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Review, 6-2: The Efficiency Expert
Easton Mines Taylor for Meaning
By Philip W. Sandstrom
Copyright 2005 Philip W. Sandstrom
NEW YORK -- Has meaning
returned to modern dance?
Throughout Hilary Easton's
"The Short Cut," seen May 22 at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church,
I couldn't help but feel that we were in on something. With the
help of text convincingly delivered by Steven Rattazzi, this work
of dance-theater effectively offers the audience more than a window
into Frederick Winslow Taylor's exploration
and study of efficiency. Through the use of movement and phrasing,
we see the theory he developed in the early 20th century -- since
sometimes referred to as "Taylorism" -- at work. We see the mechanism
of time study research revealed.
First Easton introduces
and establishes her characters through the use of carefully fashioned
solos, and then slowly the interactions between performers establish
the working community. Soon analysis begins, as a performer is timed
(literally with a stopwatch) while dancing a phrase, by an unnamed
character in the program whom I'll call the "Efficiency Manager"
(EM). The same phrase is performed again in a shorter version and
timed again. This is repeated in shorter and shorter versions until
the phrase has been edited down to the essentials and the ultimate
efficiency of movement is achieved. What we are seeing here is dance
phrases -- not mimed work-like actions -- serving as tasks, which
can be and are trimmed to their essence in these timed trials.
After this demonstration,
the EM cogently explains how efficiency is to be achieved, in text
written by Helen Schulman, in a style that suggests the language
of Taylor and his period. We learn that "the system must come first."
We are then treated to some partnering of cooperation in which a
male and female dancer work together in efficient bliss, accompanied
by pleasantly motivating xylophone music by the evening's composer,
Thomas Cabaniss. The efficiency in movement slowly gives way to
sloth and the section ends with the entire company gazing lazily
up to the balcony; break time perhaps?
After the EM intervenes
with an audible "ah-hem," the work reconvenes for the entire company,
now driven by a relentless and pounding piano score, and timed by
the stopwatch-wheedling EM as he carefully observes the events and
tasks surrounding him. Soon we're back to time trials and task movement
trimming; in this round, pairs of dancer/workers compete as teams,
egged on and assisted by fellow dancer/workers. But what we discover,
that we wouldn't necessarily expect, is the inter-dancer coaching
and motivational cheering become more of a hindrance than help.
Herewith the beauty of Easton's movement organization and development
is revealed. We are presented with a genuinely successful attempt
to clearly equate difficult phrases with destructive testing. Distinguishing
what looks difficult from what is difficult becomes hard; we are
being intentionally confused. Phrases are layered upon each other
until failure occurs, through duress, exhaustion, or ultimate confusion.
Only upon the collapse of the structure do we finally understand
how Easton has been engaging us in the action.
We are left with the
EM explaining the necessity of "the close-up study of movement efficiency,"
followed by his careful guidance of a double duet designed to evoke
efficiency learned through study, analysis, and repetition. The
performers share this new acquired and refined knowledge as they
help each other perfect their movements under the watchful eye of
the EM. Here again we see an example of Easton's ability to slowly
bring us in on the process, enabling us to watch as the students
become teachers and the next generation of students eagerly learn
from the newly minted instructors.
The EM, alone again
(at the end of the day?) delivers his final monologue, which begins
as a treatise on managers, who they are and what they do, gliding
into the historical under-appreciation of middle managers like himself,
and ends with a declaration of worth: "They (the workers) are better
because of me."
The finale begins as
an ode to efficient operation, in which the movement has been tailored
to the skills of the dancer. Each character appears to be operating
at prime efficiency. We slowly become aware that Easton has taken
us inside the workings of a fine timepiece: Everything and everyone
is precise and orderly, nothing is wasted. Once our revelation is
complete the dancers freeze, the EM clicks his stopwatch, and the
stage fades to black.
What distinguishes this
work is the sense of its permanence; classical values come to mind.
It's not that the movement is dated, it's that the movement is timeless.
Easton communicates with her movement. She has devised and chosen
phrases that reach us, yet surprise us. The work projects a new
view of a familiar scene, as if guiding you down the streets of
your neighborhood at an unfamiliar hour, producing a revelation.
The measured thoughtfulness
of this choreography, where nothing seems overdone or unnecessary,
is a rare phenomenon in the dance world. The dance has meaning.
An idea is conveyed, presented, and completed to our satisfaction
in one hour -- what a treat!
Philip W. Sandstrom is a theater consultant who has worked in
production and lighting design, management, and producing, as well
as a consulting editor for 2wice Magazine. Disclosure: Philip W.
Sandstrom and Laurie Uprichard, the executive director of Danspace
Project, have had a near-familial relationship for a number of years.
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