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Letter from New York, 12-6: I Sing the Body Unplugged
By Chris Dohse
Accusatory Curtsies, Twin Fetuses, Well-made Mammals, & Authoritative Bodies from Spradlin, Castro, O'Brien & Green
Copyright 2006 Chris Dohse
Photography by and copyright Julie Lemberger
NEW YORK -- Knowing RoseAnne Spradlin as well as I do (she's my acupuncturist and I've studied the fundamentals of Body-Mind Centering with her) and having watched her work for about 10 years, I enter Dance Theater Workshop on November 11 to see her latest, "Survive Cycle," feeling smug, thinking I know what to expect, that no matter what happens onstage, I will "get" it.
By the end of the piece, however, I'm not so sure. Damn these truly original artists. Just when you think you've nailed them, they discard the elements of their work that you love and, either because they're digging obsessively at some existential pimple or scratching their fingernails across some personal chalkboard, they create something unsettling, complex, unraveled, not at all nice, and completely ungettable.
|RoseAnne Spradlin Dance in Spradlin's "Survive Cycle." Julie Lemberger photo copyright Julie Lemberger.
Which isn't to say I'm not with Spradlin 100% and at times on the edge of my seat, sensing something of a glimpse of what seems to be anguish in her cast's amazing performances. These are people I've loved watching together and separately: Walter Dundervill, Paige Martin, Tasha Taylor and Cedric Andrieux, yet have never seen so raw, so authentic. And they seem a bit pitiful; I'm familiar with the squeezed chest of compressed heartache that propels their courtly perambulations and accusatory curtsies. It's not something I like to think about.
A lot of the time, the soundscore, played live and manipulated live through an iBook by Chris Peck, is just too loud. Even the 20something guy sitting next to me plugs his ears at one point. But at that age they think they know everything. He sleeps through the first 10 minutes too, which are too slow for him I suppose. Video projections of the dancers' faces in unforgiving close-up fill the back scrim during that time, either in slo-mo or freeze-frame. Their gazes, worried or serene, as captured by videographer Glen Fogel, challenge mine. I catch myself wondering what I look like to them. To paraphrase Kermit the Frog, it ain't easy being seen.
When the four dancers enter the space in the flesh, they begin phrase material from deep inside their torsos, flung away from a quivering, rhythmic discomfort, repeated in meaty enough chunks to become recognized as seen before. Yes, like that dream again.
I feel disappointed, disconnected and confused when the looming video faces of the dancers return and begin to talk. Not saying much at first, their seeming non sequiturs assign identifiable narrative to what had been unclarified. They describe uncomfortable details of failed romances, struggles among themselves and Spradlin during the rehearsal process, arbitrary recent dreams. I think I liked it better when I couldn't figure out anything specific in small strokes about these people, but could see them as broad metaphors: avatars in an inferno. It was okay with me if I didn't have the right answer. By this point, the dancers are covering the floor with snipped-apart clothing, sorting by color and shape from individual piles to make an unsewn quilt, a history in fragments.
"Survive Cycle" leaves me questioning my own definition of what "dance" is, a question I've always been cocky about thinking I had the right answer to: human body(ies) executing physical actions rhythmically, or not, in space and time. But this dance seems to happen more inside me than outside. The primary choreographic tool of this brave, minimal work is not any action of the dancers or compositional system, but the movement in the heart of its witness. The challenge becomes: How am I implicated; how open can I be to this sort of awkward suffering and return to my life unchanged?
Another piece that combines many elements into a sensational whole is Yanira Castro's "(fetus)twin fet(us)twin," seen October 20 at the Chocolate Factory in Long Island City. The space itself wins me over at hello, a two-floor industrial garage-and basement-like structure with cement steps and metal handrail, odd bricked-in closets, hallways, darkness, shadows. Castro and her collaborators use them all, and the audience follows from one installation island to another as her tableaux vivant unfold, apparently inspired by two events, the discovery of an absorbed fetal twin inside a young boy and the surgical separation of a pair of conjoined twins in infancy.
After watching a video by Julie Wyman (a span of a bridge in halting and stuttering phases of construction) in the hall/lobby, we find a circle of folding chairs in the first space, up some steps in a gray/white room, encircling an ambitious motorized sculpture by C. Merritt Houghton that sometimes reveals and sometimes obscures the eerily calm action of two dancers (longtime Castro collaborators Nancy Ellis and Pamela Vail) like the inexorably flapping wings of a Rebecca Horn angel. Suzanne Dougan's costumes include fragments of nurse or dunce caps, girdles, gloves, the muttonchop sleeves of a Victorian spinster or Elizabethan knight.
Downstairs for part two, a ring of headphones hang from the ceiling surrounding two bulbous ova studded with blue lights. A dancer in the mask and scrubs of a surgical nurse enters and compulsively pulls on and discards rubber gloves; the headphones emit the recording of a complex surgical procedure.
Castro and her team's attention to texture and detail captures a gristly and atmospheric tone that seems perfect for the autumnal chill in the air, the hiss of dried leaves on the sidewalks outside. Their carnival-tent twin oddity could be the offspring of Tim Burton or Shirley Jackson.
The four dancers in Mollie O'Brien's "Mammal," seen October 21 at Dance New Amsterdam, seem to try repeatedly to pull away from a situation that feels too familiar, too well composed.
I like watching "well-made" dances, there's a security in knowing you can relax and let yourself enjoy a beginning, middle and end. But a dance can also suffer from being too well polished. I like rough edges, seeing performers solve problems in the moment without always knowing what's going to happen exactly. O'Brien teases us: she knows that we know that she knows she's in control of her compositional elements. This doesn't preclude a measure of angst in the movement itself. Often one dancer seems isolated from the others, flailing through something contemplatively or privately exasperated while the others look blankly front. Her dancers are comfortable in the material and their movement fits within a recognizable style. But maybe this isn't as legible a dance as I think at first: after some fully and luxuriously danced structures, O'Brien pokes fun at her own process and lets us in on the joke.
Two duets emerge with anger and longing; the pairs chase and lure each other into weight exchanges and occasional serenity and synchrony. Adding a layer of complexity, in a sort of rehearsal-within-the-performance, one pair begins a push-me-pull-you duet while the other couple walks around them, watching and offering instructions.
This construct reaches a level of absurdity when one of the coaches barks like a drill sergeant, "Both of you, move two steps back," while the couple holds each other in a romantic embrace. Within both the snuggle and the struggle, O'Brien points toward the impossibility of ever finding a comfort zone within intimacy. But in the end, who could ask for anything more?
Valerie Green's "The Shedding," seen at the 92nd Street Y on November 12, also investigates the difficult chambers of the human heart. Green's six dancers often look at themselves and each other as if at the dawn of the world, not quite sure if they're flesh or mud, struggling for awareness within a vocabulary of gravity and earthiness. The sense of sacred space is strengthened by Alon Nechustan's score of lingering thrums, snorts and echoes while Green and her tribe huddle and fall, part animal and part anima. When they interact, their touch contains both challenge and nurture.
Before forming her company, Dance Entropy, in 1998, Green danced with the Wellspring Project and Gloria McLean's LifeDance. So it might be easy to jump to a conclusion and see this work only as a descendant of Erick Hawkins. While there is a clear respect for the somewhat neglected simplicity and humanistic parables of Hawkins in it, the lineage shares space organically with Green's personal concerns. This is as good a time as any for remembering the authority and legitimacy of the individual body. "The Shedding" finds that in the ordinary, profound and necessary search for authenticity, physical, emotional and intellectual abilities need equal shares.
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