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Flash Journal Flashback 2, 2-17: Three & a 'Match'
Preljocaj's Props; Hay's Solo for 20; Hoghe's Night of the Living Dead Dancers

(Editor's Note: The Dance Insider has been revisiting its Flash Archive. This Flash Journal originally appeared on September 28, 2005. On May 25, 26, & 27 at Dance New Amsterdam in New York, Layard Thompson, Scott Heron, Hana van der Kolk and Lise Serrell perform solos by Deborah Hay, followed by discussions led by Laurie Uprichard or Carla Peterson. A portion of proceeds from the May 27 gala benefit Thompson's participation in Hay's 2006 Solo Performance Commissioning Project.)

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- I tell ya campers, if all I lived for was dance, I would trade places with Gia Kourlas in a frickin' New York minute. Of the three shows I've caught in the opening weeks of the Paris season, only one has been worth writing home about, and he's probably already home: Deborah Hay's 2004 solo "The Ridge," as interpreted by one of the 20 dancers from all over the world who commissioned it, New Yorker Layard Thompson, who accomplished more in one very proscribed art gallery space than veteran choreographer Angelin Preljocaj and pretend choreographer Raimond Hogue achieved working on two of the largest stages in Paris, at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt and the Centre Pompidou.

A French dance aficionado acquaintance I queried after last night's Paris premiere of Preljocaj's "Four Seasons," to Vivaldi's music elongated by silent segments, related the running joke among Parisian dancegoers: "One doesn't go to contemporary dance concerts to see dance." "Well," I countered, "maybe not in France." The show we'd just seen he characterized as "recreational dance" which, he proposed in all sincerity, would be good to take a 10-year-old to. Not a 10-year-old who has ever seen Pilobolus or with any kind of imagination.

Bereft of real new ideas, Preljocaj, for at least his last two creations that I've seen including this one, has turned to tricks and trucs. These would be fine as a means to something else -- serious or silly, dramatic or kinetic -- but for the most part, he gets bored with a gimmick before he fully explores it or just as he's starting to, and so what we end up with is a plethora of mostly purposeless props.

Walking home last night after the cavalcade of porcupines, men with dual canes coming out of their butts, transparent Dancing Bears, pearly clad snow-bunnies, and men in day-glo green -- "Who let Moses (Pendleton) in?" I asked the ex-Pilobolus dancer pal who accompanied me -- I found myself thinking of Pilobolus's "Solo from 'The Empty Suitor,'" a.k.a. "Suitor Solo." The props: a few tubes, a top hat, a cane, a park bench and an apple. Suave at first, the debonair man starts to lose it as soon as a pretty woman he cares about enters, wearing a black dress and eating an apple. Suddenly, as he tries to reach her and/or the apple, he is Stumblefoot, Sisyphus struggling up the hill only to fall down and have to start all over, trying vainly to keep his composure in front of her (and us). You can take it as a comic sketch, but you can also take it as a sketch of an eternal human story, man's striving, usually frustrated, to impress and capture the beautiful yet elusive woman. It can just make you laugh or it can make you cry, but it makes you do something; it has an end, be it comic or demi-tragic.

Preljocaj, by contrast, has replaced his apparently depleted bag of choreographic tricks with a satchel of props, but with either no idea of how to use them -- to comic, tragic, or kinetic effect -- or no desire to do so. In a word, he seems bored. My companion suggested he might have done better to narrow it to a couple of prop-propelled ideas and more fully explore them, and I agree. One promising segment begins as an apparent tug-of-war -- after a rope drops from a playful, prop-laden, rotating mobile -- with ripples from the contested rope reverberating through the dancers' bodies, then morphs into a game of jumping rope, with the jumpers implementing complex routines as they skip the rope and multiply in number. But just when we're getting as engaged as are the cheering dancers rooting each other on, they drop the rope and Preljocaj abandons the idea.

More typical -- in lacking any exploration -- is a section that begins with the entrance of The Thing, a loofa-covered performer my friend likened to SpongeBob. A first-year Pilobolus or Momix dancer would find myriad possibilities here, but what does Preljocaj have his actor/dancer do? Stare at the skimpily-clad woman on the stage and hubba-hubba his groin before lifting her onto his shoulders, where her legs wrap around his neck. What if the sponges covering his skin had been all wet, so that when the woman jumped into his arms, he spurted water out? What if they had been all wet with paint, so that when she touched him, he left his watercolor imprint on her, and so that when he rambled about the stage, he left the colors there too, to be picked up by the other performers for the remainder of the show?

I'm not trying to tell the choreographer what to choreograph -- in fact I stole my idea from Sasha Waltz -- but my point is that having introduced the gimmick, he should have gone SOMEWHERE with it. Without such exploration and development, it's all just tricks, and to what end?

I was expecting my ex-Pilobolus pal to be more upset about this empty propster, but I can't report it so. To be honest, she had a big ol' smile on her face for much of the show. The reason, though -- she acknowledged afterwards -- was because she was just so happy to see dancers dancing. We were coming off a supposed 'dance' performance, Raimond Hoghe's "Young People, Old Voices," seen Thursday, which featured hardly any dance at all. In a land where people who call themselves (and, incredibly, are called by presenters) "choreographers" seem more interested in walking around in a concept than moving around onstage, an old fart like Preljocaj who still wants to dance to the music arrives as a tonic.

I didn't see a lot that was original in the dancing, though; Angsty Anjelin appears to have turned into David Parsons. AP has more in his choreographic arsenal than DP, but the spirit of his "Four Seasons" has more in common with "Bachiana" than, say, his own "Romeo & Juliet." His dancers In bathing suits and tank tops for most of the piece, infused more with Spring than any of the other seasons, Preljocaj seems to be going for an American optimism and ebullience here -- he even has a couple of big-boned, suntanned healthy blonde bathing beauties along for the ride. Yet, if he surpasses Parsons in the variety of his musicality, he doesn't quite attain the level of the master of this particular American dance style, Paul Taylor; this "Four Seasons," while on the music, doesn't much amplify or add to it, let alone find any hidden meanings.

My new favorite American master -- one of the few who does have an entree here in France -- is Deborah Hay, as much for her phraseological prowess as for her presenting innovation. In the summer of 2004, Hay invited 20 dancers to Findhorn, Scotland, to learn "The Ridge," a solo adapted from the group work "The Match," previously reviewed here by Lisa Kraus. Each of the performers had commissioned the work. The rules of the Solo Performance Commissioning Project, supported by London's Independence Dance, include that the performers cannot pay their 700 pound (about $1,300 US) per person portion of the commissioning fee out of their own pockets, but must find local or institutional funders. All the funders for all the commissioners must be credited at all the performances. Once the solo has been taught -- this is my understanding, anyway -- the performers are asked to practice it daily for a minimum of three months.

"I practiced 'The Ridge' over a period of five months before my first performance," says Layard Thompson, whose interpretation I caught September 17 at the nogoodwindow gallery, the tenth setting in which Thompson's performed the piece. "Ideas, characters, ways of moving and some of the sounds I make slowly began to surface and assert themselves. Towards the end of those five months I began to let these moments stick and retain their definition rather then continue to always strive for original and unique interpretations of her choreography -- which is the modus operandi for 'The Ridge': 'What if every cell in my body could perceive the uniqueness and originality of space and time?' So keeping this question current as we move through the choreography, we continuously observe the spontaneous feedback of our performance." (And to it: At the show I saw, Thompson barked back at a dog who'd been particularly provoked by what must have seemed to him/her the performer's growl-like vocalizing.) "After daily practice for a couple of months I found that certain things, though not necessarily habitualized, began to take shape. This was the beginning of the adaptation for me. Then, more consciously, I began to make choices about how I performed the work, which characters I was interested in acting out, what specific movements I made, and the content I wanted to deal with. However, within these choices I try to let every moment remain open and available to becoming something different than I intend. The most important consideration with this work is keeping the possibilities open, alive and available for transmutation."

I'm stalling a bit because this is the type of dance that's difficult for me to describe, even as I recognize its value. Qualitatively, I can tell you it was above all engaging; the dog wasn't the only spectator moved to talk to the performer. ("We love you, Layard!" one woman shouted -- not the emotiveness one usually encounters in a Parisian theater.) No more than six inches from the front 'row,' if you could call it that -- we all sat on the floor or stood -- and confined to a space maybe five feet deep and no more than 25 feet long, Thompson played and read big. Loud goofyness at such close quarters can sometimes be embarrassing -- at least for the audience -- yet here it was endearing. Whether disappearing cloyingly into upstage doorways (inevitably prompting the non dance insider audience to clap because they thought the piece had concluded and it was time for them to do so) or down stairwells before re-appearing, galloping on an imaginary horse with a pretend lasso and showing off for an imaginary cowgirl or slowly vocalizing gobbledegook with a rubbery mouth, Thompson was playing (strictly by the rules of Hay's playground, a colleague explained later). Judging by their laughter, the non dance insider audience appreciated this -- as did I -- but one could also see he was working. In an already compressed space, space was compressed microscopically. Mostly I remember his precision turning, in legs and even more in feet, and how the veins strained at the skin of those arched feet. Another reviewer -- okay, it was Gia -- loved his red shoes, but for this show Thompson didn't don them until a brief coda, and I vote for keeping them off. Cute as they are, it's more moving to see those feets move, down to the most minute muscle ripple.

Layard Thompson performs "The Ridge" again next month at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church, and a SoHo gallery, all in New York. "I have begun practicing the solo again on a daily basis and am totally content to let it change and continue to become something else other then what I have previously performed," he tells me. "I absolutely love how my interest in the work is boundless. My experience just keeps growing and all I want is more. I have never encountered a process this stimulating."

So stimulating, in fact, that he returned for this past summer's Solo Performance Commissioning Project, joining 18 other dancer-commissioners to learn "Room," which Hay will later adapt into the group work "O,O," to be premiered at at Danspace Project in January by the all-star cast of Vicky Schick, Miguel Gutierrez, Juliette Mapp, Neil Greenberg, and Jeanine Durning. "The Match," the group work which was the basis for "The Ridge," will be performed at the Centre Pompidou next month, followed by Hay herself in the solo adaptation at certain (but not all) performances.

Speaking of the Centre Pompidou, I had some more words to say about Hoghe's debacle of a spectacle, but, well, I'm a dance critic, and why should I waste my and your time talking about a 'dance' performance with hardly any dance? Oh all right: My companion likened it to screen savers, but I'd find flying toasters more interesting to watch; at least they're in flight.

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