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Flash Review 1, 2-21: Unclear Vision
'Big Dance,' Murky Art at DTW

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

"Well, it's performance art," a woman behind me explained to her companion as they departed Dance Theater Workshop Saturday at the conclusion of Big Dance Theater's "Another Telepathic Thing." Indeed. A horrible thing happened in the 1980s, when the Right Wing decided to nominate the yams in Karen Finley's butt--and other similarly incendiary props employed by other "performance artists"--to replace the Soviet Union as the biggest threat to the American Way of Life. A large segment of the American public who had never actually seen the perpetrating performers started to believe that Finley's art was ABOUT the yams going up her butt, when this action was actually just one way she told her Story. And a sub-segment decided that they all they needed to do to become "performance artists" was shove yams up their butts or execute some similar "out there" act. Both were wrong.

When I saw Finley for the first time last year at Performance Space 122, she did indeed douse her naked self in honey and then, Flipper-like, swim in it. But the act was not just a shock effect. Finley removed any such possibility when she assured us at the beginning of the show that this section was coming. The shock value of the act removed, she had to demonstrate that everything before the honey led inevitably to it, and that everything afterwards followed just as inevitably. This artistic justification didn't need to be obvious-in dance, it often isn't-but we at least had to know that somewhere in Finley's own mind, there was an artistic vision that propelled the whole evening, honey included.

"Another Telepathic Thing," directed by Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar, and created by the whole company, offers us no yams, but it does employ a host of props--tiny Chinese umbrellas, for instance--the artistic justification for which is unclear. The devices seem to come from a desire to use toys, with little awareness about what, if anything, those toys have to do with the artistic conceit, if there is one. Okay, let's rephrase that: There may be an awareness of how the props relate to the conceit, and there may be a conceit, but both eluded me.

There are other effects, too, whose justification is unclear. What unfolds before us is a story within a story. The story within is of one Father Peter, who is unjustly accused of stealing gold from one Astrologer. The agent provocateur is an archangel, played by Stacy Dawson, whose voice comes to us with a sort of echo effect--meant, I suppose, to imply that she comes from on high or on low. All of this is narrated by Cynthia Hopkins in, for some inexplicable reason, a monotone. Your basic anti-acting, accompanied at some points by Hopkins's flat anti-singing. (The program gives Mark Twain's "The Mysterious Stranger" as a source for the text.)

Even irony has to be backed by some sort of conceit, and I can see none here. Rather, there is a sense that this cast, and its directors, are one foot in, one foot out of the water of this story. They sort of take it seriously, but they are sort of distanced from it. There is not a clear artistic choice of direction. The choreography is either vague--I can't remember it a few hours later--or, at some points, putative folk dancing signified by the performers clapping their hands above them and stomping. Irony? Or simple lack of choreographic virtuosity? Hard to tell.

Even the one humorous moment, in its very success, sheds light on the lack of humor elsewhere, and on the lack of focus. I'm a David Neumann fan, so I chortled with everyone else when his Astrologer suddenly becomes Elvis playing the Astrologer. But it is so out of place--no similar high satire has been achieved elsewhere--I sort of got the feeling that this was something cute Neumann had thought up in rehearsal, and that was admitted simply because it was cute. I say admitted rather than "incorporated," because I didn't get the sense of one corporeal form in this 'Telepathic Thing.' I got a lot of devices--having a director audition players or break the action in the main story is another one--but no clear artistic vision or choice.

Speaking of clear vision, you're perhaps wondering what this all has to do with my opening thesis. Somewhere along the line, the concept of 'performance art' became so expansive as to become a sort of pass for prop novelty, without a clear understanding that props exist to "prop" up the larger story. It also became an easy way for audiences to dismiss things they couldn't understand--or simply didn't like--as "performance art." And, in a way, almost blame themselves--"It's performance art, we're not supposed to understand it"--rather than feeling free to say, "What the hell was that all about?" A good performance artist--such as Finley--doesn't leave such questions. In the case of "Another Telepathic Thing," I'd suggest it's not the audience--or this audient, anyway--that doesn't know what they're seeing, but the artists who don't know exactly what it is they're saying.

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