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Flash Review 1, 4-14: The Charisma Factor
Partner Dancing with Neumann's Own at P.S.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

There are certain dancer-choreographers who are so charismatic in their creation and performance of work on themselves, you WANT to like their group work and are rooting for them. But even if they produce ensemble dances that would be respectable in anyone else's concert, the charisma gap between these and their compelling solos can seem so vast that the ensemble stuff pales by comparison. David Neumann, whose season opened at P.S. 122 last night, is to my mind one of those artists.

In other of his concerts I've seen, Neumann does a sort of scat-dancing thing to Tom Waits, in Runyanesque fedora, suit, and no shoes, that is, well, its own character. The choreography combines some of the fluidity of Doug Elkins (in whose company Neumann was a founding member), the locking and popping of Elkins and Neumann's own take on locking and popping, a sort of rapid release technique, and a kind of oh-so-cool-and-smoothe off-handedness. This is one cool cat! Part of it is in Neumann's eyes--he's looking at us as if to say, "You know me Al." (For more on Neumann in others' work, see Flash Review 1, 2-21: Unclear Vision.)

Neumann also made one of my absolute favorite dances bridging concert and social dance, another topic we've been discussing lately. (See Flash Review 1, 4-3: Getting Piazzolla, and Flash Obituary, 2-29: The Importance of Being Ofra Haza.) The dance, "Appropriate Behavior," starred club dancers Archie Burnett, Brahms La Fortune, and Neumann in what was essentially a rapture to club dancing. It's dance-drama scenario told us how each got their beginnings as dancing tykes, with the dancer-actors ingeniously playing each other and mothers. It concluded with them going out to a club, theoretically, and putting on a show for us. Throughout, Neumann displayed a sense of humility at basically being a white boy presuming he can hold his own with these black club legends.

Less successful, to me, was an unwieldy 1997 piece called "Adirondack (A Radio Play)," of which I remember only that it had something to do with hockey, as broadcast in the soundscape and as suggested in the scrambling, fighty movement. The 1998 "Duck You Sucker" amplified another weakness. A thrilling conceit--the score riffed on Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns and the music of Ennio Morricone--the movement was a jumble and a great disappointment, nowhere near as intriguing as the soundscore, which was mixed up live by the group Fellaheen.

My general sense of Neumann's group work has been that he has not been able to meet the high challenge he sets for himself--namely to make steps as interesting and riveting as his intriguing American landscape concepts and specifically his sound scores.

Neumann's new Oyinbo "Oyinbo (Dynamic Evolution of a Natural Population)," premiering last night, still fell short in this regard, but the good news is that Neumann's getting there. Towards the end of the piece, I started to see the emergence of a choreography that visibly took the soundscape into account.

The soundscape here includes square dance calls and, charmingly, what sound like field recordings of Southerners demonstrating the different calls they make on the farm: calling pigs and cows, calling out when they're lost for woods, being called for dinner by Ma, etcetera.

Less successful to me was when individual dancers mouthed the words with sparse physical inflection. (However, I may have got the intention here wrong: My dancer companion thought that they were purposefully mouthing the words a little off-synch, to great effect, and she may be right.)

What worked for me was when Charlotte Griffin, in convincing drawl, spoke and made the call herself, describing how she got lost in the woods and tried to get out; and then we heard the real recording later. Griffin's soft Southern twang seemed not a put-on or making-fun-of, but natural.

Movement-wise, my initial thought, seeing the undistinguished release phrasing, was: Maybe Neumann is just one of those choreographers who makes great work on himself, but is challenged to make it on others. Or a male choreographer who finds it harder to create on women! The sharp, emphatic entrance of three men in hiking boots and jeans-Neumann, DJ Mendel and Tom O'Connor--seemed to confirm this. Suddenly the movement was rangy, dynamic, rugged, truly coming out of the Home-on-the-range milieu dictated by the score.

But things came into more focus for everyone, interestingly, when Lisa Walter entered, in gingham dress, as the square-dance caller and instructor. (Walter's bio says she did this as a 12-year-old, and you can tell: she's good. The program notes say the sound for the square-dancing segments came from the 1986 Ohio State Fair square Dance Competition, and music by Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, and others.) Finally, the heretofore generic release-contact improv movement got an inflection that was actually related to the soundscape. (By the way, by related I don't mean necessarily that it needs to be "to the music," but just a movement that in someway, even ironically, acknowledges what we're hearing, as opposed to the same old Downtown release technique dance.) Particularly charming was a segment in which Walter, microphone in hand, gave calls to a single woman dancer. Also humorous was a passage in which her character sleeps with a man, DJ Mendel, who claims to be the drummer from Lynyrd Skynyrd, and she can't stop making square dance calls during their lovemaking. ("To the right! Now to the left! Now back!")

When we finally got some straight group square dancing--And promenade home!--I felt like saying, "Yes!" and then, then, was ready for it to devolve first into a fusion of square and modern, and then finally back to modern. Which it did, winningly! And even this became more honed for me during the brief conclusion, a simple, focused solo for Fritha Pengelly, ending with her laying herself down sideways and slab-like. Pengelly, a member of Elkins's company, seems to have become nicely grounded and taken on a new, burning intensity, recalling a buffed and intense Kevin Bacon, in Neumann's work.

Promising, but ultimately flat for me, were most of the duets (and one group piece) between Neumann and Beat poet John Giorno which made up the first part of the program.

First, do I really need someone to preach at me, as Giorno did, "Just say no to family values and don't quit your day job," "Drugs are sacred substances," "Alcohol is totally great, let us celebrate the glorious qualities of boos," and "Christian fundamentalists are viruses"? This is an easy play for local sympathy, as I'm guessing there were not many "Christian fundamentalists" in the Downtown audience. Yes, and I imagine in some "Christian fundamentalist" quarters in the Bible Belt they can preach against the "faggots" in San Francisco. Neither is risky art. Both can be seen as pandering.

Even when Giorno's poetry got interesting--and his lilting inflection always was, as was his bare-footed dancing--while Neumann was definitely dance-reacting and still magnetic to watch, for the most part no distinct, memorable phrases emerged. The most interesting piece was moreso from a theatrical perspective. As Giorno riffed, winningly, on being stuck in Berlin with Beat godfather William S. Burroughs during the Chernobyl nuclear explosion ("I got a coat with 10,000 diamonds--and we got off easy."), Neumann did an uncanny Burroughs impersonation. With Fedora and suit, one suddenly realized how much with his gaunt face Neumann resembled the late Beat. He hunched and walked the walk, through to the, er (I don't want to give it away) sparkling ending.

So where does all this leave us? As a solo choreographer and performer, Neumann truly has a quirky, original virtuosity. And I love his archival sound choices. He totally does the work here. And he smartly uses text: All the recorded or live text he utilizes are not just interesting in their content--which can sometimes actually distract from the dance--but have an innate musicality which appeals even if you don't listen to the actual words. Choreographing for a group, tho, he still rambles; no distinct style seems to emerge. But I think he's starting to get there.

He has a great ensemble of dancers to work with who, in addition to those already mentioned, include Faye Driscoll, Ruthie Epstein, and Erin Wilson. (This, by the way, is also a vast improvement on the last time I saw the company, in 1998. I got much more of a sense of his dancers actually coming out of his aesthetic, as opposed to trying to grasp it.)

By the way, feel like making your own collaboration with a famous beat poet? Go to http://www.bigtable.com/cutup/, and follow the instructions. Going to Home on that site will also get you to more information on Burroughs.

For more on Spaghetti Westerns, Sergio Leone, and Ennio Morricone, go to http://film.tierranet.com/directors/s.leone/sergioleone.html.

David Neumann continues through April 23. For specific days, times, and more info, go to www.ps122.org, or click on the venue's ad on our Home Page.

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