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Flash Review 2, 1-25: 'Tenderenda'
Having a Ball with Karinne Keithley

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2005 Chris Dohse

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NEW YORK -- Karinne Keithley wears a lot of hats. In "Tenderenda" (seen January 14 at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church), she also wears a kerchief. She has choreographed this work (in collaboration with the performers), has written the overarching script that holds within it fragments from Hugo Ball's novella "Tenderenda der Phantast" and has composed or collaged the soundscore. Keithley, who has written for this publication, performs in the piece and has created a small 'zine holding some of its texts.

Keithley bewitches in an opening solo, "Wooded Place." Her love of words is immediately clear; repetitive fragments from Dante are recited by a woman's voice on tape. There is an ineffable quality to this dance and a delightful one. Dowdily clad in chocolate browns, including knee socks, Keithley fills her gesturally driven material with specificity, as if she's telling a story. She wholly embodies the mysterious narrative that emerges.

During a short break, a house manager encourages us to read something from the 'zine. She tells us that Keithley believes "sometimes dancing is better with reading."

"Tenderenda" is a fantastical dance-play. Three urchins (Keithley, Chris Yon and Katy Pyle) live in an Abbey, deep within a Germanic wood. Also living there is a bear (Jeff Larson). Inside the bear's belly resides Saint Tenderenda, who emerges from slumber episodically to deliver nonsensical liturgies (Ball's original language). The children document and archive these sacred, yet unintelligible, texts between frolicsome pinching and goosing of each other like the Three Stooges. All characters also cavort in the forest, which is represented by a chorus of female dancers. In the balcony above sits a narrator (Peter Schmitz).

Five large painted canvases, designed by Chris Protas and executed by a group of artists, hang from the church's balcony, defining the edges of the performing space. They depict woodsy scenes, rich with color and playful forms that recall the murals of Duncan Grant. Kathy Kaufman's lighting design often soaks the canvases in light, and their color reverberates in dirndls worn by the "trees," designed by Swati Argade.

Keithley conflates Ball's absurdist language with her own childlike Gesamtkunstwerk into something that seems like a kindergarten Edda. My favorite moments are a duet for herself and Pyle, wherein they sing a ditty while hobbling side by side on their knees; many of the tree's stately Eurythmy interludes (one striking canon in particular); and the bear's cantankery. The story gets a bit muddled toward the end, and the pace of vignettes, vaudevillian and skit-like, runs aground. There is such fecundity of imagination here, such a rich torrent of language, such delightful playfulness. There's also a certain tone, an aloofness or a sort of post-modern detachment, that becomes monotonous, sort of leeches out some of the fun we could be having. It's perplexing to like all the ingredients of the piece so much but to feel that it somehow needs a little more cooking. Or a little more craziness? I miss the hooliganism and social abrasion of Ball's Cabaret Voltaire that I've read so much about, but then I admit to coming to these texts with my own agenda.

Keithley's character transforms into a tree. Pyle's naive countenance is canonized. Yon becomes a dipsomaniac. So is this a creation myth or a cautionary tale? Keithley clearly follows a skewed muse. Where exactly she is going is unmapped. Following her is often captivating, sometimes bewildering, always unusual. When she knows the way, she realizes the possibility of enchantment.

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