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Flash Review 3-16: Return to Innocence, II
Dewy-eyed Over Dance with NCSA's Pluck Project

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

(Author's note: The title refers to "Return to Innocence," a pre-web site Flash on Pina Bausch and other matters, which I'd be glad to send you. Just e-mail me at paul@danceinsider.com)

I hang out with a lot of jaded choreographers, dancers, and dance teachers. Fundamentally, in their dancers' souls, they're not really jaded, or they wouldn't still be dancing. But they have their jaded moments, and sometimes they let down their hair with me. They're jaded because it's not enough that they do good work; major theaters, clouded by (in my opinion) political considerations, just won't see it. It's not enough that they're good teachers; politics seems to rear its ugly head when it comes to doling out faculty positions. They're jaded because it's so difficult to put on a New York season, which is, inevitably--even if they sell out--a budget buster. They're jaded because when they do put on a New York season, largely to get a Times review that they can use to get work elsewhere, the Times doesn't come, spikes the review if it does come, or sends a reviewer who doesn't have anything helpful--negative or positive--to say about their work. They're jaded because of theaters that seem to be more concerned with their bottom line than advancing their company or the field. They're jaded because of sometimes brutal choreographers and directors....But wait! Before you say, "There he goes, going negative again," hold on. For what drives me to pen tonight is the Pluck Project, an, indeed, plucky group of seniors from the North Carolina School of the Arts who performed Wednesday night at Context Theater, and will do so again tonight, Thursday. These young people have reminded me what it's like to, dewy-eyed, love dance in that innocent stage before the reality of the vicissitudes of the dancer's life set in.

The idea behind the Pluck Project, started by last year's NCSA senior class, is for the students to experience all aspects of mounting a show in New York, before they actually come to New York to settle and have to worry about things like finding a paying job, getting an apartment, and dodging the roaches and police. (Advisors for Pluck include Brenda Daniels, Rebecca Harriman, Joseph Mount and, last year, Sara Hook and David Parker. Tech help comes from Beth L. Chervenak and Ryan O'Gara.) What makes Pluck worth watching--and reviewing--is that it originates from NCSA. This is the same school that brought us Mark Dendy, Mary Cochran, Hook, Peter Pucci, Eric Hoisington, Chrysa Parkinson, Ashley Rowland, Edward Stierle, and numerous others who the dancers among you probably know better than me. We're talking the modern dance equivalent of the School of American Ballet here, folks, which, in our opinion, makes it just as important to review as SAB's annual concert.

The biggest difference between these two valedictories--and the one place where Pluck falls short, in my opinion--is that the ten students from Pluck perform in their own choreography. Now, before you go saying, "How cruel can you get--sniping at students!" I would have had this same thought before I even saw last night's results. Being a choreographer, experienced practitioners tell me, is not something you announce and therefore you are. It takes years to develop your craft. Nothing I saw last night was bad--indeed, I've seen worse by older artists--it was just, for the most part, underdeveloped. And I got the sense--the same as I'd got at Pluck's first New York concert last year--that, ironically, with a couple of exceptions, their own choreography did not show these young women at their best--as dancers. I got more than hints of virtuosity, with no weak links; my suspicion is I would have gotten blown away with their dancing talent had they been displaying it in more developed work. (Another reason I'm being blunt: The goal of Pluck is to fully experience putting on a production in New York, and who am I to hold back on the reviewing part of that equation?!)

A couple of general observations, and then some specifics:

First, for the most part, they're all musical, in their dancing and choreography.

Second, let me tell you, folks, David Dorfman is big. Huge. When I sat down last night, I hailed an audience member I thought was Dorfman, but I was mistaken. But in fact, I wasn't mistaken; Dorfman was omnipresent in the theater Wednesday.

They most of them emulate his choreography, and they most of them want to dance with him after they graduate. This is not the first time I've witnessed the Dorfman phenomenon and, indeed, The Dance Insider's own Post-Modern Mole, writing in our winter 1998-99 issue (see Back Issues), has already reported on this. Last night, I flashed back to another, hotter, sweltering, summer night, a couple of years ago, in the Ark (a sort of barn) at the American Dance Festival, on the Duke University campus in Durham, North Carolina. Students were auditioning for work by guest choreographers that week, and by far the most popular audition was Dorfman's that evening, when a couple of hundred jammed the Ark 'til past midnight. Think the pied piper or the Candy Man in "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," and you get the idea. I observed then that part of Dorfman's charisma was that the dancers got to talk as they crossed the room for the audition--anything that came to their minds. And, indeed, last night, one of the dancers who told me afterwards that Dorfman was her top choice said it was that his work allowed room for individual humanity.

That's the word on the Dorfman factor, praise-wise. Phrase-wise, last night I saw a lot--too much, really--of that pose where, well, it's kind of like an upside-down V; legs and arms on the ground, butt in the air at the apex.

Indeed, if I had one yearning throughout the concert, it was for more differentiated individual visions. (There I go again, ragging on the choreography; it really was as good as could be expected, and I mind that talking about it's diverting me from talking about the dancing, which was withal luminous. Wait, let's take that out of the parenthesis.) The dancing was luminous!

Particularly dancing in the light--or rather, catching it--was Daryl Owens, in "Refrain," to Liszt's "Liebestraum." Swift turns and equally swift undulations --and some sparingly employed quirks, such as starting with her hand over her mouth, and ending with an droll expression that sort of said, "I get it." Owens's use of Dorfman's upside-down V seemed the most logical.

Looking at my notes.ŠTen choreographers here, folks, and I wanted to try to remember a few observations of each one....Okay: By number nine, a.k.a Renee Archibald, I've written, "Now SHE's interested in sculpture...pretty unusual...this is good." As well as "patient, serene." The only demerit--and it's more a group demerit--is that Archibald, like many of the others, ended by walking into the light standing and looking forward, importantlyŠ.Actually, looking at my notes againŠ.Yow! I'm not sure it was Archibald. (Like I said, ten choreographer/dancers.) But the group demerit still remains: after this conclusion repeats itself in several of the works, it loses its uniqueness and resonance.

In general, there was a lot of going to the ground--and I say ground because, dipping into it like it was water, or sifting through its imaginary sands, a couple of the dancers turned the hard floor into ground. In fact...double yow! I'm looking at the program and, sure enough, it states that Lindsay Davis's piece, which led the evening off, is called, simply, "Sift." Set to Robert Schumann's "Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Minor," this was the most elegiac of the choreographies; I liked the planes Davis made with her arms, the way she swept at the dirt--and made me see it as dirt--and the position in which she concluded the dance, on the ground, arms (arm and leg?) forming a light-capturing triangle behind her.

Also earthy was Emily Tepper's "Marrow." The music was by the Japanese group Kodo, but Tepper's phrases had me thinking it was Brazilian. At the time of seeing I wrote down, "Capoiera," and thought of Doug Elkins, who uses that form in his soup. But Tepper, who told me later she has not yet seen Elkins, seemed to get more to the core of Capoiera than Elkins; that is to say, where Elkins fuses it with hip-hop, if anything, Tepper absorbed it into a modern dance fold. (Or maybe it was the other way around.) And her calm concentration--not to be undervalued in a young dancer--also brought this piece to the level of mystery. I saw more of the complexity, seriousness, and somberness of the spirit of Capoiera than I see with Elkins; more depth.

Emily Tschiffely was by far the most developed choreographer and most complex dancer that I saw. In fact, what she did was more developed and original than most of what I saw the last time I attended Fresh Tracks, a series of young/new choreographers at Dance Theater Workshop. Dancing--in a yellow dress, yet, which nicely set off her flaming red hair--Tschiffely doe-see-doed and curtsied and rolled over to Gene Autry's recording of "The Yellow Rose of Texas." (The flowered underwear, totally in character, was a nice touch.) There was a level of sophistication here--in terms of both musical choice and the movement she created on top of it--that was mostly absent the rest of the evening. Tschiffely told me later that, unlike most of the young dancer/choreographers I spoke with last night, she's thinking of locating somewhere other than New York, because she is interested in choreographing, and it seems like it might be harder to get work presented here. Well, the sometimes jaded choreographers I talk to might, I'm afraid, agree. But as a dance watcher I have to say I hope she changes her mind; we need her here, and I'd like to chart her growth.

The concerning news is that, with the exception of Tschiffely--and, to a lesser extent, the others I've singled out above--I didn't see a lot of out-of-the-box thinking last night or, come to think of it, in the first Pluck concert last year. (Last year's exceptions being Tschiffely and Summer Belknap [sp.?].) I suggested above that concerts like this are the modern dance equivalent, in importance, of the annual School of American Ballet concert. But modern dance, unlike ballet (ballet for the most part) is not just about pretty things. It is the pedestrian, "human" movement of Dorfman, yes, but it is SO MUCH MORE. It's the psychological probing into the labyrinth, the errand into the maze, of Martha Graham. It's the fucked-up family histories of Mark Dendy. It's the quirky, hurt characters of Sara Hook. I've cited the last two because they are products, in part, of NCSA. And I'm a bit perplexed why a school that produced heavy hitters like this--heavy hitters in terms of the territory they explore--doesn't seem to be encouraging the current crop to make similar expeditions. It's not that they're "just" students; I caught part of a senior class presentation at New York University's Experimental Theater Wing last Friday and, believe me, young people recognize that the world is a twisted place, and have the ability to depict it in interesting and even unique ways.

All I'm saying is, based on what I've seen so far, I wonder if the undoubtedly talented students at NCSA are being encouraged to look into the dark corners of our and their lives, and to explore these in their dances.

After that comment, you may be wondering: Why did he suggest on top that this concert was a ray of hope for the jaded? How's he going to wrap this up and connect it with that theme?

Wait...there is a connection somewhere around here....oh, there it is, back in Durham, at a vast field in front of Wilson College on the campus of Duke University. It's 4 p.m., the twilight hour, and the light is amber. I'm looking at my schedule, and wondering what class or rehearsal I will check out next. Here at ADF, they start at about 8 a.m., and don't finish until after midnight. Its break-time now, and you'd think these young dancers would be, well, taking a break. But there, across the field, in black knee-length leotards with a strapless black top, the wind whispering through her blond hair, I spot a young women frolicking/dancing, Isadora-like. There's no music but the inspiration in her soul. She wants to dance; she has to dance. The girl can't stop dancing. All week I have been inspired to overflowing, feeling as if I am at the source of the river. These are the dancers before they have to deal with the realities of paying the rent; one-minute auditions where they're up "against" hundreds of other women; manipulative directors; unreasonable choreographers; unfair critics; battered bodies; a real world that, to a large extent, regards them indulgently when they give their profession as dancer; and that existential moment, which can come as early as, oh, 27, when they wonder if it's worth it or whether they shouldn't just chuck it all and go back to school for that urban planning degree.

Talking to these NCSA dancers--and make no mistake about it, they are, without exception, beautiful, pristine, articulated, expressive dancers, ready to make your work look good if you're a choreographer, and ready to captivate you if you're just an audience schmuck like me--talking to these dancers, so ready, raring really, to do the New York thing, to enter the trenches, dewy eyes wide open and anticipating only the best--talking to them I felt, for the first time in a long, long while, rejuvenated. My hope revived--not just about dance, but about the world.

And as for my sometimes jaded--but no less dedicated--choreographer, teacher, and dancer friends, don't despair. I return from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, via the East Village digs of Context Theater, bearing a message: Don't surrender! Fresh troops are on the way!

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