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Letter from New York, 12-22: From East Village to Harlem
Alpine Antics from Elkins; Sacred Profanity from Jones

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2006 Gus Solomons jr

NEW YORK -- Doug Elkins, noted for wittily blending modern dance with popular social forms on his concert dance company from 1988 to 2002, made a comeback of sorts on December 8 and 9, produced by Dancenow/NYC's DancemOpolitan at Joe's Pub series. In the intimate café/restaurant at the Public Theater in New York, on a stage about the size of a large dining table, Elkins and a dozen co-conspirators presented "Fraulein Maria," a brisk, hour-long cabaret that re-imagines in post-modern hip-hop the recorded soundtrack of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "The Sound of Music."

As pub patrons brunch on salad and quiche for the Saturday afternoon show, Arthur Aviles and Jen Nugent -- both wearing powder-blue frocks and aprons -- sweep in through the crowd, both impersonating Maria Von Trapp, to the Prelude and title song. Four nuns (Carolyn Cryer, Krista Jansen, Alexis Murphy, and Charemaine Seet) -- their habits hoody sweat shirts (it's a low budget show!) -- cavort in brisk movement canons to "Morning Hymn" and "Maria."

Then, Nugent and Nicole Walcott turn the banquette railing into the Alps, inching precariously along amidst the diners and climbing onstage to dance "I Have Confidence," Nugent helping Walcott to emerge from her inhibited shell. In "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," David Parker in a cocktail dress pretends to read a book, while secretly eyeing 6'4", hunk-alicious Archie Burnett, who vogues seductively for 'her' benefit.

"Do-Re-Mi" interweaves snappy phrases -- one per note -- into a seriously concert-worthy caper for Nugent, Aviles, and the four nuns. On the impossibly miniature stage the six fling limbs, cartwheel, and squat-spin with reckless abandon and nary a collision -- though I noticed one gentleman at a ringside location discreetly shift his wine bottle away from the stage.

Golden-throated baritone Johnnie Moore, clad in traditional Swiss knee socks, lederhosen, and Tyrolean hat croons "Edelweiss" as Mark Gindrick, one of the trio Happy Hour Clowns, wanders myopically. The pair returns for a hilarious a cappella sing-along reprise of "Do-Re-Mi." Tuxedoed Moore is Astaire-elegant singing it live, and -- swimming in an oversized tailcoat -- Gindrick, as a dogmatic conductor, silences an off-key audience member.

Keely Garfield and Elkins dance a perfunctory duet to the title song, their comic timing mitigating the thin choreography. But Elkins redeems himself miming the anthem "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" in deadpan, free-style hip-hop, laced with voguing.

"So Long, Farewell," the inevitable full-cast finale/curtain call, draws enthusiastic cheers of appreciation from the capacity crowd, and the performers leave so the stoic wait staff can continue their food service without careening dancers in the aisles.

In contrast to Elkins's on-a-shoestring "Fraulein" is Bill T. Jones's site-specific pageantry. His new "Chapel/Chapter" reminds us again, after last season's "Blind Date," that Jones is not afraid to face big issues head on. The 70-minute dance-theater work, co-commissioned by Harlem Stage/Aaron Davis Hall, had its premiere at the new Gatehouse performance space, adjacent to Aaron Davis, on December 5-9.

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in Jones's "Chapel/Chapter." Paul B. Goode photo copyright Paul B. Goode.

Inside this lofty Romanesque-revival edifice, originally part of the New York water distribution system, Jones's creative director Bjorn G. Amelan created a cathedral-like sanctuary by draping the walls with red fabric and surrounding the oblong performing area with two banks of church pews for seating. On the white floor -- the "nave" -- is a grid, resembling a huge shuffleboard court with ten 6' squares in two rows of five with a half circle at one end. The floor doubles as a projection screen for associate artistic director Janet Wong's intriguing video projections of butterflies, street maps, and a hopscotch diagram.

As the audience enters the performance space, dancers in orange jumpsuits wander aimlessly around the grid with eyes closed, as four guards in blue keep them from breaching the perimeter. The ritual hints at the sacred, even though, ironically, the participants are dressed like criminals.

"Chapel/Chapter" interweaves three stories, two gleaned from court records and one contributed by one of Jones's dancers, Charles Scott, who acts as the Narrator. The account of the vicious mass murder of the Soto family is told through actual court transcripts; the death of an abused child at the hands of her father is told by the alleged abuser (actor Andrea Smith), who claims the girl's death was accidental. The third, Scott's story, concerns two 11-year-olds on a camping trip, one of whom comes to an indeterminate fate -- we assume the worst.

Ambivalence persists throughout the dance. As the mass murder of the Soto family -- Mr., Mrs., and two children (Scott, Leah Cox, Asli Bulbul, and Donald C. Shorter, Jr.) -- by the killer (Wen-Chung Lin) is re-enacted, the killer's voice in the transcript (spoken by Lawrence "Lipbone" Redding) tells how he placed a pillow under Soto's broken rib, so he'd be more comfortable while being suffocated with a plastic bag over his head.

Such humanizing details force us against our will to see the compassion of the killer, even as he commits senseless murders for a sexual thrill. When the scene is later repeated more lyrically -- this time with soprano Alicia Hall Moran chanting the transcript in the manner of a plain song -- the pure movement takes on an eerie beauty, despite what it depicts. Jones subverts the violence by turning it abstract, making our moral censure less unconditional.

Similarly, we feel some degree of pity for the Father (Smith) of the Little Girl (Maija Garcia), when he first tells his side of the story, wishing he'd simply taken her to the authorities and left her, rather than striking her impulsively. But during his angry and accusatory recapitulation we see his monstrous side. And what's the responsibility of the Little Girl's Mother (Shayla-Vie Jenkins), who passively stands by as her daughter is abused?

Scott's childhood recollection is even more ambiguous; as a young boy, he didn't have the wisdom to know how to save his friend, if indeed he could have. His crime may have been never to have mentioned the incident, keeping his involvement in it a secret for 18 years. But can we hold him morally responsible for a crime?

These deeply affecting moral hypotheses are brought to virulent life by Jones's genius for staging, his curiosity about profound issues of humanity, and his innovative methods for extracting endlessly inventive movement from his brilliant dancers, like having them spell words with different body parts on an imaginary keyboard. The resulting warped shapes and strange floor scrabbling phrases are at once visually abstract and emotionally specific.

A haunting score by Daniel Bernard Roumain, performed with Moran, Redding, and electronic cellist Christopher Antonio William Lancaster transports us into Jones's world. Touring "Chapel/Chapter" may be logistically difficult, since it can accommodate such a small number of viewers at a time. But -- morally -- Jones owes it to humanity to bring this thoughtful, beautifully wrought work to the widest possible audience.

To read Philip W. Sandstrom's Dance Insider Interview with Doug Elkins, please click here.

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