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Letter from New York, 2-8: Celebutards, Nimrods, & Agile Angels
Harrell in Your Face; Dolenga all over the Place

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2007 Chris Dohse

NEW YORK -- I saw two shows back to back in the same weekend after taking several weeks off from dance going. So I felt a weird culture shock to be out in public, a bit like I might have fallen asleep for 100 years or was visiting the continent of an unknown language. I thought I saw strange similarities in the macrocosms of these separate worlds. Both choreographers fractured material into shredded stories that occasionally gave great satisfaction, understood as they were in my personal fashion, but sometimes made me crazy. Both used soundscores that might have been the choreographer's iPod set on shuffle, but rarely playing an entire track, surfing from Bacharach to Bryars to the Beatles to Reich, flattening the significance of each.

The staging for Trajal Harrell's "Showpony," seen January 27 at Danspace Project, made me uncomfortable. I felt an immediate dread to be seated in two rows of folding chairs that faced each other across a narrow strip of marley floor down the center of St. Mark's Church with the lights on full. Not much room for anonymity in staging like that. I'm not sure I felt well-groomed enough to be held up to the scrutiny of a row of East Village cognoscenti. Plus, a critic needs privacy. I soon realized how hard it is to take notes with a choreographer sitting in your lap.

After Harrell sat -- slowly and deliberately -- on the laps of almost every audience member like a trembling hugging saint, one of his dancers tried to lead a singalong to a Sarah McLachlan song that fell as flat as a celebutard's ass, and a collage of high- and low-cultural images, pop, canonical, irreverent, respectful and mashed up began.

The in-your-facedness of the staging seemed like it could be a response to some blather I've heard recently about a current outrage in the circles of mass consumption of the product of dance. I think it goes something like this: American choreographers resent European presenters for thinking US artists are too preoccupied with formal concerns of the body and don't have any sense of humor.

Harrell displayed a lot of humor, a sort of dimestore Fluxus, a disposable, fabulous mess, celebrating the odd and the ordinary. Half rolled-up Peter Max-looking murals were partially obscured at one end of the space while a projection of Richard Gere getting dressed in some film from before he was salt-and-peppered rolled at the other: a Hollywood Prince glutting on materialism.

The proximity of the dancing caused an active spectatorship, like in the crowd at a tennis match whose heads turn in unison, eyes on the ball. This conceit forced us out of passivity and into community, not spectators at all, but participants. Laugh-out-loud incongruencies (though nobody did) occurred sometimes outside hotspots. For example, while the action seemed ostensibly to be two dancers executing lined-up jumps and arm flaps, rather like the compulsory exercises of figure skaters, a third dancer draped herself across one of the folding chairs between audience members, perhaps expressing disdain. Ah, the pleasures of the digital age: some nimrod whipped out his digital camera and snagged a quick shot of a wardrobe malfunction as a female dancer's nipples popped out of her bustier.

My two cents: The extended photo montage of Nan Goldin-style verite snapshots of dance world insiders misfired. I didn't know why I should care about these people. Visually, the photographs' casual quality reinforced the other haphazard elements of the staging, but the number of characters even I (not one of the in-crowd) could recognize made this coda shout of schmoozefest.

In Fiona Dolenga's "Aftermath: Sometimes Magic Comes Into My Room," seen January 28 at the West End Theatre, so many stories were enumerated that most got lost in a torrent of fragments, entrances, exits, snippets of the introductions of pop songs repeated, and chairs sat on and dragged away. The dancers all wore warm-up suits with numbers on them, as if long-distance runners. No pain no gain?

The title of the work made me think of a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson that I loved when I was a little boy, "The Land of Counterpane," as if Dolenga had conjured this bewildering horde to share her solitude on a lonely winter's night. These malcontents, struggling to connect to us and each other, might as easily have been seen wandering the Bardo as the bedroom.

Dolenga's palette has always been scrawled with acute and legible emotion. But I've seen a distance and irony in the material before, a wisdom in the hyperbole, that seemed missing in this cast's earnestness. I became confused trying to keep track of who was who. Perhaps this reflected a character's narrative arc over time? They all seemed to butt up against similar frustrations without getting anywhere. Relationships were initiated, invested in and abandoned. Dolenga has a knack for wringing beauty from her cast of agile angels, but for this iteration, she wore too much heart on her sleeve and not enough tongue in her cheek for my jaded taste.

Another sort of literary genre came to mind, plays like "Spoon River Anthology" or "Under Milkwood," where a collection of actors portrays several characters as each comes forward to tell his or her piece of the pie. In this case, a pie filled with 4 and 20 blackbirds, too many to eat.

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