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Letter from Durham, 8-16: ADF Calling
Of Mannequins, Homopedes, and Virions

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2007 Chris Dohse

Send in the Clowns

DURHAM, North Carolina -- Even though it contains solid elements of both dance and theater, Vladimir Golubev's solo, "Not Unsteady Support," seen at the Page Auditorium as part of the American Dance Festival on June 17, is best understood as clowning. Golubev is a charmer, a busker, a slouch, a sad sack. His "solo" is not really a solo at all; yes, there's only one body onstage, but additional characters emerge as Golubev intermittently and intimately partners a guitar and an odd wire rack. As he animates and anthropomorphizes this jury-rigged contraption, he transforms the stage into a Fluxus Kitty Hawk. The rack could be wings, a brokeback lawn chair, or a t.v. antenna. Golubev sings; he flits and flies diaper-helmeted or condom-domed; orange leaves fall when he pulls them from overhead. In the context of the piece, which is dedicated to his newborn son and performed on Father's Day, he embodies an absent-minded, humble progenitor, a role that suits him. When he dances a few throwaway but full-throttle phrases, his body responds: effortlessly fluid, heavy-limbed, individually impulsed.

I don't buy whatever the hauteur is that Iguan Dance Theatre -- a collaboration between Michail Ivanov and Nina Gasteva that shared the bill with Golubev -- thinks its selling. "Displaced Persons" looks like Suprematism for consumer culture, repurposing Malevich's red, black and white geometry as an Ikea ad.

There's an uncomfortable truce just now between staged "behavior" versus concert dance. These Russians are clearly interested in fraying the edge of that truce. Three mannequin-flat characters (two female and one male) inhabit a sterile domestic space full of hermetic, high-end housewares. They perambulate the space like Sims, absently and erratically rearranging the misaligned.

The mannequin I like the most, a woman who looks decidedly undancerly and tight as a crab's ass, comes forward in a forlorn and hilarious but non-sequitur Brechtian way at one point late in the piece after running listlessly in circles. She deadpans, "Don't run in circles on the stage." The other female mannequin turns out to be a possessed bunhead, all OCD jetes and extended line, which delights the insider ADF crowd of dance students and enthusiasts. It's unclear, however, whether the Sims laugh with us or at us. Around that time, their habit of manipulating props on the periphery becomes tiresome.

Their later grunts and ululations position these persons as ones who've learned that there are animals inside us all, no matter how plastic or antibacterial our interiors: a true idea cleverly staged but ultimately -- for this trio -- a stagnant one.

Send out the Clowns

I would be happy to live to a ripe old age without ever again watching adults act like children onstage. There's something skin-crawly creepy about this simulation that drags its nails across my chalkboard.

The program Pilobolus chose for its 2007 ADF season, seen July 21 at the Page Auditorium, overflows with this kind of material, combining the troupe's signature uber-muscular partnering with a queasy pastiche of homophobia and subsumed sexuality.

The veneer of whimsy in "B'zyrk" wows the audience but reads to me as a nauseating juxtaposition of gymnastic trompe l'oeil and loathing. Let's face it: dancers are sexy in a specific, athletic, adult way. When I watch them, I don't check my libido at the box office. So I can't dismiss my awareness of six hard, ripped bodies just because they're pretending a ludic naivete. That the Pilobolus ethos indicates rather than inhabits emotional affect makes me squirm. The #1 rule of ADF's cash cow emerges pretty much immediately: if it's funny once, do it twice: encase the audience's laughter in cement overshoes.

The rhythm of filler-filler-filler-scampering-milling-around-big-trick-shock-awe-gasps-hums-applause becomes so predictable that a computer program could probably monitor the pulse of the audience and create the next Pilobolus score.

Oh, and yes, in North Carolina, faux fag-baiting is still hysterical.

One moment offends me so deeply that I must unpack it in detail. A guy (apparently inadvertently) puts his paw on another guy's butt longer than what might be considered heteronormative homosociality and the crowd goes spastic with hilarity (just like after many similar moments I've seen in the work of Paul Taylor). When will these dance artists take responsibility for smearing this crap of between-the-lines homophobia into what is essentially a Queer art form? Shame on them. Poking fun at same-sex "male gaze" just isn't cool. It reifies what most of the mainly white, mainly geriatric crowd that attends dance in the hinterlands already believes about the threatening plurality of us versus them.

Next we see a pure movement-invention solo, "Pseudopodia," that is anointed by my nearby audience members as "amazing!" and "incredible!" during the pause afterward, and I actually agree with them. Created in 1973, this is the best of what the Pils produce. Even though it still shares a sensibility with "Scooby Doo on Ice" and isn't at all what the possibility of dance means to me, it works, because it is an amazing and incredible physical feat, stripped of framing devices, and the visual metaphor suggested (crimson spandex dung beetle/satyr?) leads me to caverns previously not spelunked.

The lugubrious tone of "Rushes," a collaboration with Israeli choreographers Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollack, saddens me. So why does the audience still have the giggles? At least, though, the Pilobolus contortionist schtick is used here in a way that deepens the characterizations of the cast instead of turning them into cartoons. And we learn now what might be Pils rule #2: if there is a suitcase onstage, something will come out of it. An animated film of melting Rorschach blips and blots by Peter Sluszka that is projected on a muslin sack drawn out of said case welcomely satisfies.

After intermission, I'm empty, tired, unable to dredge up the sincerity to connect to any more shenanigans. The proportion of ho-hum to ta-dah has become as flat as driving through Kansas or the compulsory exercises of an ice-skating competition. But two more dances occur, and I learn that I like the trip-hop of Squarepusher.

Here's Pils rule #3. Before taking your seat, you might as well check your brain at the door. You won't need to think for yourself; they will hammer their images into your retinas so relentlessly that you'll never need to see the company a second time.

So why are so many people repeat offenders?

Folding and Unfolding

One of the most powerful art experiences I've ever had had nothing to do with art and everything to do with awareness. Garry and I were driving from Baltimore to DC in a borrowed, rusted-out wreck, stoned as all get-out, and swerved impromptu into the National Arboretum to get in touch with nature, you dig? We wandered into an area of aquatic plants, ponds seeded with varieties of lily pads and lotus blossoms. As I approached one of the bodies of water, dozens if not hundreds of dog-sized koi roiled up to meet me, their hideous, inescapable mouths demanding to be fed. What I assumed would be a calm, solid surface with some, you know, plants floating on it, became a scary depth, a feeding frenzy, a furious hunger. That belly-lurching shift has symbolized ever since the best of what art can be.

A similarly surprising, threatening, altered state emerges imperceptibly from Shen Wei's "Folding," performed by Shen Wei Dance Arts July 1 at the Page Auditorium.

A back scrim, painted by Shen, suggests a shadowy undersea environment: on scumbled metal-grey and gold, one swift, sardine-slim fish dives at two tadpoles. To eat them or to protect them?

When fantastically costumed, Geisha-stepping figures enter the space, what might have been an aquarium becomes a celestial sphere. These maggot-helmeted creatures arch reluctant necks; are they looking up at the surface of the ocean or out into the universe? They thrive in darkness, slow-oozing leviathans in scarlet and inky black gowns, suspicious of light. They could be virions budding from cell membranes, gaseous former planets orbiting dead stars.

Unlike the habit-inured bodies of most Western-trained, self-absorbed modern dancers, the performers who inhabit Shen's ecosystem don't seem to evaluate themselves as they dance, weighing their beauties and imperfections. Rather they meet the logic of his movement invention and rest simply within its balance, its equanimity. They see but don't look, hear but don't listen, with remarkable unanimity of intention. They allow themselves to be watched as their language of cautious interactions arises, dwells and falls away with the impeccable illogic of a dream state.

They embody a panoramic awareness that unfolds as if from their enteric nervous systems, the "gut's brain," the vestigial component we might have inherited from dinosaurs that goes beyond fight/flight and rest/digest and controls the cranium's hormones and neurotransmitters. Dr. Michael Gershon, a professor of anatomy and cell biology, has said, "the gut may be more intellectual than the heart and may have a greater capacity for feeling."

Or perhaps their acquiescent wisdom comes from the limbic brain, the group of deep, interconnected neural structures common to all mammals that involve emotion, motivation and behavior.

This complex web of enteric and limbic systems, before language and reason interceded, responded intuitively in me at the National Arboretum as it responds to Shen Wei's mysterious constellation of "Folding." Shen's magic cuts through discursive signs and signifiers to turn awareness into art.

Chris Dohse was in Durham this summer as a fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts Journalism Institute for Dance Criticism.

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