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Flash Review 2, 10-21: The Big Apple
Artists Chew on New York

By Sandra Aberkalns
Copyright 2000 Sandra Aberkalns

This weekend, October 20-22, and next weekend, October 27-29, the Puffin Foundation and Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church present the second annual New York on New York (NYONY). Thirteen choreographers will present their views on life in the Big Apple in a special six-night series consisting of three separate programs with seven newly commissioned works. Last night, I saw the opening of Program A.

To make sense of why these two organizations have teamed up for this particular concert series a little background info on the presenters may be in order. The Puffin Foundation's mission is to foster artists to address "socially relevant themes." Danspace Project's mission is to offer innovative dance artists opportunities for growth and development through the support and professional presentation of their work.

Well, in the program that I saw last night both organizations lived up to their mission statements! If you are looking for an evening of the latest movement from the downtown club scene with no social relevance this is not an evening for you. However, if you want to see tales from the city (and a little sex in the city!) told by people who are living at street level and not in the stratosphere called Wall Street then you may want to check this series out.

One of the nice things about Program A is that most of the pieces were short and sweet. They told their stories without a lot of dilly-dallying around. The focus was so tight and clear, on the whole, that for once I can say that the program notes almost said too much! While the movement quality was, in some ways, very similar in all four works (it is that very relaxed-type movement that I'm sure has a name and everyone knows it but me) it didn't drive me crazy as it has in other concerts. Usually this type of movement is performed for movement's sake and not only doesn't it say anything, it doesn't go anywhere real fast either. However, in this context this type of movement worked well as the ambiguity, nonchalance, is it improv or are we in structured movement enhanced the stories rather than detracted from the issues at hand.

The first piece of the evening "After You," created/performed by David Figueroa and Yoko Yamanaka, asks, "How are we affected by the many random interactions we have everyday, both consciously and unconsciously?"

I have to say off-the-bat that the music for this piece by Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and John Lee Hooker was great! It reflected the urgency of how we tend to move in this city (I still haven't found another city that walks quite like New Yorkers do) but it wasn't frantic or chaotic, and definitely not droning on ad nauseam. The 1st movement shows how New Yorkers commute. We move in our own little worlds, and by not looking right or left we can pretend that there aren't several million people doing the exact same thing at the exact same time. My first impression of the 2nd movement was that the use of stillness between actions emphasized how close we are physically without connecting emotionally, but as the movement progressed I felt that I was looking at actual images of life in the city. For example, Yamanaka does half a shoulder roll and then Figueroa steps so that his legs are quasi straddling her legs with his arms up near his head and leaning forward. I suddenly envisioned a man who was ready to fall off a very tall building. Almost immediately following that image he is on the loor and she looks like she has just shot him. It's at moments like this that I wish I had brought a friend along to find out if we saw the same things, and if not, what their life experiences of the city made them see in this moving tableau. In the 3rd movement the infamous New York "bat radar" has kicked in. If we did that kind of maneuvering in a car, on the freeway, we would get a ticket for reckless endangerment. However, even as we walk on over crowded sidewalks, dodging left and right at speeds that can approach mach 1 there is occasionally that someone who catches your eye▄but this is New York; you may pause, you may sigh, but you can't stop. You've got places to go and people to see.

Figueroa and Yamanaka did a wonderful job all around. The choreography, music, lighting, and use of the space all came together to create a vignette that softened the edges of what is, in reality, a rough and tumble city.

The second work of the evening, "Quality of Life," created/performed by Jon Kinzel didn't quite do it for me. The program note says that the focus of this work is to explore the relation between power, money, and the "civil order" we think we deserve and the high price we pay for it.

In the first section, which was done in silence, I believe that I was supposed to develop an empathy for what seemed to be a depiction of the working class and homeless. However, as Mr. Kinzel didn't seem to care enough to get emotionally involved with the flesh and blood people of his "civil order" I didn't either. In the second section Mr. Kinzel used a projector with transparencies that said such things as, "Clean Windshields," "Con Ed," "Time Warner," "Verizon," etc. When he put up "Citibank Visa" he threw, quite energetically, some money on the projection. Finally, a visceral moment! Unfortunately it was too little, too late. I couldn't hate the Fortune 500 companies just like I couldn't care about the little people being crushed under the monster we ourselves have created.

The third piece was "Forty-One Times," created/performed by Richard Lee. It is a seriocomic solo that expresses one view on what it means to be black in the racially charged New York City landscape today. Part personal memoir and part social commentary, Mr. Lee interweaves his story around the tragic killing of Amadou Diallo.

When the piece begins we hear Richard Pryor doing a monologue about "the ultimate test." It seems that the "ultimate test" is whether or not you can survive death ÷÷ as far as he knows no one has survived it. During this monologue Mr. Lee is moving around the stage using a small boom box as a prop. At one point it looks like he is wearing night goggles, then soon after he is carrying a large gun. Suddenly he drops to the floor; he's been shot. The way he melts into the floor I don't see a body there. In my mind's eye I see the coroner's markings once the body has been removed. Mr. Lee then begins his own monologue in the persona of Amadou Diallo. He talks about his hopes, dreams, and what he wishes for his family. At one point "Amadou" says he is cold and puts on a pair of white cotton gloves and you are instantaneously thrown back into time when the black servants worked the "big house". This leads into a vaudevillian song and dance number from the era of the "black face." At the end of "Swanee" he is sitting on the floor and pulls out another white glove and tries to pull it over the one he already has on. After trying for a few minutes he says, "Glove don't fit!" The audience has not missed a beat and has jumped every loop right with him. Again, Mr. Lee shifts gears and he is showing us the multiple entrance and exit wounds of a gunshot victim. There is a lot of great material but Mr. Lee does go off on tangents that, in my opinion, should be edited out and used in another piece. He talks about Princess Diana and what a tragedy that was (yes, it was, but what does that have to do with being a black male in racially charged NYC?). He visits Shakespeare (Hamlet seemed to once again be the favorite son, and ditto to previous statement in parenthesis). Then we somehow find ourselves in the 18th century and the "Last of the Mohicans," we then makes a giant leap to the 19th century and the abuse inflicted by Irish cops. Yea, let's get an editor in here and tighten this baby up!

Mr. Lee has a lot to say and he has a gift for saying it (he's a pretty good mover too). When the movement and text stay focused on the real topic, the transitions work well. I do have one conundrum. Maybe I was getting tired, but can someone who sees this concert let me know what the heck is going on in that ending?

The last work of the evening was "Stripper," choreographed by Clare Maxwell and performed by Ms. Maxwell and Lisa Haas. What a romp! The program notes tell us that this work is "an homage to strippers and showgirls, to the humor and vulnerability of their work. It can demand an absence of self, a signal that it is permissible to look at any part of the dancer, in any way."

The first section, I felt, paid homage to those women that would never be Gypsy Rose Lee. We're talking about the women who showed up to work in the gin joints in the middle of nowhere day in day out. We're talking about a time before Vegas became the Disneyland of the desert. When a woman could be tall, short, pretty, not so pretty, skinny as pole, or more than a man could grab. Both of these ladies exhibited a tremendous amount of humor and their vulnerability was poignant. The gauntlet was thrown down to the audience to look at one of the dancers for who she really was. While one dancer (I believe it was Ms. Maxwell) is trim and athletic, Ms. Haas is obese. Should the audience care? Did they care? I don't think so. These two women were so well matched that it was like watching any great comedy team: Lucy and Desi, Abbott and Costello, Tom and Dick Smothers, Nick and Nora Charles, etc. They told their story and they told it to the best of their abilities. What more can one ask for?

The second section, while more funny than the first, I think went a little off track. By moving into the area of sexual exploits described in such literary telling as the "Tropic of Cancer," "Moll Flanders," "Fanny Hill" etc. this work became just another cliche. Are women that embrace this profession no more than prostitutes with no sexual inhibitions? However, at the end, for the bows, there was a cute touch. When the lights came back up after the blackout the large feather head dresses they had been wearing were used to cover themselves. They bowed, covered. However, as soon as they began to exit they dropped the pretense and ran out in all their full glory.

Program A repeats next Saturday. Program B opens tonight, and repeats next Sunday. Program C bows tomorrow, and repeats next Friday. All curtains are at 8:30. For more info, please visit the Danspace Project web page.

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