Letter from New York, 10-6: A pair of structuralists
Right side up with Lucy Guerin; looking for James Dean with Miguel Gutierrez
By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2009 Gus Solomons jr
NEW YORK -- Six people huddle over their cell phones in private, unintelligible conversations, while walking along the corridor formed by two single rows of chairs in the studio-theater of the Baryshnikov Arts Center. We become unwitting voyeurs. Gradually, the mumbling becomes audible instructions, possible and impossible orders: "Twitch your right thigh." "Fall asleep." "Be a better person."
"Corridor" by Australian dance maker Lucy Guerin, seen September 16, works on many levels as a metaphor for the journey of our contemporary lives. Most of the action is derived from fulfilling tasks, a device with the dangerous potential to devolve into improvisation games. But Guerin and her talented cast deftly avoid cliché. Various media deliver the instructions, iPods, cell phones, and voices, live and recorded. "Stop thinking." "Change your DNA." "Become younger." "Put an end to world hunger."
In couples, the three men, Byron Perry, Kyle Kremerskothen, and Lee Serle bark commands at the women, Laura Levitus, Kirstie McCracken, and Harriet Ritchie, who obey them --- a comment on sexism? Tall Serle stands at the opposite end of the 60-foot pathway from the others, pleading, "I wish they would wave at me. I wish they would ignore me. I wish they would cast a spell on me." And they comply with each of his requests. When he wishes they would ask him to dance, his articulately eccentric solo carries him back to the fold, his progress highlighted by Keith Tucker's sequential lighting of the overhead lamps.
Group passages comprising intensified conversational gestures begin as individualized responses to unheard commands, and then fall into identical unison. McCracken and Ritchie carry unison to eerie extremes in a wonderful duet of sucking breath, growling, pulling their fingers, sobbing, and squeezing their guts -- uncannily matched.
Guerin's scenario never gets stuck; she skillfully modulates her material to add new dimensions. Rolling mirrors at each end of the runway become chalkboards for three performers to write instructions upon, while the other three read and execute them. A dozen overhead lamps blink on and off, following solos along the corridor.
At the climax of the hour-long excursion, the cast seems to double, with five dancers behind one set of mirrors (as arrayed by set designer Donald Holt) and behind the other a spidery construction made of six long-armed lamps illuminating wrinkled, white paper garments hung over them. People and machine meet in the middle of the runway, and the dancers don the paper couture, turning themselves into a disheveled lab crew. It is they, however, who are under examination in the glare of the armature lamps, and two mobile lighting units -- rolling cabinets with bright fluorescent tubes glaring through vertical louvers -- follow them back and forth from behind our chairs.
The cumulative effect of Guerin's work is to build up emotion in us, without being explicit. The disconnection of the performers from us, despite their physical proximity, and their intense persistence in their random yet purposeful duties makes them curiously moving.
Miguel Gutierrez concocts provocative work that straddles dance and theater with an All-American messiness that can be by turns exhilarating and infuriating. "Last Meadow," his newest creation, seen September 18, mixes original choreography and text with "stuff from James Dean's three movies," says the program note, "to look at the myth of America the father, and confusion as a potentially transformative, sensory-enlivened state."
Michelle Boulé as Dean in a blond wig, Tarek Halaby in a long skirt as all the women, and Gutierrez, the nerdy father figure in black V-neck sweater, dark pants and mismatched socks, run themselves ragged for 90 minutes in a frantic search, perhaps for "success, beauty, and a lover," as Gutierrez whispers into a microphone.
Neal Medlyn's aggressive sound design mixes incessant loops of film scores from "Rebel Without a Cause," "Giant," and "East of Eden" -- Dean's three features -- with classical symphonic music and heavy disco. Lenore Doxsee's splendid lighting bathes the bare Dance Theater Workshop stage in moody, monochrome shadows one moment and Technicolor splendor the next.
Boulé and Halaby recite dialog from Dean's films. Gutierrez matches both their voices, speaking into a microphone with reverberating effect. At other times, he whispers or shouts a monolog into the mike, while the other two continue their scene, punctuated with bursts of dancing. The decibels and the physical energy level get cranked up "to eleven." Unlike Guerin's controlled modulation, Gutierrez's passionate kinetic spillage seeks to tap our emotions with excess.
When the trio reprise the dialog, this time holding scripts, Gutierrez hilariously tries to speak while holding the mike in his mouth. Perhaps the most gripping scene is a pansexual seduction, in which the three vehemently explore sexual groping and struggling. In one searing image, Gutierrez flings Halaby's head from side to side between his legs. Does Gutierrez desire Halaby's female persona or the man under the skirt, and is his attraction to Ms. Boulé or the Mr. Dean she's impersonating? The gender switching adds dimension to the desire.
About two-thirds of the way through, the performers break character and break into an improvisational conversation about their exercise routines, their wigs, and Michael Jackson's ghost on the Larry King Show. Dramaturgical assistance might have trimmed excessive repetition and extraneous material; the piece doubles back on itself, stalling its forward momentum, thus stemming its emotional surge; we start to zone out.
To a classical symphony, the dancers lose the fake hairdos, strip down to their undies, and then manically cavort to a disco-pumping beat, accompanied by a pulsing psychedelic light show. They confront the audience, run through the auditorium, and scream in our faces. Then, nearly spent, they get dressed again and drift offstage, as three unidentified youngsters in the same respective wigs scamper onstage in an epilog, which continues during the curtain calls of the principals and as we leave the theater. For most of the audience this time, it seems, exhilaration trumps infuriation.