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Flash Review, 1-10: In Whoville with Sarah Skaggs
Skaggs's "Paradise" Tears Down the Wall Between Performers and Audience
By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2000 Chris Dohse

David Byrne once sang that Heaven is a place where "nothing ever happens." In Sarah Skaggs's "Paradise," a lot of stuff happens, but her utopic-Edenic-space-time dimension shares something with Byrne's: therein, there is no BETTER THAN. The paradise made by Skaggs loves us all, the tall and the small. It is a global village like Whoville, full of the true meaning of Christmas.

Riffing from the "investigation of the connections between concert and social dance" (quote from Skaggs's email press release) initiated in her 1994 work "Higher Ground," this incarnation of "Paradise," at the St. Patrick's Youth Center in Little Italy (playing again January 15 at 7 & 9 PM - 268 Mulberry, between Houston and Prince), also aims for an audience response that is more instinctual, less intellectual, than traditional concert dance.

I wrote a preview of "Higher Ground" when it played Baltimore in 1995. I wrote that Skaggs called her style "ecstatic free-fall." And that "an athletic camaraderie‡is evident as [her dancers] spar and squiggle through...the propulsive to the lyrical...from the upright verticality of Slovak folk dance to the sexually charged slouch of hip-hop." A spectrum of vernacular dance idioms is still very much present in "Paradise," although Skaggs's movement invention speaks directly of its geographical and historic origins--a vocabulary of post-70's, downtown New York lineage.

I also wrote in 1995, "By breaking down the usual barrier between watcher and doer found in modern dance, is Skaggs creating a new barrier of self-consciousness?" When the audience enters the gymnasium-like space, members of the cast are cavorting in its middle, shaking off jitters, warming up, to the echoing thump thump of a party beat. This certainly creates a welcoming environment for those prone to throw themselves into the center of things, but might also create a tension for the wallflowers among us.

Skaggs does promise, in her press release, "lots of fun to be had and people to meet." The setup: The audience is arrayed in a horseshoe around the center of the basketball court. Transparent sheaths , on which slides are projected, bisect the rafters above and partially shield the sound DJ Steven Harvey's turntables. Plastic lanterns are strung across the space. Beneath them performers sit, alert and watching, while tag-teaming each other into the fray.

About halfway through the piece, Skaggs dances a solo, which jars. Why is one of the citizens of the comfy, inclusive community she's created insisting suddenly on autonomy? Mary Gearhart's funky production values see to it that the soloist's uniqueness diffuses into the composition's permeable, plural groupthink. Shadows obscure her face at times when her actorly presence might be intending to imply a highlighted moment, while a follow spot simultaneously cuts areas of focus in the negative space. Is the warm slice of floorboard more urgent, more beautiful, more interesting, than our protagonist?

This topsy-turvying of the understood proscenium-fronted, concert dance hierarchy of values recalls the "no virtuoso" ideals of Judson, and is its own slapdash constraint.

Game-playing (competitions, a scrimmage) and sock hop huddlings organize Skaggs's phrase material, which is flung away from its middle, sprung off its ground zero. A "precise abandonment" (her own term) attunes her dancers to the visceral intention of phrases with only a casual attention to peripheral details, so each individual's identity is expressed through their clear joy in execution and in each other, but the cast also achieves a uniform snakieness and nonchalance that gives the material a stylistic unity.

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