all four pieces of the two programs is nearly the same. And oddly, I would not have realized this had I not read the choreographers' statements in the press kit. If they had been successful in putting across their ideas it would have been immediately evident that all the pieces were dealing with the same themes, despite the contrasting means of conveying those thoughts.

The first two pieces of Program 1 were shown last summer in slightly different versions. Amy Raymond, who dances with William Forsythe's Ballett Frankfurt, officially premiered "Self-Seeking-Self" for five women, previously presented, as a " work-in-progress," under the title "Self Multiplied." (My pet peeve -- inaccuracy in printed programs -- raises its vacant head.) To music by Ekkehard Ehlers and Stephan Mathieu (or Eckhardt Ehlers and Stephan Mathiew according to last year's program), Nicole Bonadonna, Kara Davis, Juliann Rhodes, Leslie Schickel and Evann Siebens unleash their considerable joint intensity, in solos or duets against the remaining dancers. They are possessed and never let up. The opening two sections have a dense quality, with a driving rhythm that wears heavily. I could use more breathing room, a few moments of interspersed stillness. Somewhere in the middle the rhythms begin to shift, there is more give and take and some genuinely emotional moments emerge. The dancers fall or lie down with great frequency, only to get up and do it all over again. The final effect for me is Sisyphusian, leaving me wondering when will the cycle ever end, especially as Rhodes repeats over and over, "Don't fall."

"Image/Word.not_a_pipe=" is an installation utilizing video projections by Siebens with choreography by Adoniou and Paasonen danced by Adoniou. In a contemporary homage to the Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte, both creators attempt to layer the surface appearance of things with their deeper meanings. In a smaller performance space upstairs from the main theater, Adoniou, in bowler hat and dark overcoat, sometimes wielding an umbrella, dances among audience members as they wander between video screens showing Adoniou performing the same steps on busy intersections downtown and on the beach and against a blue cloud-filled sky. Moving the audience up to the other space, and down again, in small groups ruins the integrity of the evening.

The premiere of Adoniou's "In-Sight" concludes the program. In collaboration with photographer Cara Judea Alhadeff, Adoniou has choreographed another multi-media work for six performers. A sensuous curved fabric tube hovers above the floor with a pair of legs coming out from the bottom, rubbing and scratching each other, and fidgeting. Along the front of the stage four dancers lie behind small cubes of fabric with projections on them. After some dancing by Bonadonna, Davis, Julian DeLeon, Rhodes and Schickel, Nol Simonse emerges naked from the bottom of the tube. Then some rather lyrical dancing is mixed in with more bizarre movements, until Davis takes her turn at being born naked out of the tube. She stands in a photo projection and gestures with her hands. Unfortunately, most of the photos are too blurry and broken up by being projected onto uneven surfaces. It's a real pity because I later saw prints of some of them and found them compelling. There is a particularly memorable and humorous section with all the dancers lying down in a line, their legs pointing upward and dancing against a picture of windows. One dancer stands up and is supported by the legs, but ends up fighting with the very things that were holding him up. In the very end, four dancers stand up inside the tube, and the surface is distorted by arms and torsos pressing against it. Davis and Simonse dance until Davis makes her retreat to the tube/womb, leaving him alone. While there are striking moments, I never have the feeling that I am being lead on a journey and I feel that some of the technical aspects detract and distract from rather than enhance the dancing.

The following week, just before I arrive at the theater for Program 2 I read a quote from Picasso: "Art is the elimination of the unnecessary." As it turns out, this is a very accurate description of "Super Vision," directed by Paasonen and for which he designed the costumes and sets. Created in 2002, it is reprised here with some minor changes. The piece begins while the audience is still in the lobby. Performers, wearing dark suits covered with large photos of naked body parts, wander among the spectators, telling stories while ignoring us. By the time we are seated, the stage is filled with nine jabbering bodies. In the center is a blue velveteen couch, the seat burned out on its left end, with a ripped lampshade hanging over it. David Jude Thomas's music provides a backdrop of cows mooing and crickets chirping. A man in a white suit, Thomas, enters and the chatter ceases. He gives an annoying sales pitch, the voice of capitalistic single-mindedness. He continues his spiel with animated gesticulating while sitting on the couch. The talking builds to a deafening pitch again and a naked man, Adoniou, walks in, wanders about and disappears into the audience, reappearing in a pair of jockey briefs. The dancers form small groups, then reform them with different people, while the talking rises and falls in intensity or suddenly stops and starts again. A bizarrely-clad woman, in a costume of colorful paper scraps from head to toe, enters from the left and walks at a glacially slow pace. The dancers are still grouping and regrouping. They start walking around the stage forcefully, and Adoniou walks in the opposite direction until some defect and join him. One man is pushed down and when he gets up to run, a woman jumps on his back and they join everyone in running, circling the stage faster and faster. The piggybacking woman falls off and is pushed and kicked as the others run by. The violence and chaos mounts, dancers run from the front of the stage to the back wall. They execute recognizable fragments of movement -- frisking each other with hands on the wall, cheer-leading, hip-hop dancing, aerobics exercising, you name it. Then they start taking off their suits and falling to the floor, all topless, wearing skirts made from men's dress shirts, buttoned around their waists, complete with ties as waistbands.

The trash-covered woman has reached the other side of the stage and picks up a video camera. She starts shooting the dancers as they lie calmly, with the resulting video images projected on the back wall.

Next,Thomas stands and slowly exits while his video image shadows him. Adoniou begins removing the suits that are lying on the floor, or that are still partially on some of the dancers. He unties shoes and gently removes them from others, then returns to the back left corner and sits at a table, where he fingerprints the dancers one at a time and issues them black boxes. The first man finger-printed draws back a curtain that covers the left wall, revealing a mirror. He talks about his performance training and experience while looking at his own image. One by one the others join him and he pulls back the curtain further as he moves upstage. They each have a story to tell about themselves or comments to make about the piece they are in the midst of performing. These are by turns hilarious and poignant. Thomas, at the microphone downstage right announces, "And the winner is...," then proceeds to video-tape the audience, which is projected onto the back wall. The trash woman crawls out and dances until the other dancers all attack her, pulling off her costume, handfuls at a time, exposing Schickel in a red, tattered dress underneath. Suddenly water showers down from the lampshade. All, except Schickel, fall and writhe on the floor. Thomas sits on the couch, now upstage right, and laughs.

The drenched dancers are lined up downstage facing the audience. Adoniou slowly removes their costumes. They stand completely naked and recite the familiar pledge of allegiance to the flag. They turn and walk to the growing puddle of water, slipping and falling, eventually crossing and recrossing the stage as they skim, spin and tumble in a variety of contorted positions to a soundtrack describing the physiological functioning of skin. Schickel stands at the mike with a large envelope and declares, "And the winner is...," pulling out a small envelope. She repeats the process over and over as her voice grows fainter and the envelopes grow smaller till the final fade to blackout.

I usually don't describe a performance in such great detail, nor do I refrain from commenting on it in the process. I hope that the strength of the images is sufficient that you can imagine the devastating impact this work has on the audience. The work is deeply affecting, and sends one away nearly shell-shocked. There are so many layers, so many details that it almost demands a second viewing. And yet, our lives are already filled with the same violence, conflict, deceit and vulnerability that are shown here and you only have to open your eyes to what is already there on a daily basis.

(Editor's Note: To read Aimee Ts'ao's review of an evening of work presented by Tomi Paasonen in Berlin in 2003, please click here.)

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