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Flash Review 1, 5-28: Digital Dexterity, Unsure Dramaturgy
Troika Ranch Stays Under the Surface

By Lisa Kraus
Copyright 2004 Lisa Kraus

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NEW YORK -- What's best in Troika Ranch's "Surfacing" is the meld of live performance with video. This is deservedly Troika Ranch's trademark. With three-story high falling and slow motion figures, four tall rectangular fabric panels as screens for live-feed and delayed video images, and four dancers animating geometries of the panels on the honey-colored floor, Troika Ranch deftly melds its visual acuity with the lofty spaciousness of St. Mark's Church, where "Surfacing" premiered May 20 as part of Danspace Project's Dance Access. When the dance and media balance, just so, a spectator's eye and ear move between mediums, synthesizing in Wagner's dreamed-of way. Sound by composer/media artist Mark Coniglio bubbles up sometimes as dimly recognizable -- an airplane, a heartbeat -- and sometimes as more orchestral -- a cello, a chorus.

"Surfacing" opens with projected faces stretching and shrinking fun-house style, followed by full-sized images of the four dancers in street clothes. There's theatrical sleight-of-hand as dancers-in-the-flesh burst in from behind the screens. They perform a sequence of gestures: one arm slowly unfolds to a low diagonal, taking torso with it; hands snake and shake. One dancer does the sequence, then three. Cycles repeat with differing numbers. Even this early in the piece the slow deliberate action and the earnest and ardent look on the dancers' faces perplexes -- why the high seriousness?

Opening out, the performers swoop in ever widening ellipses, swirling their limbs, careening up an inclined ramp to its precarious edge and whooshing back down, disappearing behind screens and surging back. Choreographer Dawn Stoppiello's movement, fleshy with wide arcs of leg and hand, appears to take both ease and oomph to perform. It's gutsy and breathy without being overtly dramatic.

Solos, duets and trios, often in contact and in all the possible combinations of the two men and two women, show qualities of varied relationships, from tender to abusive. Games of domination or cooperation unfold in catches and holds, lifts and balances. The men, Patrick Mueller and Michou Szabo, display force, and lower each other from the ramp using its angle to good effect. The women, Sandra Tillett and Danielle Goldman slide lightning-fast to the floor and seem to relish dancing some of the evening's most inventive movement. But with relationship as the piece's apparent focus, one longs for either a deepening of terrain already explored in many other contemporary works or an opening out to something new. Here "Surfacing" is neither fresh nor profound.

The performers as actors need further guidance. What they do apparently means a great deal, but whatever it is, we aren't clued in. Why does Szabo tip his head back, in a recurring image, like a Pieta? At several points the dancers' video-taped and projected images, with the men bare chested, fill the sanctuary nave, perhaps forty feet high. These slowed down images seem played on by difficult forces, faces opaque and sometimes tormented.

Where the work really succeeds is when it is least self-conscious: in the ventilating pedestrian sections, comings and goings, with a decided interaction in the connection of video to live movers. In one such moment, a live figure walks behind larger black and white versions of himself and the visual layers deepen to three as we notice the shadows passing along the back wall. It's a play on direction and directionlessness, just walking, and it's powerfully simple.

Three screens, placed akimbo, form a backdrop for a solo as fuzzy shadows of three dancers morph into the wildest dancing in the show. Time-distorted solos speed up, slow down and jerk into retrograde, one woman's hair continually repeating a thrashing arc. The shadows flip to negatives, white on black -- a great effect.

A second projection of the four dancers' faces signals the ending. Soon one dancer wanders, contemplative, in a miasma of shadows. Troika Ranch skillfully weaves the elements here with none dominating and the composite picture cleverly interdependent.

"Surfacing" sits on an uncomfortable point between clarity and fuzziness. While there's a great deal in the visuals and dancing to savor, we have insufficient cues to be drawn into our own interpretations and are given too many to assume that what we see is abstraction.

Lisa Kraus's web logs are "Decoy Among the Swans" and "Writing My Dancing Life."

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