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Flash Journal, 6-13: Watching & Waiting for the Dance to go Bye
Strong Current Stagnates; Caines Expands

By Chappelle Chambers
Copyright 2006 Chappelle Chambers

NEW YORK -- As a teenager, I did a lot of baby-sitting. My job, then, was to pay attention to the children, and to stay awake after they went to sleep. I wasn't paid much, but I could read or watch television, and the parents usually put out great snacks.

For more than 30 years I've been writing about dancing, and recently the job has come to resemble baby-sitting in more ways than I care to think about. The artists are often young enough to be my grandchildren, their efforts strike me as juvenile, and struggling to stay awake has become the dominant response to the work they ask me to view. Reading and television are not options while on the job, and I don't need the snacks, but I often feel deprived of any satisfaction at all. And lord knows, adjusted for inflation, the work pays even less than the baby-sitting did.

A recent visit to the Cunningham studio to see the San Francisco-based Strong Current Dance Company brought these thoughts forward, not for the first time. A program of eight works to recorded music was announced, and just before it began, long after the announced starting time, the box office person -- the choreographer's mother, bless her heart -- announced a change in the order. The stated goal of this all-female ensemble is to "arouse social consciousness with raw, stark, and compassionate choreographic visions." Kirstin E. Williams, the choreographer, apparently has a lot of feelings, about world affairs and about the status of women (especially, as the parent of a two-year old, of new mothers). But finding appropriate choreographic language to express these feelings seems to elude her.

The studio, perhaps the most uncomfortable venue in the city for looking at dance, is organized in such a way that a gulf of several yards usually exists between the audience and the playing space, making even this small theater seem cavernous. I was encouraged by the fact that there was a small table, and a collection of props, far downstage. The program opened with "Tic Toc," in which a bunch of women in white sportswear made fidgety movements, entering and leaving without making much impact in the playing space. Meanwhile a large person in a man's suit, with a stocking over her face, led a crawling woman in black, with a hood over her head, on a thick chain. Dubya's voice played over the sound system. The "prisoner" and her stiff-armed keeper moved to the table, and the big "guy" dropped crockery into a plastic-lined washtub, then seemed to order the "prisoner" to forage for food in the wreckage. After a while the prisoner untangled her chains and crawled away. I never figured out the relationship between this tableau and the chorus of dancers upstage.

Another Williams work, the recent "Quiet Pressure," featured the same bunch of women, who kept changing their clothes from dark to light, apparently to signify the difference between being a vixen and being a mother, called upon to be sweet to everyone all the time. The movement was peripheral, both in terms of individual bodies and of their deployment in the space, a sort of dabbing at choreography rather than the realization of it. Voiceovers explained the conflicts in these women's lives, while the "pink" sequences saw them behaving like chorus-line jazz dancers, cheerleaders and other overly compliant female figures. The piece, which lasted nearly half an hour, never came to life.

After an hour of this -- three works, including a coy but inexplicable solo for rain-coated Kristin Lucero by guest choreographers Alexandra Shilling and Ann Robideaux, to music by Ted Coffey that sounded like radio static and fragments of songs by Edith Piaf -- I had to go home. My body was in spasm, and making myself available to more unedited, undisciplined work that would have been better served by the essay form was simply untenable. I almost never leave the theater in the middle of a show, but I kept thinking that this was my life I was spending, that these hours could never be retrieved. I ordinarily make decisions about what to attend based on the lucidity of the press material I receive; in this case I overlooked the incoherence of the press release -- a fatal mistake. I cut my losses and went home to bed.


A few days later I found myself in what looked like a ballroom -- Studio 4 at City Center. A single row of folding chairs surrounded the dance space on three sides, with the overflow spectators sitting on the floor. At one end of the room sat a pianist, a cellist, eight singers, and their conductor, all in formal attire. The program, by the Christopher Caines Dance Company, was called "Worklight." It was performed in full room light, as the studio is not equipped with specialized lighting instruments. The virtue of this situation is that a critic can see -- and therefore, later, decipher -- her notes, and read the playbill during musical interludes; the disadvantage is that you are viewing choreography against the backdrop of other watchers, and sometimes it's hard to focus on the movement design; Caines gave himself space at the expense of theatrical illusion. This studio is considerably larger than the Construction Company room into which he's been cramming his dances for years, and allowed his work to grow considerably. In the ensemble pieces he created patterns in which the dancers could stroll, march, and jog, and even run backwards. Perhaps he can get someone to produce these largely light-hearted dances in the garden at the Cooper-Hewitt, or at Wave Hill; the work calls out for traditional architecture and floaty dresses, for a century or two gone by.

Caines is a ballet choreographer, working in a classical idiom even when his dancers are barefoot or in soft slippers. He's deeply musical, and seems to have poured much of his 2006 Guggenheim award into the live presentation of everything from Bach and Thomas Tallis to the quirky vocal compositions of Ernst Toch. A highlight of the evening was a dramatic trio for two men (Edgar Peterson and Christopher Woodrell) and one woman (Michelle Vargo) on pointe, to Gaspar Cassado's Suite for Solo Cello, a Spanish-flavored piece that built from small gestures to heroic proportions. Caines does not fear strong sentiment, and his female dancers, at least, are up to the challenge of maintaining physical control while remaining emotionally labile; the men occasionally looked strained. Another standout was Caines's intimate duet with Sabra Perry to three songs by Mozart, although at points in this one I could see him thinking when I wanted to see him feeling. But sitting in a folding chair identical to the one at Cunningham, I totally forgot about my aching body, and was pretty much transported through the entire 80-minute, intermissionless program.


To choreograph on this scale, to live music, you need a lot of friends, and I am one of Christopher's. This sweet-natured guy is attuned to the needs of the dance community and has a great range of talents, ranging from writing and editing (he worked on the "International Encyclopedia of Dance") and lighting and stage design to many varieties of musicianship. In addition to dancing in this performance he played several different drums and sang in one number. His career is an interesting index of how much dedication it takes to succeed in this business in this town; he's been making dances since 1990, and is only now beginning to get the recognition he deserves. This concert is a great example of the difference live music makes; it brings the space alive and buoys the dancers.

 

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