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Flash Review, 11-10: Peeking Inside
Wandering Gazes from Juliana May's 'Endless House'

By Alison D'Amato
Copyright 2006 Alison D'Amato

NEW YORK -- The great thing about studio showings is that they're intimate: as an audience member, you get the pleasure of sitting in the midst of the action, thisclose to the dancers. You hear their breathing and footfalls; you perceive their tiny adjustments and decision-making. You can see them, and they can see you seeing them. It's a rare and informal peek at the machinery that makes a work function. On Friday, November 3, as part of Dance Theater Workshop's Studio Series, Juliana F. May / Maydance offered a work-in-progress showing of May's "The Endless House," officially premiering next March at Joyce SoHo. This quartet was engaging and spirited; I found myself both excited to get a glimpse of the piece before it gets its final polish, and curious about how it will be different when we, as an audience, are held at arm's length.

The dance begins with a duet that introduces its loose-limbed movement style. Two women wearing garishly printed tee-shirts and knee-length shorts twitch and wobble, rhythmically adjusting to unseen propulsions that seem to come from within and take them over. In several sequences, unhinged rock 'n' roll hip shaking arises then subsides, morphing into something meditative and abstract. This movement language seems to be more about energy than precision, but that energy is delicately directed, never monotonous. The group expands to include two more women, and with their appearance, May gets to play more with the composition of bodies in space, something she seems to really enjoy. Navigating a series of specific and well-defined placements, the dancers sometimes move in unison, sometimes get caught in loopy, obsessive spirals that are all their own. They're working on a continuum of abstraction and legibility, with post-modern pure movement amiably cycling into the pedestrian, the familiar. Mike Rosenthal effectively mirrors this structure in his intermittent sound score, which consists of ambient textures interrupted by fragments of song or domestic sounds (a vacuum cleaner winding down, for example). The bodies, like the sounds, seem to be connected to radio dials sliding up and down, always searching for new frequencies. "Endless House" gives us moments of cacophony, but rarely chaos; this is a well-ordered and self-contained world.

After developing into a quartet, the piece returns to a duet and finally settles into a satisfying stillness. It makes sense that the work's trajectory is less about getting from point A to point B than creating an atmospheric cycle that busily retraces mysterious patterns. Here, perhaps, is the endlessness referred to in the title: the dance goes on an on, finding a beginning in its end. We are invited in for a brief glimpse of a world in perpetual motion. Yet I'm not so sure about the "house" part. While May, on her website, describes the work as treating "a family" as its members transform themselves into various animate and inanimate objects and creatures ("dogs, ping-pong paddles, gymnasts, guitars, kangaroos, and waves" are promised), I was confused. Not only did I miss the ping-pong paddles, but I also wondered how this grouping of people was supposed to evoke a family. We do get a sense that the movement language is rooted in real world action and emotion. And because we perceive people on stage rather than just dancing bodies, it leans towards a certain warmth, humor, and humanity.

There are two things that compromised the immediacy and urgency that seemed about to emerge from the work, though, the first being the indeterminacy of the dancers' relationship to each other. Were they functioning in some network of familial cause and effect, or merely caught up in the same choreographic machinery? Physically, they supported each other, exchanged high-fives, or fell at each other's feet, but none of this totally dispelled the sense that I was watching four extremely well coordinated solos. Do they depend on each other? Are they scared of each other? Is there a hierarchy? Not that these questions necessarily need to be answered, but they may be worth asking.

Also, a blankness of expression on the dancers' faces contributed to the suppression of intimacy, this time between the performers and their audience. Their eyes had a tendency to drift to the floor, dimming the spark generated by the charming and idiosyncratic movement vocabulary. Particularly in a witty section danced to Peter Allen's show tune "Everything Old is New Again," I felt that the dancers didn't quite know how to connect with us. They could have hammed it up to full wattage, or stared at us in an uncompromising deadpan, but their tentative half-smiles seemed to split the difference. In a work that otherwise is open, accessible, and clearly doesn't take itself too seriously, it seems incongruous that the dancers aren't performing from the neck up. Their indecision of focus and gaze seems slightly evasive, possibly indicating an unwillingness to court vulnerability. So in spite of the rigorous sense of composition making the choreography seem very sure-footed, a visceral sense of emotional connection wasn't quite breaking through.

Unfortunately, these subtleties of performance attention would be more (rather than less) important in a larger venue, one with more distance to cover between the action and its observers. But, then again, isn't figuring out how a work plays in front of people what studio showings are for? Spending a half hour or so in "The Endless House" was a pleasure, and it seemed on the night that I attended that May's audience was more than happy to be brought into the fold. Her "house" is abuzz with liveliness and intelligence. As an audience, we just need to be reassured that we're welcome guests.

Alison D'Amato is a dancer/choreographer recently relocated to New York by way of London, where she was pursuing an MA in European Dance Theatre Practice at the Laban Centre. Before moving to London, she lived and worked in Philadelphia, where she danced with local choreographers and companies, as well as co-founded the dance-theater company Dead Genius Productions, whose work has been featured in the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival three years running.

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