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for the Joyce
A Theater Where You Can SEE Dance
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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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