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Flash Review 2, 12-16: Welcome to the Ontological, Zoological Garden
(PLEASE DON'T PET HEDEWIG'S DANCERS)

By Faith Pilger
Copyright 2004 Faith Pilger

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NEW YORK -- Menagerie: a zoological garden or zoo, public or private park where living animals are kept for exhibition and study. The menageries and aviaries of China, Egypt, and Rome were famous in ancient times. From the late medieval period many rulers had private menageries, some of which later formed the nucleus of public exhibits. (encyclopedia.com.)

I thought it appropriate to consult an encyclopedia before framing my opinion of Guta Hedewig Dance's "Menagerie," which premiered at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church December 9-12. Why? Because the work itself was surprisingly more cerebral than visceral, particularly for a dance performance whose press release promised "drama and hilarity" in its depictions of "tail-wagging bees...Egyptian Plover birds...and the mysterious symbiosis of crocodiles" among other misadventures.

Hedewig, who founded her company in 1992, collaborated with composer/multi-instrumentalist Edward Ratliff and his Sirius String Quartet as well as video and set designers to present this inventive evening of multi-media performance. Anja Hitzenberger's video images opened and closed the evening with a witty water mammal who seemed to be having more fun than any of the other animals depicted on screen or off throughout the evening.

There was a seriousness and almost sad stillness to the quality of the entire presentation, reminiscent of visiting a zoo in which one wonders how well the animals have been treated. But passion did not seem to be the goal of the choreographer's exploration. Rather, it was "instinct and internal logic" (to quote from the company bio) that reigned supreme. Hedewig's vision seemed human in its perspective on other animals, logical and honestly curious, while at the same time vaguely sterile. Perhaps this is how menageries have always been.

Hedewig created a vocabulary for her dancers and herself to express different modes of travel and succeeded in keeping this interesting, but I still felt that I was missing something. Moments stood out when a lightness prevailed over the methodology: a mischievous smile from Kristi Spessard during a solo, a scurrying of the dancers together on all fours, a section in which books become hooves for the dancers to slide and move upon, a floating underwater moment in which dancers balanced, suspended on their bellies, atop two stacks of books.

In one bold interactive moment the lights brightened and the dancers walked through the audience handing out flash cards with pictures and descriptions of animals such as the Red Admiral butterfly, who not only "...uses many different wing strokes, but uses them on successive wing beats. Rather than progressing from one sort of wing stroke to another as flying speed changes -- the way horses go from walk to trot to canter -- the butterflies behave more like Olympic gymnasts doing floor exercises. If human beings moved like the Red Admiral, sidewalks would be filled with people progressing by hop, skip, jump, cartwheel and back flip, in no particular order."

Fascinating though this information is, the whole thing seemed a little contrived. Or maybe I just wanted a little more warmth from the animals and the people.

Dancers Theresa Duhon, Rachel Lynch-John, Kristi Spessard and Hedewig displayed beautifully articulate and expressive bodies dressed in colorful, abstract textiles with fitted layers created by designer Reiko Kawashima, assisted by Reiko Tomita. The Sirius String Quartet, a talented and versatile crew, played throughout while perched up in the balcony, unfortunately partly blocked by a hanging video screen (not the best view).

Overall, the choreographer was successful in creating a specific mood and further developing her quirky release-based movement style. Still, a friend in the audience put it well when he said that he felt a bit like he had stepped into a library or opened up an encyclopedia. Is this REALLY how we view animals? If so, I'd like to know a little more about why.


Faith Pilger is a professional dancer, choreographer, producer and overall art-whore. She performs with various choreographers and creates her own work whenever possible. She also trains some wonderful clients at Crunch. Visit her at www.pilger.com/faith.

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