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Flash Review 2, 7-22: Mummy's the Word
Unpeeling the Layers with Nadine Helstroffer

By Philip W. Sandstrom
Copyright 2005 Philip W. Sandstrom

NEW YORK -- Completely wrapped in layers of white gauze, lying on the floor of the fifth floor gallery of the Rubin Museum, surrounded by the exhibition Eternal Presence: Handprints and Footprints in Buddhist Art, we first encountered Nadine Helstroffer. A program distributed at the July 10 performance informed us, "The dancer's journey will lead the audience through five locations corresponding with the five tathagatas, or celestial Buddhas," with each location exploring an individual mudra (or hand gesture) and "transformation."

Her mummy-like costume circumscribed by a twisted white rope, Helstroffer -- also the choreographer -- appeared dead-like. The audience surrounding her on three sides stood waiting. She began moving, imperceptibly at first, rather butoh-like. Accelerating to slow, she switched from prone to sitting while carefully untangling herself from the many layers of gauze, accompanied by the sounds of soft drums and a high frequency whine. (Truth be told, at this peaceful magic moment the air was thoroughly and rudely pierced by a screeching infant whose parents did little to restrain their child's expressiveness.) The music throughout the performance was excerpted from the soundtrack for the film Varij Sky by John Bush with original harmonic chants by David Hykes, original Tibetan devotional compositions by Dadon and featuring music by Tibetan singer Yuungchen Lhamo and flutist Newang Khechog.

Now accompanied by a lonely wailing sound, the dancer moved methodically from sitting to upright, as she patiently extended her arms upwards and began to shed the layers of gauze she had previously untangled, like a tree drops its leaves -- one at a time. Once freed from her body covering, she began to delicately remove the last bit of gauze, a mask-like covering, from her face. Her eyes still closed as the music shifted to a passage that suggested the Bulgarian State Women's Choir accompanied by an organ, Helstroffer used her hands and fingers to form the familiar circle of thumb tip touching forefinger tip. Her arms now seemed weightless and extraordinarily fluid as she slowly opened her eyes. We had witnessed a startling transformation, akin to the birth of a dancer or of a dancing form of spirit or of substance.

The score shifted subtly to electronic space music, and Helstroffer's posture became classically Indian in hands and hips. Just as we thought we were settling in, she surprised us by walking out of the circle of rope and through the confused crowd, to the next performance location, defined by a half-circle of the same rope, as the music shifted to synthesizer and low-bass Himalayan voices. Once in her new space, the dancer, with her back to the wall, began repeating slow plies and touched the floor with her hands before extending them towards the ceiling (or the heavens?), accompanied by flute music. As the pattern of plies and extensions repeated, the score metamorphosed into plodding drums, which served to propel the dancer to her next location. Facing away from the audience, Helstroffer focused her attention on a painting of two white hands, mounted on the gallery wall. Her curved arms undulated up and down and from side to side to the sounds of strings, droning, and a touch of piano. Turning toward the attentive audience (the noisy child had mercifully exited with her clueless parents), she floated through the parting crowd, accompanied by tinkling bells. Arriving at the staircase rail, she bound her hands in a long burgundy scarf to the despairing music of a guitar. This binding segued into a side-to-side shuffle while a sad Asian pop song filtered through the air, and culminated with the freeing of her hands and a dance of celebration, evoking Jules Feiffer's cartoon modern dancer. To the sounds of didgeridoo we followed the dancer to the final station where, according to the program, she would link the five mudras together. In this two-part section, she first shifted laterally and then skipped quickly, between the works of art mounted in vitrines and in front of a pair of giant amber carved Buddha's feet perched on a white pedestal, culling movement from the previous sections, to the sound of voices faintly chanting what sounded like "hey-hey."

To finish, Helstroffer turned her attention to the giant feet. At the feet of the feet she recapitulated the ethereal, mesmerizing, and fluid arm and body movements exhibited in the first section. She ended the performance by kneeling and disappearing behind the stone pedestal; perhaps subsumed by Buddha?

Helstroffer is a magnetic, compelling performer; her work is focused. Throughout the performance, I found myself searching for the connections yet confident, until the end of the final section, that the answers would be just around the corner at the next station. Such was not the case, and although it was a pleasant afternoon in a beautiful, mystical, and mysterious museum, unless you shared the choreographer's attention and dedication to this particular Buddhist imagery, religion, and art form you might, and I did, walk away wondering why and feeling a bit empty.

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