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Post-Modern Classics: From the Gooey to the Sublime
Mantero Reaches Olympian Heights in Improv Program

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2001 Josephine Leask

(To celebrate its tenth anniversary as the leading dancer-driven publication, the Dance Insider will be reflecting on the new Post-Modern classics, as captured by Dance Insider critics in performances around the world over the past decade. This Flash Review from the Dance Insider archive was first published on December 11, 2001. For more on Vera Mantero's "Olympia," see Paul Ben-Itzak's 2003 Flash of the work's performance in Paris.)

NEW YORK -- A solo, duet and group piece made up the Movement Research improvisation program of Friday night at University Settlement, which was packed out by a very enthusiastic crowd, mainly an audience of dancers. Those who appreciate improvised performance the most tend to be dancers who have improvised themselves.

The highlight for me during this varied night of the improvisation festival was the Portuguese dance artist Vera Mantero. A quirky performer, Mantero presented a theatrical improvisation based on Manet's famous portrait of the nude 'Olympia.' Rather than drawing on movement itself, Mantero's improvisation took on a more tangible focus, that of text and 'the work of art.'

Mantero, naked apart from shoes and a luscious red rose in her hair, reads extracts from Dubuffet's text while 'becoming' Olympia herself. Dragging a couch behind her into the performance space, with eyes glued to her book in studious concentration she reads haltingly. Already the juxtaposition of a naked woman reading male, academic text challenges the supremacy of male artist over his passive female object.

She arranges her set before positioning herself in the famous Olympia pose - lying propped up on cushions, one hand resting on her thigh staring out at the audience. On the couch Mantero is restless, falling asleep one minute and fidgeting the next, bringing an active humanness to her Olympia that we would never imagine from seeing the immobile iconic woman in Manet's painting. Eventually she stands up and begins an awkward drunken dance, driven by complex inner forces, as if she is having difficulty in digesting the academic language of Dubuffet's art criticism. While her actions are perplexing and fractured, they are a relief from the bland, gooey movement of so much improvised dance. On returning to the couch, she turns her back defiantly on us, then finally falls off the other side - the antithesis of Manet's composed female form.

Also on the program, Kirstie Simpson and Chris Aiken start off slowly on the floor, tuning into each other's bodies, melting into and grazing on each other. The pacing of this duet is slow, contemplative, and with some astonishing clashes and explosions. What is interesting is that after about 20 minutes their dance doesn't seem to be working, or going anywhere, and the dancers are honest about this. Dance improvisation doesn't lie and it certainly doesn't gel every time even when presented as a performance. There are sticky moments when both dancers seem to want different things, and my main criticism is that they prolong their agony and go on too long. Simpson, always the wise one in improvisation seems to want to finish, but Aiken is out of synch in his search to find a resolution. Hahn Rowe on the turntables provides innovative sound, sensitive as always to the mood of the performers. His final mix, an indignant voice which repeats "you are very rude" seems appropriate in this context of disharmony.

Finally, in "Bridge," a mass of bodies, flamboyant lighting and live music by Beo Morales and Maxime de la Rochefoucauld fill every corner of the tightly packed studio. This jam is the culmination of two weeks workshopping by the group of dancers headed by Bill Young, who come from the USA, Greece, Venezuela and Brazil. Some great sounds from the trumpet, piano and electric guitar accompany the vital energy of this global group, but as is the case with large group improvisations it looks more fun to dance than to watch.

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