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