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Flash Review 3, 11-13: Time Lapse
New Wrinkles on Fuller from Sperling

By Sandra Aberkalns
Copyright 2000 Sandra Aberkalns

Fans of Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" already know what a tesseract is, but for those of you who have forgotten or have never read this fantasy classic, I'll explain. The fifth dimension's a tesseract. You add that to the other four dimensions and you can travel through space without having to go the long way around. In other words, you take a straight line, buckle it in the middle and voila! You have a wrinkle, a fold in time. Well, Friday evening at the Merce Cunningham Studio, Jody Sperling/Time Lapse Dance created a wrinkle in time that would have made Loie Fuller proud. The second act was also enchanting (even without a tesseract) due to a lovely work entitled "Washed Up," inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid."

The first piece of the evening was Fuller's "Serpentine Dance." Ms. Sperling's reenactment is based on historical documents, including the court records of Fuller's copyright infringement suit against an imitator.

The movement is very simple, but then again Fuller never aspired to be a technical dancer. To Fuller, natural dancing was the expression of the soul and was to be spontaneous and original with each dancer.

In the September 11, 1909 edition of "Musical America," Fuller talked about natural dancing. "The difference between natural dancing and that promulgated by Isadora Duncan is that she teaches and dances the old Greek classic motions. It is something definite ÜÜ something of form. Natural dancing is the conversation of the senses and the soul. Something in a bar of music suggests something to our mind, and accordingly our bodies shape themselves and move in sympathy with that idea. I will illustrate.

"Suppose that some musical composition suggests the chasing of a butterfly. We all know how a child pursues the butterfly in the field or garden. The dance, then, might be like this. I say might, because no two are alike and no person ever dances the same way twice. Everything depends on the inspiration and direction from within."

Well, Sperling fully embodies the spirit of Fuller in her interpretation of this work. There is no way that Sperling can hide her technical abilities while performing this work, nor should she. She is a dancer and it shows, but this is not a disadvantage as she is creating a conversation with the audience in terms that it can understand and accept. There was an especially effective moment in which she moved on a straight line (from upstage to downstage) as a butterfly or other winged creature. The movement was very simple and repetitive, but as Sperling advanced you could feel (as well as see) the wings beating faster, gathering momentum, and I was actually surprised when she didnÍt take wing and fly away.

The second work of the evening was the "Magic-Lantern Dance." The magic-lantern is a really cool, weird looking slide-projector device that is used to project images on the voluminous white dress worn by Sperling. (Fuller was, in a way, the first blue screen) (For more information about the projector, the dress, and the contents of this dance see Flash Report, 7-23: Room to Room with a View.)

Terry Borton, of the American Magic-Lantern Theater, was the projectionist for this segment. The magic-lantern is the star of this show and the lighting is infinitely more complex than what was seen in the first solo. However, the movement itself was very similar to the movement themes explored in the "Serpentine Dance." The most notable difference is that Sperling has longer arms and a lot more fabric to manipulate. Moving the long wands and all that fabric cannot be easy on the arms but Sperling makes it look effortless. I am also awed that Sperling, while spinning, could retain her orientation to the room with that bright projector light shining in her face (I would have been flat on my face). This light seems to be more intense than the footlights of old, if for no other reason than that it is not angled to come from below but is directly in your face.

What is fascinating about this work is that it is such a collaborative effort. While Sperling has to keep track of where she is in relation to the projector, and make sure that the majority of the projection finds itself on her dress, the projectionist is not only constantly changing the slides but manipulating them as well (for the special effects). As the work is set to music there is little room for error by either performer.

For me the most intriguing effects were in the last segment, "Ediotrope." This is when the tesseract really kicks in and the audience oohs and ahs as time really does seem to wrinkle. The choreography, magic-lantern, and piano music all scream late 19th century, but the lighting effects could be Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s, Studio 54 in the late 1970s, or even a computer-generated effect today. Besides the psychedelic and disco ball effects, there is a gnarly effect at the end of the dance that I was particularly fond of. The projectionist drops red food coloring (or something similar) into a specially designed slide as Sperling, spinning like a dervish and pulling the wands upward to hide her body in all the fabric, is being engulfed in what looks like flames.

I think this work is as beguiling today as it must have been in Fuller's era, not because it is simple, but because it re-affirms that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In Loie FullerÍs obituary in the Dancing Times in February 1928, Gilson MacCormack wrote. "It is true that with the technical development of lighting in the theatre many of Loie FullerÍs ideas seem common place enough to us today, but in the very fact of progress lies the belittling of genius. To the pioneer (and Loie Fuller was a pioneer, for which reason her name has an abiding place in history of the dance), all is new and open to experiment, after which the medium becomes common property, and a later generation is apt to tread lightly."

Sperling's "Washed Up" (based on Andersen's "The Little Mermaid") can be considered the antithesis of the two Fuller works seen earlier in the evening. It is narrative driven, has simple costumes and lighting, and the dancers' technique is so good they make it look easy. Another difference is that to Fuller music was always secondary, as she believed that dance had become its slave, whereas in this work, the original music score by Quentin Chiappetta has such a symbiotic relationship with the choreography they are virtually inseparable. On the other hand, this piece is similar to Fuller's work in the sense that the audience is transported into this fantasy via the atmosphere created ("the inspiration and direction from within") rather than by a literal retelling of the tale (i.e. mermaids in bikini tops and fins).

"Far out in the ocean, where the water is as blue as the prettiest cornflower, and as clear as crystal, it is very, very deep" is how Andersen begins his tale. In Sperling's opening it is a calm sea that the dancers are creating as they roll across the floor. With the occasional backbend you can almost see the foam as the waves crest and break. As another dancer logrolls back on herself you can feel the sand under your feet being washed away even as the next wave comes in higher than the last. It's warm, it's inviting, and you can almost smell the salt in the air.

In the next scene, the audience is seamlessly transported to the exotic depths of the ocean. Andersen writes, "We must not imagine that there is nothing at the bottom of the sea but bare yellow sand. No, indeed; the most singular flowers and plants grow there; the leaves and stems of which are so pliant, that the slightest agitation of the water causes them to stir as if they had life." Again, Sperling ingeniously creates movement for the mermaids, which brings the story to life. Their choreography includes a combination of successional movement in the arms, simultaneous with a rotating of the legs above the ankles and shifting of the chest side to side, as they alternate lift the hips while keeping the head quietly suspended. It sounds complicated but all this movement actually creates a fluid, undulating motion that is very soothing to watch not only in this section, but also through the entire work.

The Little Mermaid, danced by Molly Rabinowitz, is definitely not Ariel from the Disney version. She is not a human with fins, but a mythical creature of the sea. Rabinowitz has a back that is quite flexible (perfect for all the undulating movement), and she exudes an intensity that would be rather disconcerting if it weren't so perfect for the role. At one point, after she has saved the Prince from drowning, she gives the audience a look that is so alien I felt a shiver go up my back.

When we first see the Prince, wonderfully danced by Henning Rubsam, he is walking backwards from stage right to left. While the effect may have been to convey the illusion of travel (the Prince and Mermaid moving in opposite directions), I had the sense that even though he was still safely on his ship he was already in trouble because he was out of sync with the world in which he was about to find himself. As soon as he is thrown off the ship during a storm, the audience is in the water with him fighting for air, experiencing the sense of disorientation, and eventually feeling the body become very heavy as it succumbs to the inevitable. During the drowning sequence, and in the subsequent "Boy Toy" section, Rubsam's eyes appear to remain unfocused, which is exactly what one would expect from a person in his circumstances. It is this kind of attention to detail by Sperling and the entire cast that make this work such a gem.

Karen Bernard as the Shaman is dark and disturbing. While she may look like Jeeves (i.e. a butler in a penguin suit), she is obviously not someone you want to mess around with. At this point Sperling turns the tables on the audience and we become the Little Mermaid as the Shaman tells us what we are getting into (she uses movement, I'm going to use Andersen's text). "I will prepare a draught for you, with which you must swim to land tomorrow before sunrise, and sit down on the shore and drink it. Your tail will then disappear, and shrink up into what mankind calls legs, and you will feel great pain, as if a sword were passing through you. But all who see you will say that you are the prettiest little human being they ever saw. You will still have the same floating gracefulness of movement, and no dancer will ever tread so lightly; but at every step you take it will feel as if you were treading upon sharp knives, and that the blood must flow. If you will bear all this, I will help you."

The pact is made, and the Little Mermaid is granted her heart's desire. The next scene begins with Rabinowitz flopping around exactly like a fish out of water. Her use of weight as she discovers how these things called legs work is very well done. However, being human (without a voice, as that is what she traded in for her humanity) is not all it's cracked up to be. As the mermaid turns to face the audience we see her in the middle of a heart-wrenching (and very silent) shriek.

Of course, the mermaid's love will remain unrequited and in Andersen's tale we have been warned of the consequences. "But think again," said the witch; "for when once your shape has become like a human being, you can no more be a mermaid. You will never return through the water to your sisters, or to your father's palace again; and if you do not win the love of the prince, so that he is willing to forget his father and mother for your sake, and to love you with his whole soul, and allow the priest to join your hands that you may be man and wife, then you will never have an immortal soul. The first morning after he marries another your heart will break, and you will become foam on the crest of the waves."

Sperling's final effect of projecting a video of the mermaid (in a diaphanous dress a "La Loie") twirling, floating, suspended in time and space on a trapeze against a shredded white cloth lifted against the backdrop (like the tattered sails of a ship) is wonderfully conceived. It is a beautiful, poignant ending to this story and to the evening.

The cast also featured Kate Garroway and Ashley Sowell, as mermaids.

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