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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
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
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
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.
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
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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