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Flash Review, 1-19: Stop This Train, I Want to Get Off
Chuma's Obscure Journey at the Joyce

By Tom Patrick
Copyright 2000 Tom Patrick

Here's an idea, maybe embarrassingly old-fashioned: maybe I can "experience" a contemporary dance performance fresh and open-minded, without the benefit/burden of exculpatory program notes, lists of a choreographer's past laurels, or artistic manifestoes. Maybe I can witness a theater event and actually decipher its intention or statement--for who these days is not dealing with A Matter Of Importance, be it gender, culture, politics, or all-of-the-above?--simply by taking in the circumstances and activities presented there in the theater. I don't want to be prepped with doublespeak, nor deluged by explanations in advance. No disclaimers please. (Simple answer, I know: Just wait and see, try to resist the urge entirely to check the program!) Am I naive, handicapping myself by thinking I can take my seat in the house and just let the material do the talking? Perhaps! Would I have enjoyed Tuesday's performance at the Joyce more (indeed, at all?) if I'd have passed on opening the Playbill and reading the promises of what Yoshiko Chuma & The School Of Hard Knocks would reveal in 1999's "Footprints Of War" and the premiering-and-cumbersomely-titled "Reverse Psychology: Agenda Number One: Japan"? Perhaps....

Based on the activities in-house themselves, I would in the end probably have emerged no less mystified or dissatisfied. Even without the tantalizing tellings of the "invented sonic character genetically engineered from ”diverse nuclei" (a.k.a. Music by Alvin Curran) and "an environment that hints at real history, but presents no specific historical event" (a.k.a. Conception et al by Yoshiko Chuma) I believe I'd still find myself here trying to create my own kind of sense from the maddening non-sequitur-laden program. Dreamscapes, memories, terror, old pain...these are all areas fascinating and troublesome to tackle in the arts, and each of the "arts" inherently contains its own best and worst manners of dealing with them. There is the explicit route, the omniscience of a literary voice for instance. There is the immediate sympathy we might feel with a single note from a singer that speaks volumes of a struggle summed up in a scant second or two. Film can propel us through history in a moment, or treat us to an imagistic look inside a character's (or director's etc) mind. "Dance" in theaters is subject to its own inventory of limitations (obviously Gravity, and some other quaint Newtonian principles--for instance, try as we might, two people cannot actually pass through each other, a source of eternal frustration for choreographers.)

Probably I am about to reveal a glaring gap in my artistic and/or intellectual evolution here, but I must say I just can't see the Emperor's new clothes! Allusions sure, suggestions too, references...all in abundance. But going where? When? Am I so unusual in feeling like I ought to be informed what sort of code we're speaking in there? (Like I said, perhaps embarrassing to admit, but...I just don't get the ratio of response and intellect that is evidently so crucial to this work).

Surely I'm not advocating dumbing-down this world's artists--quite the contrary! Dance certainly has its own strengths which are its glories: endless variations of gesture and structure, the universal powers and frailties of the human body. There are only those troublesome limits of physics, but the dancers among us even manage to make those seem irrelevant sometimes. The basic equipment of dancers, their corporeal selves, compels the also-human viewer to be interested in what the dancers are DOING, and in a choreographic situation logic is of course called upon to help us find connections between the people onstage, the stage itself and the elements of light, sound, distance, spatial relationships, and on and on...Logic, annoyingly sometimes, causes "us" (me) to ask "Why?"

The personal and many ways these mental processes happen is not my gripe or topic here. But I wouldn't mind a little organization, or the clarity that emerges from more conviction in the message. (Indeed, I certainly didn't set out to submit a diatribe here, but found myself tonight to be facing work that just may be--to my fledgling abilities--immune from critical response.) So personal is the language, so inscrutable is the viewpoint, so unremarkable the craft (in my Opinion) that Chuma's vision seems locked protected within its own thin veil.

Tuesday's concert was to me about as frustrating and interesting as watching a street dealer play three-card Monte for two hours. I couldn't stop watching for the connections, for a loud-and-clear declaration of something, yet was perpetually stymied by ideas that would trail off to nothing, and at times irritated by the implied profundity in the slow walk or meaningful stare. In short, I just got tired of paying attention, waiting for the promise not kept. Even in my shallowest waters, the dancing itself stirred up almost nothing. Specific, yes. Repeatable, certainly. Novel or evocative? Hardly. There was some stock windmilling of stiff arms and the expected moment where the feet were not the dancers' only supports: a few suspended handstands, running to-and-fro, a lot of "crumpling." Not very compelling, I thought. It was a road-trip through Yoshiko Chuma's mindscape, certainly, but one of those trips where one pulls off the road every few miles for something or other and ultimately forgets the intended destination. A pity after all the build-up and the implied importance of the journey, but there you are. As I said, perhaps it would've been better not to know there WAS a destination. The conceit of the plan seemed to be so personal and obscure that I ended up not caring where we went, as long as it was over soon and they let me off somewhere near where I'd boarded.

And I'm very very sorry to report that...

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