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Flash Review, 1-12: Meet Mr. Music
33 Fainting Spells But No One Choreographic Choice at the Joyce
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 1999 The Dance Insider

"Are you a dancer?"

That's one of the first questions people ask me when I tell them I write about dance. My answer: "Not that anyone would pay to see." What I mean is that I am not a professional dancer, but I dance for fun and love.

Dancing, for me, is a form of personal expression--and of expressing the music. At the San Francisco club I used to go to every week, me and my homies would sometimes even act out songs, or do routines to them. Sometimes we'd take to the stage. While I'd like to think that my dancing entertained others, it was really enough that it entertained and engaged myself, and maybe a few of my comrades. After all, no one was paying to see me!

For a professional choreographer, the barre is a lot higher. The dance MUST have some relation to the music. This can mean a note for note expression, but it can also mean a theatrical expression of the music, an ironic/humorous against-the-music juxtaposition, or a choreography that, even if not note to note, expresses something in the music.

The music cannot be used as a dramatic short-cut. It is not just there to enable the dance; it must be engaged.

One of the most dramatic pieces of music I've ever seen/heard a dance set to--three times and counting--is Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 110.

The only company I've seen that was up to choreographing and dancing this music is Pilobolus Dance Theater, in "Sweet Purgatory," a piece which both theatricalizes the music and captures at least one aspect of its emotional heart. When the American Dance Festival brought "Sweet P" to Russia in the early 1990s, it brought audiences to tears. Sure, this was partly because of the music--which, I hear, evoked the slave labor camps and other Stalin terrors--but if Pilobolus had not created a dance at the level of the music, the reaction would have been quite different. (Jeers, rotten tomatoes--you get the picture.)

The vocabulary Pilobolus selected for this piece is spare. Pilobolan lifts are employed only as they match specific musical phrases; sometimes a stage is just traversed, with no tricks. Gravity exists not so much as it is defied or manipulated, but in the seriousness of the dancers, and how they feel the weight of burden on their slumping shoulders. This is one of those beautiful dances that typify one of dance's highest accomplishments: the dancers are subsumed to the music, appearing as if they are the inner heart of the notes--the beings driving its motor.

As you can probably guess from the above, Pilobolus has spoiled me when it comes to seeing this music danced to by anyone else. I can't hear it without envisioning those multi-color costumed Pils laboring across the smoke-filled stage. A David Brown dance of a couple of years back appeared tepid--an example of where the music was chosen because of its drama, but the choreographer could not come up with movement phrases that matched the music's mettle.

I was already skeptical about "Sorrow's Sister," the work with which 33 Fainting Spells opened the Joyce Theater's Altogether Different Festival Tuesday night. The press release described this piece as being set in Europe during World War II, and telling of "three sisters who exploit the force of their wit and humanity to survive their horrific conditions. The powerful score is comprised of music by Bela Bartok, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Kurt Weill."

I was doubtful for two reasons. First, this subject has gravity, and both dance and dancers have to be utterly convincing for me not to think they're just dilettantes dabbling in tragedy. Second, a powerful score does not make a powerful dance; there has to be powerful choreography and dancing as well.

On the first question, "Sorrow's Sister" begins promisingly, with choreographers Dayna Hanson and Gaelen Hanson focusing on one aspect of three women hunkering down during the war: Food. A small cake is set, lit, served and savored from its place atop the head of one of the three dancers. (Hanson, Hanson, and Peggy Piacenza perform the dance.)

In the next scene, we quickly realize that no food, let alone cake, has been seen around these parts for a while. The three perform a pas-de-fork, with this utensil being used for everything but eating, food being in non-supply. They comb each other's hair with their forks, drum their chairs; you get the idea. The section ends with an earring epiphany, as one woman takes off her jewelry, and the others surrender theirs.

The earrings are swapped for three potatoes, which in a New York minute are turned into a soup. (There's a tragi-comic moment in which one of the women initially refuses to sacrifice her precious potato.) The soup makes one of the women sick, and another crazy; here's where the Shostakovich kicks in, in a sort of pas-de-potato.

This is also where choreographic schizophrenia kicks in. At times notes are specifically expressed; at others the response is half-heartedly humorous; at still others the music becomes a vaguely theatrical setting. The problem is that none of these choices are played to the max.

The second act centers mostly on the physical and psychological deterioration of the crazy one, and starts with a burden. The second act ended with her returning from the outside disheveled and bloody, but exactly what happened to her is not explained. Her deterioration is of the generalized, stereotypical sort. She's in bed at the beginning, then manically escapes and miraculously revives enough to do a delirious dance, met by an at times equally delirious, at times concerned response from the other two. Your basic mad scene. A mad scene needs to be approached with absolute conviction and absolute technique. The conviction saves it from seeming just silly--a dancer pretending to be crazy--and the technique dazzles us so much that we believe the person truly possessed, almost supernaturally beyond themselves.

The technique was lacking in Peggy Piacenza, who played this part. The (unrelated) Hansons, responding to her, were a bit stronger, particularly when dancing in unison, but this alone was not enough to make the piece moving.

Hallie Kuperman's lighting, while the strongest element of the piece--she expressed it in tiny light bulbs that ringed the stage in a square--also blocked what might have been its strongest human element. It was really too dark to reveal the facial gestures of Hanson, Hanson, and Piacenza, which I've heard are this troupe's strongest feature--and which might have given "Sorrow's Sister" a more personal impact.

I am truly disappointed that 33 Fainting Spells didn't live up to the advance word, particularly because it was nice to see the Joyce open Altogether Different with a company from outside New York.

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