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Flash Review 2, 11-2:
A Canadian in New York
The Outsider Inside, or "Woza... NYC"
By Shena Wilson
Copyright 2000 Shena Wilson
For my weekend in New
York, the city that never sleeps offered: New York on New York,
Program C, which I saw Friday at Danspace Project at St. Mark's
Church, and Garth Fagan Dance, Program A, which I caught Sunday
at the Joyce Theater. Two performances of contemporary dance which
ranged in style and accomplishment from the quaint, earnest, or
what I'll call "movement" theatre, to a dance feast that
lives on the sunny summits of creative wizardry.
NYONY was presented
by Danspace Project and the Puffin Foundation at the very groovy,
pull-up-a-cushion, charming, legendary, please-use-the-loo-before-we-get-started
St. Mark's Church. In this ambiance, the show is dedicated to expressing
the real experience of living in New York City.
The question that the
series curators posed to the choreographers was: What are the urban
issues that inspire and/or concern you as a New Yorker? And the
choreographers of Program C responded with razor-sharp clarity.
I will mention at this point, that I am reporting live, or close
enough, from the unforgettable DI headquarters in beautiful downtown
NYC. Mesha the cat has settled on the desk, nose only a whisker
away from permanent cap lock, and I am having a fine time here in
"the City" I've visited this raving glory of a place more
than a half a dozen times, arriving by plane, car and train and
I remain a big fan. Toronto, where I live, has been justly described
by Peter Ustinov as "New York run by the Swiss" Indeed.
And so, it is as a visiting Canadian, accompanied by AYT, my charming,
no-nonsense New Yorker dear friend, that I watched New York choreographers
reveal their lives via contemporary dance. I've always wanted to
see a yellow cab dance... and I did!
Having walked a few blocks
down from "the thirties" on a mild autumn evening, we
arrived at the church in plenty of time to find that a very tall
gentleman had decided to sit in the chair that had been assigned
to me. Arms crossed, he watched for a few minutes, nonplused, as
we wandered around, bending down to read the other signs on chairs.
Just as we were about to uncover the nasty truth, one of the staff,
made aware of our quest, came to ask him to please choose one of
the many other empty chairs that did not say, Press, Shena Wilson,
and he complied, not too thrilled. I figured this was already part
of the New York on New York experience, a demonstration of personal
Anyway, the remarkably
cohesive thing about the whole evening was how intensely these people
felt about their individual experiences of living in New York City.
Boredom, anonymity, stress, freedom, joy, desperation, garbage,
Program C begins with
Hope II by Hiroko Ishimura, a Tokyo native who graduated from Julliard
in 1991. The program notes speak of darkness and light, best and
worst, and contradictions that make this "Emerald City"
very unique. I'm not convinced it did treat contrast -- because
focused so steadfastly on the grim side -- but we cannot deny this
piece's originality. Two clotheslines stretch high above us diagonally
from the balcony of the church. There are six black chairs, a ladder,
and six performer/collaborators including Ishimura. Yes, these are
performers and collaborators but this is the least "dance"
piece of anything I saw while in "the City." I would call
it Movement, and I don't mean this in an entirely pejorative sense.
The theatrical creativity of "Hope II" is intriguing but
the dance is not. The message is nevertheless pretty clear. I saw
a group of blank-faced, bored strangers walking, standing still,
as though suddenly bloodless, waiting for the subway, riding the
! ! subway, falling and being repeatedly placed upright, hunching
over, stabbing themselves in the gut, hanging from an elbow and
generally loathing their existence. The moments of cohesive "dance"
Well-done and highly
intriguing was a passage of a woman dressing a standing man in a
half a dozen white business shirts. Another man gives four quick
kisses over the shoulders of the shirt as this flaccid individual
stares blankly and the woman waits impatiently. The kisses complete,
she takes off the shirt, rushes it over to another woman standing
on a ladder who clothes-pegs the shirts along the lines. What all
of this means escapes me completely, but it was full of terrific
tensions. And who knows what it says about New York besides perhaps
that there is a lot of laundry to be done? There was more silence
than music; breath and the sounds of feet prevailed and very appropriately
the real sounds of NY filtered into the building as though invited
to accompany their song of human bodies. However, due to a lack
of unifying rhythm, the synchronicity of the performers was not
always clean. For a piece billed as "dance" it was much
more "movement" or theatrical expression. This i! ! s
not to say that it is without merit as expression and message through
art. I saw primarily actors who move, not dancers who act. "Dance"
does not have to include a fouette turn or even a turned out plie
or even a stretched foot, but, a certain corporal dexterity, a keen
attention to "lines" and to formation, however meaningfully
scattered, is definitely of interest and here it was left almost
totally un-addressed. The expression and tone were the clearest
aspects of the whole thing, as opposed to the dance prevailing.
In a final gesture of welcome humor, a toy pig is left on stage
to wiggle its tail and snout in a spotlight. Giggles from the audience.
I suppose this is the hopeful part of the piece called Hope II.
Choreographed and performed
by Akiko Furukawa, to music by Cassandra Wilson, "Black Crow"
is a feast: delicious, nourishing, well-seasoned. Animal-like indeed,
Ms. Furukawa soars, slinks, slithers, jumps and captivates entirely.
Incredibly smooth gesturing legs and arms swirl as her head, poised
on this lithe body, bobs nonplused by the activity below. To dance
with such consistent motion and often with considerable speed, without
changing expression is fabulous, a true treat to watch. She does
not resort to holding tension in her neck or elsewhere, but on the
contrary remains full of the animal freedom that the program notes
suggest. As a commentary on living in NYC, this particular piece
echoes most closely what I often feel as a visitor: freedom and
motion and energy and continuous deep wave of humanity in all its
most basic and enticing forms. "Black Crow" is the most positive
bit of the program, and thank Heaven for it. Bravo! More please!
Next up is "Ripstop
Merriweather" by Alan Good, with live music composed by Ty
Braxon: freefall guitar and silences, reminiscent in tones of Jeff
Buckley, without vocals. It's about garbage. It's about stuff, clutter,
bustle. On stage: a blanket on which we see several odd "boot
sale" sort of items. Stuff no one wants: a toy monkey which,
like the pig in the first piece, squeaks momentarily; old shoes,
a few books -- things people gather and try to sell to the neighbor's.
There is also an enormous ball of packing tape that one woman picks
up, moves and ceremoniously deposits close to where she found it.
Seven dancers of varying degrees of accomplishment are dressed in
contemporary street clothing. We see many sissonnes ouvertes en
arriere and in second, a stop-and-start series of movements, peppered
with the props and theatrics.
The piece begins with
six dancers in a tight group, mouths open wide uptilted, eyes afraid,
bodies waving and feet anchored to the floor. Not a trace of ease
or joy. A woman dances alone. Suddenly she is bombarded by a dozen-or-so
black garbage bags, full of "stuff", being hurled off
the upper balconies. She curls up in the middle of the floor and
hands over her head is surrounded by trash bags. Again, not fun.
None of her fellow city dwellers come to her aid. The numero uno
theme in the piece is the wide-eyed stare and autonomy of the people
who do not see each other and who tumble through, around the garbage
bags that clutter their space. Some of the dancing as a group is
quite smooth and pleasing but I found I was mostly interested in
the props and the stuff as opposed to the steps. Several audience
members were given plastic shopping bags before the piece began:
"it's for the next piece." The bag reads "thank you"
in red on white. I wondered if dancers were going to come by, ask
us to put our handbags, wallets, watches into the satchels and they
would grand jete away never to be seen again. Oh, New York on New
York, indeed, I mused, here I will sit, being creatively mugged
in a church by people in bare feet and an artistic message.... Hey,
wait a minute here!
Last, and certainly not
least we come to "Gotham Trilogy." Choreography by Duane
Cyrus; text by Nigel Barton; music by Don Militello; scenery by
Ray Mobley; costumes by Dawn Notaro; performed by Karen Amatrading,
Janelle Barclay, Elizabeth Anne Block, Michael Rene Cruz, Maryam
Myika Day, Gail Jones, M. Aleijuan King, Marina Strass, and Rodni
Williams. Cheers go to each of them and particularly to those who
also delivered brief portions of text. A fine job. This one is about
Community. The focus is the existence of three people: a gay man
in a pink slip, a battered woman in a light blue dress and a man
wearing only pinky-orange coloured underwear. The other dancers
are dressed in white underwear, panties and tank t-shirts, to the
grand amusement of some of the audience members who giggled while
presumably their friends entered the auditorium clad in their underthings.
Here we have tight enticing
choreography and a beautifully delivered, thought provoking, intelligent,
amusing and non-preachy text, which together totally captured my
attention and imagination. The narrator, dressed in black, tells
us in a rhythmic poetic and melodic voice of the people we see,
their issues, the challenges. She manages a dash of humour on what
is a very harsh and combative life in the City. "I live above,
below and beyond.... I make the laws to break the laws, to create
them again brand new..." Issues are of race, sexuality, disease,
isolation, abuse, a longing for love.
On stage are three pink
boxes, the smallest the size of a small television set. The narrator
briefly uses one of them as a television, her head inside, her hands
holding the ropes that will raise and lower the silvery fabric that
covers her face -- effectively changing the channel. A couple of
advertisements are presented and finally: "Every nine minutes
a woman is abused by a man she loves. You've said enough. Click."
The television is off. With great tragic humour, a statuesque black
man in a rose-coloured negligee is accused of prostitution, of his
gayness. The dancer/actor plays into it with a slithery speaking
voice and swinging hips. The narrator asks this man to "Step
lively," to move along, from what he may be doing -- it must
be wrong. An abused woman watches as another woman is carried on
stage, her head veiled in black mesh, her body wrapped in wide black
bands that pin her arms down and render her helpless in front of
the man who caresses briefly and then hits her repeatedly. And our
third individual is a man longing for love, his quest is to be simply
accepted: ăI search to be respected and loved as a man." While
the narrator asks: "Are you monogamous now? Have you engaged
in high risk behaviour?" At one point he peels off his skin
from shoulders to toes, holds the mass in his two hands like a ball
of jelly and then tosses it away. Determined. A threesome of elegant
women strap on foam pieces that are in the shape and decoration
of yellow cabs -- a cab-slab on each hip -- and they groove along,
as only cabs can do. It's all delivered with remarkable energy and
the whole thing accompanied, as the narrator offers, by: "Street
sounds, and the sounds of sounds." At the end of this multi-layered
and complex piece the abused woman is unwrapped, helped by others.
She takes control: "It meant doubt and it meant fear and it
meant governing her own fate."
Through this portrait
of three lives, the smooth lively choreography and keen narration,
the creators finally request something of us, the audience, "Don't
be another statistic, search to be yourself." And we clap and
sigh, smile and are inspired.
IT'S A CHILLY AUTUMN
SUNDAY AFTERNOON, and off we go -- in a yellow cab because we are
going to be late -- to the Joyce, where Garth Fagan Dance offers,
through this Sunday, a Faganesque banquette of beautiful moving
people, generously lavished with the extreme joy of dance. There
are four pieces in Program A: "Prelude; Discipline is Freedom,"
to music by Abdullah Ibrahim and Max Roach; "Easter Freeway
Processional," to Philip Glass; this season's premiere, "Trips
and Trysts," to music by Wynton Marsalis; and finally, the
crowning glory, the amazing, the energizing, the reason to love
dance at all, 1999's "Woza," to music by Lebo M.
Due to a Cartesian habit
that I'll attribute to years spent in France, I cannot help but
start at the beginning of the spectacle, and that means that unfortunately
I have to begin with queries, doubts, and with my least favorite
piece. I am immediately prodded to examine the title, "Discipline
is Freedom." Fine. Sure. But the problem is that all through
the piece I was worried about the Freedom part of the equation.
Why worry? Well, the obvious beautiful strength of the dancers was
there and I wanted them to show it off. Yes. That's it. Instead,
it was despite their tip-top calibre of execution and the cleanliness
of the choreography, that I saw discomfort, coldness, rushing, and
shakiness, and I wonder sincerely, is this on purpose? I am not
sure, and nor is my cohort: the always culturally keen, non-dancer,
"BT" from Paris. How could it be? Were so many of the
dancers supposed to tremble quite visibly when standing in those
signature, interminably long penchees and attitudes? (Note: this
did not occur in the other pieces.)
There was the repetitive,
agonizing difficulty of posing, walking or turning on a quarter
pointe rise, as opposed to on full demi-pointe. Equally challenging
is what I consider an engraved invitation to the shakes, i.e. turning
or standing on a slightly bent leg, nor a full demi-plie, but in
a nowhere-land type of relaxed supporting leg. Even with the strength
of these dancers, one cannot totally eliminate the wiggles. I found
myself focusing in on the instability, or on the little "hop-hops"
necessary to get back on balance and therefore I missed out on whatever
else may have accompanied it. Assuming that the discipline of the
daily repetition of dance class, as sketched in this first piece,
will lead certainly to the ultimate freedom that we see soar into
glory in the final pieces, it is all entirely worth the effort,
and the wait.
Nevertheless, in the
first two pieces, I just saw technique: from rib and head isolations
to rapid diagonals of, for example, ye old "step, developpe
grande jetes." But I felt very little of anything and ended
up just listening to the voices of admiration and envy in my head
that were saying: "damn, now that was a really tight series
of chanes en tournant." Indeed, perhaps Mr. Fagan wished to
show us all what he has the pleasure of seeing during daily class:
the excellence that this group of dancers is capable of. However,
there was little else, and this is unfortunate. A "study,"
there was never a wisp of smile or frown until the bows.
Procession": four couples, city people, whose clothing suggests
four possible decades in the last century. The most identifiable
of these eras being the satin shorts of the seventies; the dress
and the military service-man's hat of the late forties or fifties;
and the bad big stripes of the eighties. Several themes appeared
as the dancers slid through series of plain-faced enchainements
and still portraits. Perhaps sensitized due to the NYONY performance,
I saw the anonymity of the city-dweller, and also quite remarkably,
the lack of exchange between the couples, or any of the dancers,
who proceeded through slow lifts and poses without even once meeting
one another's glance or showing a human exchange of emotion. In
fact, it was disturbing and cold, and therefore a success in what
it was meant to be. Often, the music was more moving than the dance.
Warming up now to "Trips
and Trysts," the costumes are black lycra pants and gold bodysuits
or tops and in the second portion of the dance, also to Wynton Marsalis,
some simple short capes for the women dressed primarily in black
and jewel coloured linings. Waves of sinuous limbs. The overall
look is simple and elegant, movements slow, un-hurried by the sometimes
frantic screech of the horns and there is an engaging exchange between
the dancers. Through passages of gorgeous silence the whole company,
changes direction imperceptibly: like a school of fish. With a swish
of a collective tail they turn, seamlessly linked into the synchronicity
of each other. During the applause that earned "whoops"
of pleasure from all corners of the auditorium, flowers were presented
to some of the company members, seven bouquets in all for the thirteen
on the stage. And we applauded some more. Ah yes! That's the stuff.
And finally we come to
"Woza," which Zulu for "Come." To fabulous music
by Lebo M, there are four portions. The first one is "Come...
Prepared" with Sharon Skepple. Lithe and beautiful, she stands
facing stage left and in a "flat back" position begins
stretching, then unfurls a leg to a perfect penchee" Moments
later, as she finishes this series of stretches and slow plies,
Skepple turns to leave us and tosses a coy backwards glance: "Ha,
you see now what it's about?" Giggles from the audience. We're
charmed entirely. The second section, "Come... Forever,"
with Norwood Pennewell and Natalie Rogers, is a gooey, delicious,
romantic duet. The music -- flute, piano and orchestral strings
-- is almost over the top, but the exchange between the dancers
is so captivating we forget to listen. A hand up the back of an
extended leg, many legs and arms slowly wrapping and closing around
the other, slow lifts and several elegant portraits, heads resting
on the beloved shoulder, a soft hand across a cheek. It does indeed
look like "Forever." Lastly: "Come... Forced Voyage"
and "Come... Celebration" are ensemble pieces of energy
with dancers dressed in pinks, orange and black. It's at times like
this that words do not do dance justice. I can only say that watching
"Woza" made me think in totally sincere terms of emotion
that is pure; of the joy and the intensity with which each performer
offered us the fabulous movement. Lebo M.'s music is enchanting
and through it I was touched by an overt celebration of life, from
shoulder wiggles, to leaps, to the swish of feet. At once humbled
by this art, and privileged to watch, I wished there were more to
come. We applauded the widely-grinning dancers until Garth Fagan,
the master himself, came out on the stage, took a bow, and received
a bouquet of flowers. Bravo! "Come...!" Yes, "Woza"
again. Please. The guy behind me said it well, before the last piece
began: Oh, I love this one.
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