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Flash Review, 3-24: Mirror, Mirror, Who are We?
Weis Mines Technology for Haiku's Moving Images

By Lisa Kraus
Copyright 2005 Lisa Kraus

NEW YORK -- Vertiginous, disorienting, and carnival-like, Cathy Weis uses her intriguing onstage video set-ups as one piece of a gestalt that includes campy, mysterious story lines, curious human interactions, and bits of telling-it-like-it-is profundity. In her concert featuring two works, "A Bad Sport Hurts Like Mad" and "Electric Haiku: Calm as Custard," seen February 23 at Dance Theater Workshop, Weis demonstrates how, with her long history of exploiting the alchemy of onstage action with live-feed and recorded video, she's a master of the genre. Eschewing slickness, she makes rough and ready dance theater full of images that are surprisingly moving -- in all senses of the word.

Even before "Bad Spot" (2001) starts, Clare Dolan's brazenly painted set, which mimics a vaudeville proscenium arch, and Zeena Parkins's score of eclectic '30s popular tunes provide plenty of amusement. The music conjures early black and white cartoons with slide-y horns and sweet harmonic songs. The willowy Jennie Liu steps into the scene in ballroom heels, pedal pushers and a mint green blouse, positioning her softly curving limbs and repositioning them, tipping and scooping her torso. Her movements are subtle enough that when her image appears symmetrically doubled on the projection surface (within the painted proscenium) we take everything in without having to split allegiance. And 'everything' is pretty neat: The effect's like that in a hall of mirrors, a series of repeating reflections in which Liu's image appears projected first on the right of the screen, then the left, ad infinitum.

Enter Scott Heron in a Beau Brummel lacy shirt as Liu's paramour. The two melt and twine with just enough space opening between them to make their twinned projected images into a series of artfully shifting arcs of limbs. They're like Frankie and Johnny or Bonnie and Clyde, heading off to the roadhouse, and (we're told in a taped text) daring "to live outside their allotted time." After they have a falling out, Heron's on-screen images are engulfed by rising water. (Is it simply paper rising before the camera? A neat trick.) "Helen has left me and gone back to the 1930s" his (taped) voice says. "She marcelled her hair." At this point Liu places her head way close to a camera, the screen filling with her shiny coif. When Heron finds 'Helen' again, the two have a knock-down, drag-out fight to a Scott Joplin-esque rag. She thwacks him with a fan with a kewpie doll face. When he says "I can't get her out of my mind," Liu's videotaped face is positioned on what looks like a rotating bass drum head hovering in mid-air. Heron ever so slowly lifts a downstage mike to his lips, flames licking the screen now and murmurs "I will disappear as soon as I'm forgotten."

How can such a morose ending be so much fun? Weis serves helpings of tenderness along with her camp, and romance, albeit tongue-in-cheek. So "A Bad Spot Hurts Like Mad" turns out to be a charmer. Even the set take-down to more of Parkins's great musical finds is worth seeing.

Appearing as M.C. in flouncy skirts, Weis next sweeps in flashing her wicked conspiratorial grin. "We are here because of 'The Dance'" she declaims, portentously invoking Isadora and Graham, before describing herself herself as a dancer whose attention goes to the weight in her feet and comically crumpling to the floor.

The ensuing premiere, "Electric Haiku: Calm as Custard" is billed as a continuation of "Electric Haiku" (2002), but goes a step further by anchoring its succession of discrete vignettes or 'haikus' with a central feeling, an ineffable core of poignant quiet. The six sections occur mostly on a bare stage with a variety of live camera angles and interactions. Their titles, including "A Fakeloo Artist," "Fluid Heads to Death" and "Larruped But Not Fried," hint at their wackiness but not their depth. It's precisely the unlikely co-existence of these two qualities that gives the work its strength.

Heron reprises the opening section from the original 2002 "Electric Haiku" in a white tire-like tutu and baby Dr. Seuss-creature cap. He performs ordinary acts with circus-feat bravura -- standing on one leg! jumping to second position! -- matched moment by moment by Steve Hamilton's goofy amplified sound effects.

The camera's close-ups from ground level yield surprising views projected big on the cyclorama. Who ever looked so closely at all the tiny ankle-wobbling it takes to stand on one leg? Here Weis is like Toto, pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz to reveal him as just an ordinary guy manipulating sound and light to big effect.. That Weis's 'tricks' are totally transparent makes them all the more fun.

The haikus each offer a potent initial image, a development or variation, and some kind of new element added as a clincher to wrap it all up. Structurally satisfying and dramaturgically fun, it's a classic Japanese approach to form. Heron closes his solo by careening around the space as an airplane toy looming large in a close-up threatens to buzz him down. He splits the scene like a modern-day Keaton pursued by a trick-video phantom.

As the above section's twin, a new solo for Heron has him manipulating a camera that's at the end of a long plank that we first see impaling his Dr. Seuss-like top hat. That the hat-camera remains at a fixed focal distance from Heron's head means that it's always the rest of the world that moves. And Weis plays this and related effects out with the loopy, swirling feel of a roller coaster ride. Distant (ceiling?) lights twinkle and throw off fuzzy enchanting stars.

Two linked sections seem to be the heart of "Electric Haiku: Calm as Custard." In a monologue, Weis recounts how she showed up for jury duty only to have the deep fatigue from her multiple sclerosis prevent her from being able to serve. She details her exchange with a court officer whose brother has the disease, replaying telling him how it ravages the nervous system and how her own body feels like a combination of two completely separate creatures -- her well-functioning left side and her wayward right, a merging of the Olympic diver Greg Louganis with Margaret Thatcher. Image is utterly bound with story here as the text is accompanied by twinned live projection of Weis moving a rolling screen jerkily to displace the video images. She becomes a creature of craggy symmetries, with pairs of curving or crooked arms above and below her two heads. You see the seeming undependability of her right leg in her walk; placing her weight on it takes extra maneuvering. And her frame in middle age is birdlike: slender and curvaceous but a tad fragile too.

Diane Madden's solo seems a contrasting twin with the fluid ease of its movement (a quality I connect with as her former colleague in the Trisha Brown Dance Company). Ineffably elegiac, like a last dance on earth, it's neither cool nor warm, playful nor somber. Madden begins accompanied by quiet but onrushing music which disappears, leaving her at the still center of an open space. Like a creature just revealing its nature, her movement unfolds gradually. She holds her foot to the camera -- we can see projected huge the details of the whorls of lines that are her footprint. Her hand trembles slightly as it lingers in a telephoto shot, the rest of her body connected to the clear diagonal line she's etching on the space.

Madden topples and regains equilibrium, stacking herself up not-quite-on center and dealing with the fallout of her inevitable tumble. Her limbs sweep behind and around, reaching out in space like probes, or ballast. It's a gradual forward progress that mounts in speed, ending with sharp shadows of her distorted legs, a satisfying new image.

The Japanese haiku form, three lines of poetry with fixed numbers of syllables, is frequently used to celebrate the ordinary -- a bud, a storm -- and to give it profound resonance. Madden's solo is like this, simple but deep.

In another section, Jennifer Miller and Weis, priestesses in red gowns, guard and fuss over what looks like a glowing wheelbarrow. (It's described in the program as a TV cradle.) Their angular unison arms and quick shuffling trajectories evoke Martha Graham's acolyte choruses.

The final section's first image is Weis sitting next to a ventriloquist's dummy with its TV set head filled with her own face in clownish make-up. Fade in Johnny Cash's "Streets of Laredo." Weis and doppelganger lipsynch to the wounded cowboy's plaint with its theme of inevitable mortality. Heron enters deadpan, adding a washtub bass (that he can really play!), then Miller in perfect cowgirl get-up (except that she has a natural beard) begins to pick a mean banjo. Last in is Madden, who could be a Park Avenue sophisticate in shades, playing a triangle she holds with some disdain. The music ends and they're all left, nothing happening, in a line-up rife with social awkwardness. Sound-effect cars pass and their heads turn. Then a plane. Strange discomfort in slow fade-out.

The cast is super: quirky, skilled, and compelling. All of Weis's collaborators bring infinite richness to the whole. Jennifer Tipton, whose lighting usually inspires rapture, is here subtle, clearly dealing with the challenge of finding a perfect balance of intensities for video and live images, no easy feat.

It's unusual to use the words madcap and profound to describe the same artist. You could describe Fellini this way, or Keaton. In "Electric Haiku: Calm as Custard," Cathy Weis addresses human frailty with a light and humorous touch, and also floats questions about image and reflection. You'd think so much mirroring and refraction would devolve into narcissism. Not so. The camera here seems a tool for inquiry, for various characters who seem to be asking, "What is this being that is me?" or "How do my composite parts add up?" Weis wears neither rose-colored glasses nor a nihilist's dark shades. Nothing about the evening is pat or black and white (except, quite literally, some of the video images). Instead it's all in gritty perplexing color and shades of gray, just like our precious, impermanent and occasionally wacky lives.

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