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Letter from New York, 2-15: Shadows of our Remembered Ancestors
'Labor Union' Works it; Workum and Rawls Paint the Ark

By Alison D'Amato
Copyright 2007 Alison D'Amato

NEW YORK -- For an art form that's barely a century old, modern dance often appears obsessed with its own legacy. Maybe that's because our ranks are so slim, the branches of our family tree still so close to its roots; most dancers my age (which is an admittedly green 26) have had, and probably also adored, a teacher who danced with Trisha or Merce. We can often even trace ourselves, perhaps through the teacher of a teacher, to Martha herself. It's empowering to feel a part of that history, and crucial to understand it. The trouble is, the closeness of it is often overwhelming enough to keep a young choreographer from finding her own voice. While innovation is often singled out as the ultimate mark of choreographic achievement, some dance makers choose to address that fact as problematic, and reincorporate the past as something all their own.

Two pairs of such dance makers appeared on a split bill at Dance Theater Workshop last weekend. One of those calls themselves "The Labor Union," and is manned by co-creators Isabel Lewis and Erika Hand. The other is made up of Katie Workum and Will Rawls. The "Labor Union" piece, called "The Live Performance," was up first. As we sat down, the house lights dimmed and a woman in a voiceover delivered the obligatory cell phone admonishment. This one was a bit different, though. It ended up hijacked by Lewis and Hand, and went way past the usual territory to describe the artists' ideal beginning to the piece. It's a beginning that includes a personal, and "perfect," conversation with each member of the audience. These choreographers expect a lot from us, their audience. In their fantasy version of the dance we're about to see, we are emotionally and intellectually engaged, inquisitive, and, in their words, "amped." We love dance. To my great pleasure, I found that there was something about the tone of this prelude that actually did succeed in amping me up. You might imagine an introduction like this sounding smug, ringing false, or demanding too much. But this voice conveyed a charming mix of sweetness, earnestness, and unpretentious good humor. Then there was something else -- something I couldn't quite put my finger on. Maybe it was just that this voice, ostensibly the choreographic voice, seemed real, like it belonged to someone that I might like to have a personal conversation with.

It turns out that these two women are, in fact, ones that I would like to have a conversation about dance with. Perhaps not everyone felt this way. "The Live Performance" elicited nothing but grudging golf claps from the man to my left, and the woman on my right was so put off by one section set to a blazingly loud R&B song (I assumed it was R. Kelly, because he was mentioned by the woman in the voiceover) that she clapped her palms against her ears. This was easily my favorite section of the piece, and almost nothing happens. Well, not quite true. There is not much movement going on -- the ladies bump and grind in slow motion, engaging the audience with an aggressive lasciviousness. They feel themselves up and down. They spread their legs. They tussle their hair. Yet on a conceptual level, this relatively mundane display (we've all seen MTV, after all) belies some serious action. What it amounts to is a severe disruption of our expectations; the movement of these female bodies has been uprooted from a context in which it objectifies them and held apart. In this new context, it is the movement itself that is objectified, and thus re-appropriated. Their stares are not so much seductive as terrifying. It goes on just a little too long, and they've intended it that way. We're ashamed for looking, but we're forced to look.

This isn't the only moment in which Lewis and Hand uproot a physical vocabulary from its original context. "The Live Performance" includes direct quotes from Cunningham, Graham, and probably others I didn't catch. When they're not pillaging bits and pieces of dance antiquity, they're busy trying to frame the dance for us, exposing the choreographic machinery for what it is. The voiceover, which continues throughout the piece, gives away their tactic for collaborative movement generation. (It's a game, originated by the Surrealists, called "exquisite corpse.") It also gives away their weaknesses as performers. It gives away pretty much everything about the way that the dance is structured, and even gives a few different options about how the dance might be read. In this sense, another of modern dance's pioneers is present and accounted for: the late Richard Bull, innovator of choreographic improvisation and a prolific creator of "dances that describe themselves," whose career, alongside that of Cynthia Novack, was recently celebrated at Dance New Amsterdam.

Does all this conceptual complexity -- the chatty self-reflecting commentary, the re-presentation of "found" movement material -- keep us from the pure and simple enjoyment of a well-constructed dance? Who cares? What, in this day and age, should be either pure or simple? As Lewis and Hand, who are strong and supple movers, command the stage in their Spandex pants, we know they expect a lot from us. But that's okay, because we're with them. We're inquisitive. We're emotionally and intellectually engaged. We love dance. In other words, we're amped.

Towards the end of intermission, some dancers from the Workum/Rawls piece, "Ark from a Country Once Forested," wander out on stage and then back into the wings. They're dressed like extras from Oliver Twist, a profusion of colorful eccentricities and woolen layers. (Upon reflection, though, I realize that they might have just been told to wear their own clothes. It's probably what most modern dancers, myself included, wander around the streets in every day.) The house lights remain up as six performers arrange little piles of appealing but nonsensical items for a long, long journey. In this prologue, Workum and Rawls really expose what the absence of theatrical conventions will do -- because the house lights remain up, the audience keeps chatting even as the performers bustle about to a nautical sound score of lapping water and foghorns.

Once the bags are well and truly packed, the lights do dim and the group preparing for the journey is joined by Workum and Rawls, who make up the central, and very compelling, relationship in the piece. As they man their little wooden boat, a cleverly designed skeleton that can be freely walked around the stage, their dynamic is explored in words and movement. Occasionally they disagree, and occasionally they separate, but soon enough they're bored and lonely without each other. The ensemble characters' movement is often positioned like a low hum of background noise, fluidly transforming them from passengers in the ark to wily sea creatures to the gentle passage of the waves around the ship's hull.

There is a lot of clever talking, and some genuinely lovely singing, in the piece. At one point, Workum and Rawls start discussing all the people that had to be left behind when the ark set off, people who are remembered as being there 'in the beginning.' These people range from figures of the distant past (Catherine the Great) to those of the not so distant (recently departed DTW artistic director Cathy Edwards); the name reciting game evolves into one of furious, rhythmic, little-girl style handclapping while Workum and Rawls invoke everyone they can think of, from Gilles Deleuze to Madeleine L'Engle to Pina Bausch. Later, Miss Bausch is evoked a second time as the ensemble mimics one of the choreographer's slowly shifting lines of unison movement. As they slink along they mournfully wail, again and again, "Wuuuuuppertaaaaal...."

At the end of the piece Workum and Rawls, as well as their ensemble cast, stand on their own two feet. Outside the boat, from a new perspective, they're free to disassemble and re-imagine it. They prop the ship's parts together in new ways, standing back to pensively admire their work. It is a simply conceived, poignant moment, and for me, it evoked what both Workum and Rawls, as well as Lewis and Hand, seem to have been getting at in this accomplished evening of work. We can't escape our lineage, and who would want to? Both "The Live Performance" and "Ark..." gesture to the past, but belong wholly to the present. Who knows whether these choreographers owe more to Cunningham, Brown, Bull, Bausch, or even the recent wave of European high-conceptualism led by the likes of Bel or Le Roy? What matters is that they are speaking in their own voices, crafting their own vessels with courage and ingenuity.

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