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Letter from New York, 3-9: The Happening
Yzermans's Allegorical Menagerie

By Sandra Aberkalns
Copyright 2007 Sandra Aberkalns

NEW YORK -- Writing in 2003, the Dance Insider's Gus Solomons jr described ChameckiLerner's "Visible Content," then playing at Dance Theater Workshop, as "an example of a growing phenomenon: evening-length dance-as-installation. That is, for its 50-minute length the piece goes nowhere, which is by no means to say that nothing happens." Judging by Chantal Yzermans's "ONR-1, allegory of night," seen March 1 at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church, the phenomenon continues.

Yzermans's 40-minute allegory began with the dancer Litsa (Aglaia) Kiousi announcing that the evening was dedicated to the 50,000 dogs slaughtered in Southwestern China last summer on government orders after three people died of rabies, then segued into the stories of Orpheus and Hephaestus.

Carol Mullins's lighting design not only effectively carried the allegory from the dark depths of Hades to the brightly lit world of man or possibly Olympus itself, but also did justice to Martine Schildge's three-dimensional, seemingly free-floating, translucent white sculpture. Without any lighting, the sculpture exuded a strong sense of motion, seeming to resemble Nike, daughter of the giant Pallas and the River Styx -- A.K.A. the winged victory of Samothrace. However, when the overall stage lighting dimmed, the sculpture, with the shadow it threw onto the backdrop, receded and became less imposing, as though Nike were at rest with wings at ease.

Kiousi was joined in performing the work by former Cunningham dancers Cheryl Therrien and Ashley Chen, and actor Marco Wittorf. Therrien and Chen provided a wonderful kinetic contrast to Kiousi. Her movement was cat-like, sinuous, and delicate. Unfortunately, she also became so introverted at times -- going as far as dancing with her eyes closed -- that any connection she had with the audience was lost. In contrast, Therrien and Chen were focused and their movement grounded without being heavy.

Although the work is performed without intermission, it has three clearly defined sections. In the first, several moments where movement and narrative met evoked various mythological images: Therrien and Chen's allusion to the dog Cerberus; the performers lying on their stomachs sliding along like seals on ice towards the audience, while asking each other "Are you there?," as Orpheus did leading Eurydice out of Hades; Kiousi walking rapidly and with a limp, conjuring Hephaestus dragging his bad leg. Thematic images included dancers standing on one leg while holding the other leg's foot in the air as if they were broken flamingos, and Kiousi scooting across the floor on hands and feet with buttocks high in the air, resembling something more arachnid than human. The movement was most powerful when all three dancers were dancing in close proximity or executing the same movement at the same time.

After lying downstage for what seemed to be a very long time, Wittorf finally rejoined the group for Hephaestus's tale. As he walked upstage towards a brightly lit dais, he began unfastening the top of his white, plastic jumpsuit. When he faced the audience, with the jumpsuit now hanging down around his waist, he resembled a virile Apollo more than a deformed Hephaestus. Even though Wittorf projected his voice with tremendous fervor, the text seemed a little stiff and awkward. Whether this was intentional, on the part of dramaturge Sylvia Zade-Routier, or if certain innate rhythms had been lost in translation, it is difficult to know. His monologue about remembering, anger, and his struggles was sometimes spoken, sometimes chanted in a monotone. In the segment about anger, as Wittorf executed martial arts type punches, Chen, wearing a helmet, repeatedly banged his head against a column in a dark corner.

While Wittorf performed his monologue, Kiousi danced downstage, almost on top of the audience, in near darkness. While her movement was lovely to look at, it was without contrast and the negative space between her and Wittorf was so large -- in both energy level and physical distance -- that any relationship between them was lost (assuming there was one). Unfortunately, "ONR-1, allegory of night," had a fixed front and this type of work, which is perceived as more installation-based than traditional theater, may be better served in an environment that allows the audience to not only come and go as they please, but to be able to observe the performance from various angles rather than from a strictly proscenium perspective.

The work ended abruptly. Still on the dais, Wittorf, standing very erect, held Kiousi in a pose reminiscent of Michelangelo's Pieta cradling Christ. He then let her head fall to the ground just before the blackout. Night prevailed in Hades, Olympus, and in Yzermans's allegory.

(Editor's Note: For background on the creation of "ONR-1, allegory of night," click here.)

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