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Breathless for the Joyce
A Theater Where You Can SEE Dance

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

Speaking just for myself, one of the models for Flash Reviews was that they should be in the spirit of the breathless phone call you might make, or e-mail you might send, to a friend after a performance that particularly inspired or enraged you. As we do not unquestionably accept traditional reviewing rules here at The Dance Insider Online, I even thought that to maintain the passion level of what you read, it was important to only write about things that we feel strongly about, either way. But this editor got in the habit of promising presenters and publicists Flash Reviews for everything we attend. Plus, amazingly (considering the seasons that came before), this season just about everything has fallen into the category of inflammatory, on the positive or negative tip. What to do, then, with Compania Vicente Saez's "Fenix," a harmless but not harmful dance which opened Tuesday night at the Joyce Theater? I'll try to mercifully justify what I just said, and then get to a topic that does inspire a rave: The Joyce itself.

The conceit for "Fenix" is alluring. More than anything, it seems an enactment of hieroglyphics. This is suggested at first by a few scribbles illumined on the upstage wall; then more than suggested as the lights come up on that wall, which is covered with hieroglyphic-like scrawling. The angled arms and almost two-dimensional stage pictures--everyone facing front--support this idea. Dance-wise, there are a few alluring moments: Solos by a red-headed woman (sorry, can't match the names to the performers!) and a blonde-headed woman in a red outfit are particularly compelling, as is the opening solo by an older man, especially in the way his arms gently slash the space. Perhaps I'm just idiotically extrapolating here, but the arms on this Spanish company show the heredity of flamenco.

There was also at least one moment where my subconscious caught a glimpse of a possible meaning beneath the meaning. During one woman's solo, another woman entered upstage, and I seemed to hear the first saying, with her body, to the other: "Beware this place, it's not what you think."

The problem, here, is the reason I was in a dream state in the first place. Depending on how you look at it, the all-percussive score, played live, was either a good drone (hypnotizing, like those trippy extended drum sets that used to splice a Grateful Dead concert), or a bad drone (stupefying in its mundanity). Considering the obsession with the African rainstick-a lazy shorthand for exotic about as impactful to me as the word "interesting"--I'll go with stupifying. This program-described "original" music, credited to Amores Grup De Percusso, reached its nadir when one player started screeching a violin bow over a drum edge (or something like); even a fellow band-member joined me in pressing hands over ears.

Movement-wise, hmmm....Well, my choreographer companion liked the duet and also said he saw one lift he'd like to plagiarize. I already mentioned that the attempt at reflecting hieroglyphics was an intriguing (as opposed to interesting) concept. Unfortunately, what we saw here was what we often see with European modern dance companies from countries without a huge indigenous modern dance tradition: They come to New York presenting, as if new, a vocabulary which was fresh here about 60 years ago. We had the woman rising, piston (Phoenix?)-like in the middle of a circle of men. We had a row of about three women sitting, then spreading their legs, giving birth-like, replete with primal, back-arching screams. (At this point my aforementioned choreographer companion leaned over and whispered that this gesture was straight from a Graham class.) I don't fault the intention--all of this is genuinely presented and heartfeltingly offered, and there's even a certain amount of charm in the company's belief that what they're doing is novel--but it's not.

Oh, the dancers: No weak links here. My dancer-friend Aimee taught me years ago, when I was young, that just because the choreography is uninspiring, you don't withhold your claps at the end (not that I'm saying I would have withheld last night based on the choreography); you still applaud the dancers' effort. And these dancers definitely deserved that. They were beautiful, in fact; and my suspicion is I would not be being so charitable about the choreography, were it presented in less talented hands, feet, and faces.

Ah yes: Hands, feet, and faces. This brings us to the promised rave for the theater. In Flash Review 1, 2-28: Squonk Shrunk, I discussed the sometimes under-estimated importance to the audience experience of the theater. In the case of Squonk, the move from the downtown space of P.S. 122 to the bigger Helen Hayes Theater seems to have diminished the audience experience, in particular making it less intimate. And in praising the Children of Uganda the other day (Flash Review 1, 3-6: Suffering and Smiling), I didn't mention one annoyance about the theater to which they brought their light--Symphony Space. The sightlines at this space were, I'd heard, improved for dance, but if my experience was any indication, the improvements were marginal: The cuddling couple in front of me, the male half of which seemed gothicly tall and interminably restless, prevented me from seeing a significant, and varying, part of the action.

But then, you see, I'm spoiled. Perhaps there's only so much one can do to improve sightlines in a space which is basically (I believe) a former movie house. It still doesn't change a basic fact: the performers are up there, you're down here, and the guy in front of you is between you and them.

By contrast, the Joyce Theater was designed ground up (well, okay, it may have actually been a former movie theater too)--or let's say then, re-designed ground up (thanks largely to the determination of Cora Cahan and Eliot Feld) as a theater for dance.

We New York critics tend to assume y'all understand the significance of the words "the Joyce," but let us now take a moment to praise dance-specific theaters. Last night, having not been in the approximately 470-seat theater for a few weeks, I realized anew how precious this space is (good-precious!), and how much it elevates the dance experience.

There's no bad seat in the house. The audience basically descends into the stage. And the stage--woe! It is MASSIVE. Wide and deep. The closeness of that stage makes what's going on onstage look, at the same time, huge and intimate. You can see the expressions on the performers' faces. More important, I think, for modern dance. Ideally, ballet dancers dance outerly--in the good sense of that word--by which I don't mean that they're internally vacant, but that the goal is that their bodies should convey the feelings. And the math of the ballet vocabulary means geometrical patterns, where, in fact, it's sometimes better to see from a distance because you get the big picture.

Modern dance--yes, I know I'm generalizing--presents a narrower, contracted, earth- or floor-bound field of vision. By training, and by the less leg-centered choreography, the modern dancer is less focused on using the legs to draw a broad picture and more concerned with the interior, indicated by a contracted torso, idiosyncratic arms and even fingers, and, most of all, interesting facial tics. (I don't mean to insult all the ballet-trained modern dancers and ballet-hip modern choreographers; I'm generalizing to make a point about scale.) So a theater where you can see the faces expands the possibilities of the experience, and the possibilities for expression of the performers. I notice this particularly in a Pilobolus season, where the droll facial expressions and tics enhance the comedy. Yes, a performer should be able to play broad, a dancer to convey texture with his/her body, and they do; you just get to see so much more detail--even getting a glimpse of the person behind the performer--at the Joyce.

The presentation, too--props here to Theater Manager Valerie D. Simmons, House Manager Kathleen K. Dyer (she's the one in red), and Building Manager Jimmy Ortiz, as well as to a professional cadre of staff and volunteer ushers--is flawless. (I guess that Joyce executive director Linda Shelton has more than a little to do with this tone, too.) At the aforementioned Symphony Space, there's no compunction about letting late-comers into the theater mid-show, where they disrupt the view and the experience. City Center is even worse; so frequent does this happen that I feel under attack by legions of people who, if anything, have been trained to trust that it's acceptable to arrive at 8:30. It's not!

But at the Joyce, the latecomer policy is strict. Again, there is an awareness that this is a dance theater, and that even if your view is blocked just by nano-seconds by latecomers squeezing into their seats, you might miss a crucial moment that the choreographer and dancers toiled years over. And that the spell might be broken.

Is my focus here mundane? I think not. You see, there's a larger issue. In so many realms--and folks, I am SO over it--dance is the second-class citizen, its concerns an afterthought. Even at the New York Times, for instance, a review of a young company--critical for the company--is bumped for a pan, say, of the latest movie from Jean-Claude van Damme. Only a really, really, really mainstream dance event will be fronted on the arts section. And this lack of regard is not confined to the media. The ballet company's concerns will be given second-shrift to the opera company's when the house is renovated. A theater director will ride rough-shod over the concerns of the ballet company director. Or, a town does not even have a theater with adequate sightlines for dance.

How lucky we in New York, are, then--how privileged, really--to have a theater like the Joyce, where dance--and its adherents--are front and center. And how I wish that other cities would emulate this grand experiment.

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