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Flash Review, 12-4: Lean on Me
In search of the unachievable union with Tami Stronach
By Philip W. Sandstrom
Copyright 2008 Philip W. Sandstrom
NEW YORK -- As I briskly approached St. Mark's Church October 23, my forward motion was arrested and my attention was drawn to Hae Young Oh, performing in the church cemetery. In this pre-show presentation, Hae drifted to and fro between a ground level spotlight, which illuminated her journey, and a tree which she attempted to climb or hug; I could not unravel her intentions. Nonetheless, the dance possessed a sense of haunting and loss. In retrospect, her performance was just one chapter of the story, the rest of which Tami Stronach and company would evince inside the church on the Danspace Project stage in Stronach's new "But it's for you."
With the audience seated on the altar, the upstage-most edge of the performance area was demarcated by eight large terra cotta flowerpots, arranged by set designer Joe Lavasseur. Tethered to the pots by eight-feet strings, helium balloons floated and bobbed in mid-air, glistening in Japhy Weideman's lighting. It was a magical picture that conjured up images of Candyland and crystalline confection. The spheroids appeared to be loitering waiting to be licked rather than pausing to be popped. But as quickly became clear in the portrayal of a co-dependent couple which followed, Tami Stronach's intention was to burst bubbles, as the characters' hopes, ambitions, expectations and longings were shattered by their squabbling, wrangling, and contretemps. All of this was unveiled in her disturbing dance, which was ladened with an overwhelming miasma.
The dance began with a solo featuring Stronach, alone onstage, bent over like an old woman, looking quite small and stunted in the vastness of the St. Mark's sanctuary. Tilting forward, she gazed intensely at the viewers, while vibrating one arm like a metronome set at presto. Her skittish, twitching, tightly wound movement spun her toward the audience, telegraphing an emotional tension akin to manic. And although she gave the appearance of concentrating her attention on us, her vacant stare actually revealed the character's self-absorption as she gyrated to the electric violin-like music of Jacob Lawson. Her actions in this opening section actually ended up playing like an epilogue to what was to follow.
As Stronach exited, Lindsey Dietz Marchant and Darrin Wright, a couple in search of each other, or in search of the unachievable within each other, filled the void. Stronach departed for good; in her stead we plunged into an uncomfortable and depressing exploration of the perils of romance as practiced by the interdependent and emotionally overwrought. In the beginning of the duet, when the female character, Dietz Marchant, acted out her child-like cloying attachment to the male, Wright's character, it became clear that inequitable affection would soon develop into more serious problems. The Dietz Marchant character was so preoccupied by her puppy love of Wright's character that when he gave her an enormous balloon (much bigger than the set-piece ones), she made only faint grasps to catch the helium-filled orb, which repeatedly slipped through her fingers until the man deftly caught it. This was a couple with very different agendas.
Stronach set the parameters of this less than functional relationship through the use of small gestures and gesticulations as well as controlled, restricted, and repetitive movements patterns that barely traveled in space. This became crucial and enhanced the frustrating sense of two people trapped by their own devices.
As the dance moved the relationship into new territories while continually covering some of the same ground, we learned more clearly where the couple's personalities diverged. In a particularly nasty lemonade fight, they moved from loving gestures to downright insulting behavior to self-deprecating actions, culminating in an uneasy peace. Without resolution, clearly as co-dependents, they continued to forge ahead.
Tout ensemble, Stronach mapped out a believable arch of a difficult relationship. In a rough and tumble, yet tender, sequence the man physically placed the woman on a pedestal, thereby reinforcing his objectification of all women. At the same time, his efforts portrayed the masculine need to place his partner above all others. Conversely, we saw the woman use wild and frantic movement patterns to mimic impulsive behavior, as she struggled in vain attempting to excite and refashion a romance that would never reach her level of need. Her standard remedy for defects in the relationship was to physically smother the man as she tried to promote the emotional link that eluded them. The man, in turn, determined not to surrender, became overbearing and uncooperative, verging on the point of true obnoxiousness.
To shift the mood or perhaps to diffuse the funk, David Tirosh, a character on stilts, entered the space like a being from another world, a deus ex machina debarking to solve the problem. His presence helped to break the dysfunctional proceedings, serving to reactivate our flagging attention and give us hope that some happy resolution was just around the corner.
Ultimately, the ill-fated couple stays together and returns to where it all began, center stage, reenacting their opening movement sequence. The dance, in reflecting human nature at it's most elemental, reinforced our need for consistency and predictable behavior; risk is reduced by remaining attached to the devil that we know.
As I learned in the post-performance discussion, the evening's vocabulary of diminutive gestures and truncated movement phrases was devised by Stronach in response to an injury she sustained immediately before rehearsals started. Although I understand her motives, these movement strictures continually tethered Dietz Marchant. I longed for the wild-edged movement and complete abandon that are a hallmark of this truly gifted performer. I have seen her cut loose in the work of Wendy Osserman and found myself breathless in just watching such a passionate display. Having experienced these past performances, I quickly became disappointed at what appeared to be a waste of her extraordinary talent for the big moves. That said, the movement clearly fit the anxiety-ridden subject and mood; perhaps this was Stronach's clever intention.
A note on scenic devices: Throughout the evening, Dietz Marchant and Wright rearranged the flowerpots to circumscribe the performing space for each scene. This device, although effective in limiting our spatial expectations once achieved, was a distracting process to watch. I longed for another solution; perhaps assigning the task to a third actor, carrying out the re-arrangement process in a Noh-style, would have been a better option. The process could even have been abandoned -- there was no need to define and redefine the playing areas as we gained little by this exercise.
Unfortunately, during the more quiet and intense periods of the Stronach solo an annoying whine could be heard throughout the church. This sound, not from the outside world of Bowery Street traffic, was produced inside the building and persistently echoed throughout the barrel-arched space. St. Mark's Church, with its particular shape and resonate character, naturally amplifies any and all sounds whether purposeful or accidental. Although I could not identify this high-pitched drone, I suspect it originated either in the audio system or the lighting system; perhaps it came from a noisy cooling fan. These mechanical noises, partially due to their unrelenting regularity, have a way of forcing their presence upon us in the company of performance silence. In this case, the focused performance of Stronach's opening solo effectively fought against the sonic intruder; the battle should not have been necessary -- a repair is in order.