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Flash Review Journal, 7-15: Between a Rock and a Not-so-Hard Place
Uncomfortable Ambiguities at Philly's New Festival

By Lisa Kraus
Copyright 2005 Lisa Kraus

PHILADELPHIA -- There is no dedicated space for dance in Philly. Needing a suitable, assured venue for their yearly home seasons, a bunch of the city's dance-theater makers took matters into their own hands recently, creating what will be an annual festival at the Arts Bank, an industrial-chic space at the corner of Broad and South Streets. Their "New Festival," which ran this May 31 - June 12, joins the other longer-running festivals -- the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, Philly Fringe, and DanceBoom -- in offering an important outlet for area artists. It's artist-run, spearheaded by Melanie Stewart Dance Theater. I saw all six programs, featuring established and lesser-known Philly artists and groups, plus the two dance film programs. The extravaganza left me with questions about how some of our best dance-theater artists successfully pull off work that implies meaning without pointing to it directly. As a chosen terrain it's fertile but dangerous, with the potential for leaving an audience stranded, wondering where they are and why. Too many of the pieces in the festival did just that.

Because I was chewing on how certain works make sense while purposefully remaining ambiguous, reading Brian McCormick's preview of Tere O'Connor's "Frozen Mommy" in this past Sunday's New York Times provided more food for thought. The choreographer says the work offers "form detached from narrative" and "hints of narrative, but only hints." Now I'm an O'Connor fan, and I know that "hints" in his hands are plenty to go on. The preview details O'Connor's interest in disruption, incompleteness, and shifting from "stylish drama" to dancers "(being) themselves" to "references to dance history." O'Connor's description of what he's set out to do makes me salivate. I know he gets his performers to bring all their expressiveness to bear in brief moments of vocalization and in charged encounters, and then lets those intense images wash out like just so much passing weather. I find none of this hard to follow, peculiar and illogical as it may be. In fact, the sheer unpredictable intelligence and quirkiness of it all tickles me silly.

Merce Cunningham is perfectly happy if his vast "Ocean," previewed by Nancy Dalva in the same Sunday Times ahead of its Lincoln Center Festival run, has implications beyond pure movement in space and time. He says, "I present something which may force the spectator to realize there is -- something else." But rather than ever specifying what that "something" is, he cares that the reading is personal. "What I don't want to do is tell somebody how to think."

Both these choreographers pull off an admirable alchemy, offering enough clues to allow the audience to navigate its own way through their work without either spelling everything out or leaving the spectators with insufficient ground to stand on. Unfortunately for less seasoned artists, there seems to be no sure formula for pulling this off. Each work aiming to tread this ground has to ace the trick on its own, and on its own terms.

I felt sorry that Elisa Lane's "Oma's WWII Secret" told so little of its story, which, judging from its New Festival program notes, was a narrative related to Lane's grandmother's wartime past. Putting myself in the choreographer's shoes, it's easy to think material is working when it's so personally charged. We're all the more prone then to having blind spots. For Lane, the layered projections, text about the grandmother/granddaughter relationship, a character in '40s dress singing in German, and two women dancing apart and finally together undoubtedly added up to a whole picture. But for me, the materials were too disconnected and not evocative enough in themselves to convey her intent. I write about Lane's work here because it was close to but wide of her mark. The piece was only one of many in the New Festival that left me wondering, "Why are they doing that, and what does it have to do with anything?"

Admittedly "getting it" is highly subjective. My hunch is that the project becomes tricky mainly when the choreographer is implying a clear "it" to get. Reading meaning is the subject of plenty of rigorous academic study, and the province of the whole field of dramaturgy. Without the benefit of that background an audience member confronted with non-literal work that alludes to further meaning is flying by the seat of her pants. It seems to boil down to the old "I know what I like" or rather, "understand." As in reading poetry, our own thoughts can fly across the synapses, delighted to make connections and synthesize a total picture, or not. And sadly too much of the dance-theater of the New Festival erred on the side of being too decidedly obvious or vague, or lacked sufficient depth, or was too widely disconnected when seeming to attempt synthesis. All the above prevent that delicious synapse-leaping experience possible with dance-theater.

Working closer to either end of the spectrum from pure dance to narrative storytelling simplifies matters. The work of Headlong Dance Theater is a case in point. This company is committed to creating work with a populist feel, so no one would ever walk away from one of its shows scratching his or her head and wondering "What was that?" Headlong's "Yonder," set to Alan Lomax-recorded Southern mountain songs, unfolded with scenes of love, brutal death, and peaceful resignation. It was plaintively charming, yet seasoned with wry humor. How often do dancers die onstage and have headstones placed sweetly next to them? "Attachment II" featured two dancers and their children. Imagine a duet of easily rolling contact with the added element of maneuvering around three little ones, one on foot and two in their Snugglis affixed to their mamas. A surprise knockout in the Headlong show was the perfect theater-in-miniature of a sign language interpreter, Julie Marothy, living each word of songs by Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, et al.

In a related genre, "A Theatrical Rendering of the Modern Life of Karen Bollaert," by Dead Genius Productions, featured straightforward storytelling with some great physical theater moments like a sex scene enacted entirely by having the players step forward and backward, the entire drama playing out on their faces.

On the other end of the spectrum, Kristin Shahverdian and Philip Grosser contributed works that leaned toward traditional pure dance form. Intelligence in the use of gesture and timing made their dances satisfying.

But managing to successfully build cogent, non-literal dance-theater without an oversimplified connect-the-dots feel, though attempted in a majority of the works, proved an elusive goal at the New Festival. On the two showcases, presenting a total of 13 works, only Melanie Stewart's "The Girl With Bees in Her Hair" aimed for and accomplished this, gently spinning an illusionistic web of text, video and movement. I only wish there had been more investigation toward finding movement language specifically germane to this particular piece.

Paule Turner's "Touched" brought up a host of questions about the performer/audience relationship that could be the topic of another piece of writing. Part confession, part harangue, this work dwells in the realm of identity politics. But its violent imagery is also curiously undermined by the choice of movement idiom -- a slithery and decidedly soft post-modern one.

Subcircle (Nicole and Jorge Cousineau) was the company that seemed most able to consistently find its own alchemy a la O'Connor and Cunningham, in "Somewhere Close to Now." Solo dancer slips right into the video imagery, projected poetic fragments hint at elements which then appear onstage. Dancer mimes opening a window in empty space, then sound and light and imagery shift to reveal new 'worlds.' Nicole Cousineau seems acted on here, her body shifting performative modes, and subtly playing on spatial planes. Ambiguous? Definitely. But the richness of the imagery renders the issue moot.

Subcircle's program was shared with Laura Petersen, who knows how to be chic and clever, and limited her movement palette in "Security" by literally never getting off the ground. Dancers on all fours crawled like burglars or bugs, enacting a silly, sexy film noir-ish entertainment. And who could beat the term "precision crawling"?

On Group Motion's program, contributions by Silvana Cardell and Laina Fischbeck stood out for their freshness and complexity. Fischbeck moves as though she's sharing her swimming pool with an electric eel -- shot through with tremors and a fascinating but terrifying possession.

Dance on film played an important role in the New Festival. Trailers by Les Rivera, like sassy snapshots of each group that performed live, were a hit with audiences. And the two programs of Motion Pictures screenings produced by Philadelphia Dance Projects included some of the most inspiring work in the festival. Lloyd Newson and Marion Levy, represented by their prize-winning Dance on Camera Festival submissions, "The Cost of Living" and "I (Marion Solo)" respectively, showed how masterfully choreographers can tell stories (or hint at them) without any vagueness at all. Local hip-hop hero Rennie Harris was the subject of Carmella Vassor Johnson's "Endangered Species." It's a searing document of the eponymous solo woven with Harris recounting horrific tales of growing up in North Philly. The film is scary for what Harris recounts and remarkable in how his past transforms into present performing intensity. Kids just a ways up Broad Street from the Arts Bank face the same situations Harris describes -- abuse, neglect, and being swept up into perpetrating violence themselves -- every day. That sure makes the ability to make dance-theater at all seem a privilege, and adds to the impetus to make it really mean something.

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