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Flash Review 3, 10-10: Sinister Uncertainty
Pigeon-holing Monson at P.S. 122

By Ursula Eagly
Copyright 2000 Ursula Eagly

If "Swan Lake" is a fairy tale dance about beautiful birds, Jennifer Monson's "The Pigeon Project" -- which runs through October 15 at P.S. 122 -- is the modern dance equivalent: a conceptually complex dance about ordinary fowl. Although it is inspired by animal behavior and ecology, the piece is characterized by the ambiguity of fiction rather than the certainty of science. This slightly sinister uncertainty is embodied in gray costumes, gray walls (and what color could be more explicitly ambivalent than gray?), a spare James Lo music score, and a lighting design that is more about shadow than illumination. And while the three dancers respond to each other's movements, they seldom make eye contact, which imparts a disturbing lack of emotion -- much like the birds they imitate.

Even apart from its title, the dance is obviously inspired by pigeons. Monson evokes many different aspects of flight: at one point, the dancers jog through the space circling, pairing, repairing, and otherwise tracing a flock's intricate flight patterns. Indeed, the entire piece is structured by this framework. The three women remain onstage alternatingly dancing solos, duets, and trios.

Monson also conjures the feeling of midair suspension. In one scene, the performers lie side by side on their stomachs, looking down at the floor with their arms outstretched. Even though the length of their bodies is in contact with the ground, they appear to be flying and gazing at a vast panorama below. Viewers feel that they are floating far above the clouds, looking down at three birds.

The dancers' shifts of weight become analogous to the adjustments that birds make while coasting on an air current. This shifting, wavering quality is a "Pigeon Project" motif. In a movement refrain, the performers stand on both feet, shifting weight as their arms slowly rise, fingers -- which act like feathers -- ruffling in a make-believe breeze.

Such quivering is also mirrored in the lighting design. On two occasions, the space is lit only by a white light hanging from a rope-and-pulley clothesline. The light wobbled as technicians moved it along the clothesline, filling the stage with trembling shadows and lending an aura of instability to even the still performers.

Other aspects of the tech were less successful. At various points, technicians dangle objects -- a mobile, a feather -- in the path of lights pointed at a screen that covers a third of the upstage wall. While the effect of the shadow played into the quavering theme, the short length of the screen seemed more accidental than intentional.

The screen was part of a minimal set that also included bundles of white feathers strung from the ceiling (which cast shadows on the back wall), and two sculptures reminiscent of the spinning devices that measure wind speed. The sculptures looked like a cross between a record player and a toy boat with three upward curving wires punctuated with badminton birdies -- a cute visual pun that brings us back to the three dancers.

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