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Phlash Review 1, 12-11: Phlaking Out
Ezralow Meets Danco

By Andrew Simonet
Copyright 2000 Andrew Simonet

PHILADELPHIA -- Strange dance world trend #1: Once someone has an interesting color-outside-the-lines idea, everyone else copies the idea, rather than trying themselves to think originally. Example: Everyone starts making Alternative Nutcrackers.

Daniel Ezralow's "Xmas Philes," performed by Philadanco at Philadelphia's Annenberg Center Saturday, December 9, was an unconnected string of gags and dance skits, several of which failed to deliver even the shallow pleasures of a gimmick. (The award-winning title is an example of Philadelphians' nutty habit of sticking "ph" in for "f". Go phigure.) The hard-working, talented dancers of Philadanco seemed most alive during the let's-just-dance-around curtain call. And the audience filled with children cheered for each gag as the lights went up, but soon lost interest in dances that did not develop.

In the generous spirit of the holiday, I'll start with two of the stronger skits. In "Silent Night," white-robed dancers enter from both sides, meet in the middle, and then one lays the other down gently on her/his back. A gentle acoustic version of "Silent Night" creates a poignant scene as a prone choir of dancers is lifted from the floor and lowered back down. Simple, surprising, and oddly evocative of the song and its meaning. The audience is hushed. A subtle mood has been set and we are ready to have it take us somewhere. Some dancers arise and move through a series of gospel-looking gestures, and the skit ends. It could have built more, and the space could have been used with more artistry and intention, but it was a memorable image nonetheless.

In "NY Eve," Tracy Vogt hobbles on as a disco ball fills the theater with stars. She takes her heels off of her sore feet and, in a shiny after-the-party outfit, slinks longingly though "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" Sexy men in white dinner jackets with bowties undone saunter on to much audience hooting and interact with Vogt briefly before turning and walking off. One by one, they rattle off some simple sexy partnering with her until the men enter as a group and catch the diving Vogt. She ends in the air, seeming to be carried off by a poster for "The Wood." The crowd loves it: simple idea, tiny little bit of development, clear ending, men who know where their butts belong (see below.) But that's about the high point because of...

Strange dance world trend #2: Dances attempting to be "populist" will be shallow, undeveloped, and condescending to an audience presumed to be stupid.

The emblematic non-moment of the piece is a skit called "Store Wars," the pun apparently having no reference to the movie at all. Two cheap-looking banquet tables covered with gifts are pulled out to represent competing stores. (Look, I don't even need tables. I'd prefer if the performers convey "store" without any props. But if you're gonna have em, make em look good.) One store is called "Piffany's" (I am relieved that it's not "Piphany's"), and the other is called... Wait a minute... "Totally Free"! Well, "Totally Free" switches his sign to "20% Off" and all the dancers run over to his cheap-looking banquet table. Then "Piffany's" changes his sign to "50% Off" and they all run to him. This goes back and forth until "Totally Free" changes his sign to "Totally Free." But hold on... that's the sign he STARTED with.... The audience collectively realizes that we were not supposed to see that sign in the beginning and we try to go back and retroactively experience the joke. Unfortunately, I go back too far and retroactively experience...

...the second skit of "Xmas Philes": a jazzy version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" plays as a group of sexy Playboy bunny reindeer enter in front of bright red cyc. Sporting heels, gloves, and little reindeer tails, they strut admirably through aimless choreography, a lethargic kick line, and unrealized spatial arrangements. The audience, thrilled at first, is subdued by the unspectacularness of this spectacle, but still emerges ready to party.

In the next skit, a jazzy, scatting rap of "The Night Before Christmas" plays as two men dressed in wacky striped pajamas and caps do a series of sharp unisons set to the rhythm of the words. This avowedly zany scene is closer to popping than Rudolph, but the dancing doesn't get funky or funny enough.

In "Druids," five large, hooded figures appear silhouetted against a green cyc. But wait a minute.... Those people are too tall; it must be...a dancer sitting on another dancer's shoulders! The dance dissolves into mindless, "sexy" partnering once the men get pooped out the bottom wearing hot pants, but nothing else. The audience loves the trick, but nothing else.

Things get a little better in "The Twelve Days of Christmas," as twelve dancers enter one at a time introducing a short movement segment for each day. The segments accumulate into a phrase that is danced in parallel space unison as it grows in length and dancers. A simple idea (one that warms my minimalist heart) that could have more connection to the song/words/accumulating phrase. And the lyrics, sung by a manic choir, were difficult to understand.

Did I mention the big, cheaply-made "gift box" dragged on at the beginning of "Twelve Days" and obviously containing a dancer? Well, it turns out that box contains a dancer, Francisco Gella, who begins a slow, oozy dance on the floor to "Blue Christmas." Gella's lovely released floorwork is impressive in a company like Philadanco: his spiraling backwards fall slides effortlessly to a straight-leg forward bend. This repeated movement takes my breath away, but not the breath of the children around me, who are too amused at seeing a man's butt in the air and too relieved at finally having something to laugh at. When five women join Gella doing backbends and giving some shocking crotch-shots, the space gets muddy and the kids stop laughing. The coffin nail is inserted by two men who enter in "Fed-Xmas" uniforms and slap "Special Delivery" signs on Gella's Trojan gift box. One of the signs doesn't stick, and the men flail at it desperately as they schlep Gella off stage left. I consider distracting the audience by putting my butt in the air.

You can picture the rest: snowflake goboes, a huge styrofoam painting of mistletoe flown in but not lit, six Santa Clauses peeling off their Santa suits to reveal Men-In-Black suits and shades ("Mommy, I thought there was only one Santa Claus..."), a strobe light, angel wings, and a green and red gospel choir straight out of "Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit." How did so many talented people come to make this? That brings me to...

Strange dance world trend #3: inspiration is used to make grant proposals, not dances. In our curious age of big-name/big-project funding, eminently fundable proposals should perhaps be exhibited as artworks unto themselves.

Here's the idea: Let's get crazy-Momix-music-video-propmaster Daniel Ezralow to choreograph an alternative-to-The-Nutcracker-Christmas-dance-cash-cow for African-American-community-based-modern-dance-company Philadanco. A slam dunk. Frame it and hang it on the wall.

Philadanco and its director Joan Myers Brown deserve unrestricted, constant funding. These are gifted dancers led by a visionary. But funders want to fund projects, specifically "innovative," "no more business as usual" collaborations.

It will be a truly merry Xmas when funders trust companies and choreographers don't underestimate their audiences.

 

Andrew Simonet is a dancer, choreographer, and co-director of Headlong Dance Theater.

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