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Flash Flashback, Winter '98-99: Bring on 'Da Noise
More and More Dancers are Talking on Stage. Why?

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 1998 The Dance Insider

(Editor's Note: This Summer, the Dance Insider has been revisiting its archives. This article was first published in the DI's print edition of Winter 1998-99, and is published online here for the first time.)

Shut up and dance.

That's the reaction I had to a John Alleyne ballet I saw a few years back in which a dancer suddenly stopped moving, grabbed a mike, and proceeded to talk about his daily life -- and, unwittingly, tell us every reason dancers should keep their traps shut on stage. He couldn't act, so his words rang false. The material was mundane. And it distracted us from what looked to be a beautiful pas de deux going on behind him. My next encounter with dance and speech was with a piece that had a clearer reason for using text but still bore one of the liabilities of the mix. For all the political debate about whether Bill T. Jones's "Still/Here" was "victim art," my complaint was a strictly aesthetic one. The interviews with terminal patients fought with the dance for attention.

In the last year, however, I've seen several works in which text and dance were not incongruous, but integral to each other. However, I've also seen some works, labeled as dance, in which I'm not even sure why the dance is there. Patrick Widrig's "Alpsegen" was a moving juxtaposition of the squeaky-clean image of the Swiss with their refusal to harbor Jews during World War II -- but it wasn't clear how the dance related to the story. Karl Anderson's "Weaving Through the Grid," one of two spoken word pieces on this year's Fresh Tracks program at New York's Dance Theater Workshop, effectively mixed speech and dance to a point. That point came when, after reciting a litany of racial stereotypes, a man with a cage over his head is instructed to commit suicide -- a deux ex machina straight out of a college creative writing class.

Even more seasoned artists do not have a sure hand at the mix. Jacqulyn Buglisi's "Frida" combined projections of the art of Freda Kahlo, dance, and a spoken narration. Each element was rich and well-crafted, but presented together, they diluted each other. Los Angeles-based David Rousseve's playwriting is so sharp, and his acting so spellbinding, that they dwarf his choreography.

Dancers have been using text since at least 1940, when Martha Graham made "Letter to the World," her paean to Emily Dickenson. In the 1960s and '70s, "Text came about as people began to pursue themselves as personal subjects of dance," says David White, executive director of DTW. "As things got more personal, people suddenly realized how much they have to say, and movement may or not be adequate to say it with." Post-moderns like David Gordon and Rachel Lampert pushed the form. But not everyone can mix text and dance and create art. "What they're saying may be the most important thing in the world to them," says White, "but how you make a story universal and keep it personal, that's the task."

If choreographers are going to create talking works, they need to be as rigorous with their spoken phrases as they are with those that are danced. Since this trend appears to be here to stay, I thought it would be useful to look at choreographers who are achieving this dual virtuosity, in the hopes that others might learn from them.

If ever a dance-theater work seemed destined for glorious failure, it was Mark Dendy's "Dream Analysis," premiered earlier this year at the Joyce. The title gives the first hint: This dance play was confessional to the hilt, with Dendy parading before us a history of mental abuse by his 'rage-a-holic' mother, power-tripping dance teachers, dysfunctional relationships, lurid family history, and an aborted suicide attempt. Yet when Dendy opened his veins, the effect of the blood-letting on the viewer was not alienation but empathy. Part of the reason for this is his playwriting skills. "Mark is not only a danceartist, but a theater artist," says Charles Reinhart, co-director of the American Dance Festival, who has followed Dendy for several years. "His work has implications about our society and human nature -- where the darkness and lightness meet."

In "Dream Analysis," monologues by characters based on Vaslav Nijinsky and Martha Graham give the work universality. Nijinsky lets the choreographer include a pure dance element. Besides being a writer who can tap into the human condition, Dendy is also a choreographer with a direct line to music that rivals Balanchine's. In "Dream Analysis," working with Lawrence Keigwin, he gives us self-contained virtuosic dance takes on Nijinsky in "Spectre de la Rose," "Petrouchka," "Rite of Spring," and "The Afternoon of a Faun."

Dendy also uses dance for comic relief, as Graham, portrayed by Dendy and by Richard Move, sashays across the stage at some of the heavier moments. Recalling his verbal savaging in college dance classes, he gives a teacher a drill sergeant-like physicality that turns this episode into a comic romp.

In what could easily have devolved into a therapy session with the audience paying for the privilege of being dumped on, Dendy uses theater and dance, sometimes in isolation and sometimes juxtaposed, to create an entertainment that also happens to resonate. In making "Dream Analysis," he says, he hoped "to do it with enough form and craft that it's not just downtown indulgence, because there's nothing that I hate more than to go to somebody's therapy session. I hope it transcends all that, and comes through as theater."

If Dendy uses personal history to create engaging dance-theater, Jane Comfort, with whom he once acted and danced, uses social convictions to create work that goes beyond the didactic. Her muse is both physical and artistic. "The reason I started choreographing," she says, "was I had this idea of making a little dance for hands. It would be done to someone sitting besides me at a table telling lies or reading fairy tales. The dance related to that story. I didn't know how." The how came when Comfort visited San Francisco in 1978, and happened upon a memorial ceremony for slain Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. "Someone was signing the ceremony, and I went, 'Oh my God, that's my dance.'" She choreographed "Sign Story," in which a dancer signs to a reading of Gertrude Stein's "Many Women," and has always used text.

In "Underground River," premiered at New York's Performance Space 122 last February, Comfort used movement, dialogue, songs by Toshi Reagon, and puppetry by Basil Twist in a piece centering on a girl in a coma. As the voices of concerned parents are piped in, four performers, depicting the girl's inner life, sing, dance, play, and make a puppet out of strips of cloth and umbrella spokes. The girl is not dying, but coming alive. "The parents think they lose their daughter, but you see this artistic life she has," Comfort explains.

Comfort has also used movement to expose political rhetoric. For "Three Bagatelles for the Righteous," to a soundtrack of of Newt Gingrich's divisive speeches, dancers fight over dwindling chairs. In another section, dancers mimicking and mouthing the words of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole are manipulated, Bunraku-style, by others representing Hilary Clinton and the Far Right.

Headlong Dance Theater also uses dance to explore the meaning and implications of words, often arising from societal upheavals. "Permit" begins with an offstage dancer asking, "May I enter the space?" and her partner answering, "Yes." In the ensuing duet, each dancer asks permission for every move, with lines like, "May I walk in a large circle around the space?" and "May I suddenly become overwhelmed with commitment phobia and exit the space?" Amy Smith, who co-directs Headlong with David Brick and Andrew Simonet, says "Permit" was inspired by Antioch College's efforts to create a sexual assault prevention policy. "They were trying to require students to ask permission for increasing levels of intimacy. If you're on a date, you're supposed to say, 'May I kiss you?'"

Like Comfort, Headlong applies the same rigor to speech as it does to dance, building on the directors' studies with Susan Foster, the late Richard Bull and the late Cynthia Novack. "Richard did a lot of structured improvisational dances," says Smith, "some of which included improvised talking. The movement and the text have landmarks or a structure, and we make choices within that. The specific things we say, the movements we do will be improvised. In 'Permit' the over-arching structure is we ask each other permission for each action and have to receive a yes to do it. We have some landmarks, but nothing's set. You have to practice. We just added three dancers, so we are skill-building with them on how to talk improvisationally during performance."

Shapiro & Smith avoids this need by "leaving the talking to the pros -- actors," says Danial Shapiro, who directs the Minneapolis-based company with Joanie Smith. "The dancers keep their mouths shut in our company works." More than just the jobs are divided. In most of the company's work -- including "Scenes form a Seance," whose story of turn-of-the-century charlatans is conveyed in mock letters written by Paul Selig -- text and dance alternate rather than overlap. Shapiro believes that it is too much to ask an audience to focus on both simultaneously. "When the language of movement is speaking and you're comprehending in that way, you're not able to understand text, and vice versa," he says.

Giving its audience a linear understanding of its performance is not of particular concern to Elevator Repair Service. If Shapiro & Smith see themselves as a dance company moving in the direction of the multi-disciplinary opera format, ERS is a theater company whose approach is increasingly dance-driven.

There is lots of dialogue in an ERS piece. In "Cab Legs," it was drawn from Tennessee Williams's "Summer and Smoke"; in "Total Fictional Lie" from old documentaries about a serial killer, Paul Anka, and a Bible salesman. But the words are re-ordered, their musical rhythm more important than their literal meaning. Dance is the leitmotif of that rhythm. A conversation is likely to be interrupted by the entire cast being seized by the urge to dance. "They started using dance as a way to drive a truck through their pieces," says Mark Russell, executive director of P.S. 122, ERS's New York home. "They're always playing with your perception of time and space, and dance and music are a great way to shake you up."

"Cab Legs" started with dance, says John Collins, who with Steve Barlow directs the company, while Katherine Profeta supervises the choreography. "We had some things we wanted to do, before we had any text," including playing with dance from Indian movies and Betty Boop cartoons. "We started with the idea we'd have extended periods of silence broken by big dances. As we worked more on the piece and developed characters, we wove that into the structure we'd created as a dance piece, so the text grew up between these dances."

It's hard to tell, in fact, if ERS is a dance or theater company. I've started going for the dialogue -- itself often choreographed in a sort of "chance" arrangement. Others are clearly going for the dance. Returning for a second viewing of "Total Fictional Lie," I heard more than one audience member remark to a companion, "Let's sit somewhere else this time so we get a different view."

In fact, if there's anything the above artists have in common, it's that they are able to hop from form to form with great facility. Russell thinks he knows why: "(This) generation uses media in a different way. I was born in '54. I cannot be in a room with a t.v. set and not watch the t.v. -- I have a one-track mind. Most twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings have a twenty-track mind, and they can deal with the information overload. They don't see popular culture as an evil thing, they see it as water, air, and they just move through it -- and that makes the genres more moveable."

Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. The other thing the above artists have in common is that that their work demonstrates clear reasons for using text. If choreographers want to keep me and others from saying "Shut up and dance," they need to make sure they are not just writing something -- but saying something.


This article was edited by Sara Hook, Rita Felciano, and Rebecca Stenn.

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