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Flash Review, 4-19:
Passing Over With Pilobolus
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider
PRINCETON, N.J. -- March
16, a gallery opening in Chelsea: I stand before a photograph called
"Wall of Death, Dachau." The middle-aged woman besides me asks her
friend: "What's Dachau?" April 11, a courtroom in London: British
"historian" David Irving loses his libel case against U.S. author
Deborah Lipstadt, who he accused of falsely portraying him as a
Holocaust denier. Irving claims no Jews were gassed at Auschwitz
and that Hitler didn't know about the mass killings of Jews. April
12, the Metropolitan Museum: Museum director Philippe de Montebello
releases an extraordinary list of 393 European paintings of "incomplete
provenance" from the World War II era. Notwithstanding de Montebello's
statement that "this is not a list of suspect pictures," the action
is in response to recent outings of works in prominent museums alleged
to have been stolen from Jews by the Nazis. April 18, 4:30 p.m.,
Princeton: Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, tells
an audience about the "intolerable trauma that occurs when the imagination
experiences a chasm without the intellectual...ability to scan it."
9:10 p.m., Princeton: Pilobolus, Maurice Sendak, and Arthur Yorinks
try to give us a language, in dance and drama and pictures, to understand
the Holocaust, reprising their 1999 dance "A Selection" at the McCarter
What makes "A Selection"
troubling--and provides its intellectual girth--is that, for much
of the dance, anyway, who the villain is is not clear. On the surface,
it must be Otis Cook, a slithery, rubbery, twisted, earthy, perverted,
deranged figure who enters ominously, a coat over his head, after
the rest of the personae, a sort of family, have missed the last
train out of the war-torn city indicated by Sendak's backdrop of
a city aflame. One by one, Cook tries to separate individuals from
the group: giving money to Josie Coyoc's little girl, obsessively
trying to shake hands with a suspicious Gaspard Louis, making a
move on what might be the mother of the group, Rebecca Anderson.
Only Matt Kent, as a father figure, seems to sense Cook's evil.
Kent tries to wrestle
Coyoc away from Cook, but the rescuing becomes a brutal one. He
swings her around by her ankles, which she stops only by -- even
as he is still swinging her -- grafting onto him first with her
knees, then grabbing his torso with her arms. He chases her, and
she takes refuge, brilliantly, in the huddled group -- Cook, Anderson,
Louis, and Benjamin Pring. It's a serious game of hide-and-seek,
Pilobolus-style: Kent scurries behind the group; Coyoc's head sticks
out between two legs in front, upside-down. He sticks an arm into
the group; his arm, impossibly elongated, juts out the other side.
Her hair protrudes out of the top of this circle, but the bald Cook
droops the hair over his pate as if it's his. Then Kent pulls the
hair, and Coyoc, out of her hiding place.
Later -- or maybe, actually,
it was earlier -- Kent placed a possibly unconscious Cook on an
operating table and, bare-handed, sliced into his abdomen. His arm
bore deeper and deeper, until his hand emerged out of Cook's mouth.
Getting nothing, he then sucked --kissed? -- Cook's stomach. When
I saw this dance premiere last summer at the Joyce, this is where
the ambiguity kicked in; if Cook is the villain and Kent the innocent
Jew, then why is Kent carving up Cook, Mengele-style? Other questions
emerged, too: If Cook is the villain, then why is he dressed in
what looks like the baggy garb of a concentration camp prisoner?
If Kent is the victim, then why does his pursuit of Coyoc -- which
we at first think might be motivated by wanting to get her out of
the clutches of Cook -- almost turn brutal?
There are other factors
that ambiguize whether Cook is victim or persecutor. He seems a
mental case and, perhaps, a homosexual -- both groups that were
also persecuted by the Nazis. He does a goose-step at one point
early on, but is it committed or a mockery?
And yet, on last night's
viewing, the ending couldn't be more clear. Kent and Anderson are
stripped naked by Cook who, suddenly, appears above them and upstage,
majestically ordering the naked couple into one line, and the other
three into another. One line for the death chamber, one for the
work camps is the more than implication. Cook's groin-gear cinches
it: on his front, a jester's head covers the crotch; on his rear,
a bigger clown head mocks us with a flapping tongue. Blackout.
On second viewing, then,
I think I can at least hazard a guess about the meaning of the apparent
ambiguity. Cook's main objective, at first, seems to be to touch
everyone. At one point he massages his crotch with his hand and
then smells it ecstatically before eagerly thrusting the hand at
others. My guess is that perhaps what the creators of the piece
are saying is that evil is an infection, and can infect even the
victims. (Cook also suggests a Capo, the Jewish prisoners who collaborated
with the Nazis.) How else to explain Kent's mean-ness, and even
some ambiguity in the other characters (when Kent is stripped, Anderson
gathers his clothes and puts them in a suitcase)?
stands out here is the troupe's (in collaboration with Sendak and
Yorinks's) ability to invent still-new combinations with its inventive
phrases. At one point, Coyoc stands astride -- on deck?! -- Cook
who, flat, seems to glide across the stage. She also stands on Pring's
stomach as he arches himself London-bridge style.
The great irony in Pilobolus,
these days, is that while it continues to find newly evocative ways
to use that vocabulary in its serious works which, if anything,
are getting even deeper and more complex -- the 1997 men's quartet
"Gnomen" being another example -- its comic pieces seem to this
veteran Pilobolus-watcher, in a word, stale. Retro in a decidedly
uncool way, last year's "Uno, Dos, Tray" concerns two leering sailor
types' pursuit of a sexy (sorry, no other word here for the choreographic
conceit), saucy waitress. They fixate on her ass; they feel it with
their eyes closed, only to discover that they're feeling each other's-har-har;
they go to kiss her only to kiss each other. This is comedy that
is neither sophisticated, original, or wacky, and borders on misogynist,
notwithstanding that it was choreographed by a woman, Alison Chase,
in collaboration with Coyoc (the woman last night), Anderson, Cook,
Kent, Louis, and Pring. (A Kudo is in order here, by the way; I
think most choreographers create in collaboration with the dancers;
Pilobolus and Momix are two of the only companies that officially
acknowledge this relationship. And while we're on that subject,
the Pilobolus directors who worked on "A Selection" were Robby Barnett,
Michael Tracy, and Jonathan Wolken, along with Sendak and Yorinks.
All the dancers in the piece, mentioned above, are credited as collaborators
on the piece.)
The 1999 solo "Femme
Noir," also choreographed by Chase, in collaboration with Anderson
and with Rebecca Stenn, while interestingly lit by Stephen Strawbridge
and well-danced by Anderson (you can also see the influence of the
droll Stenn in some of her inflections), is similarly unremarkable
and based on a dated, stereotypical humour. Okay, there's a large
sombrero involved, but its use is only mildly amusing.
But there's another problem
that these works, as well as the spastically veering (Comedy? Nightmare?)
1998 "Apoplexy" have in common: Paul Sullivan's music. Sullivan's
fantasy scores, the ones that are amalgams of spacey New Age trippy
music and comic sounds -- "Gnomen" is a good example, and I believe
he also did the elegiac 1996 "Aeros" and the ominous and tragic
"Land's Edge" -- are wonderful and Pilobolus-appropriate. My understanding
of the relationship here is that Sullivan comes in after the work
has been set, and creates a sound for it.
But where Sullivan's
scores seem anemic is when he imitates a particular style of music.
In "Apoplexy," for instance, when the work was being created, I've
heard, the dancers worked/played to real heavy metal music, something
like Metallica. But instead of just using that music, the company
then commissioned a heavy metal-like score from Sullivan. (To be
fair, the trippy stuff and sound effects are involved too, so maybe
they had to have an original score.) Remember those '70s television
shows where they'd use faux-hip "rock-and-roll" to try to seem hip?
Or, for another analogy, the Latinesque music for "Uno, Dos, Tray"
sounds like something you'd create on your Casio. Even the piano
on "Femme Noir" is so faux Chopin that one has to ask, why not just
use the original?
I press this point because
when Pilobolus does set to existing music, its musicality is almost
an unrivalled achievement. High praise, but what I mean is even
creating with an unorthodox vocabulary, the directors and dancers
are able to achieve a specific, multi-level musicality; sometimes
it's on the notes, and sometimes it's on the spirit, but it's always
remarkably musical. Even the choice of music itself often has a
deeper significance. "A Selection," for example, is set to the music
of Hans Krasa and Pavel Haas. According to the program notes, both
were highly-regarded young composers when, in 1938, the Nazis branded
their work "Degenerate Music," putting them in very good company,
but starting them on the road to destruction. They were interned
first in Teresienstadt, a so-called model concentration camp (Irving
would have liked) in Terezin, Czechoslovakia used to hold up a sort
of false front of concentration camp reality to the international
public. Let me just turn it over to the program: "There they continued,
with varying difficulty, to write music until being deported to
Auschwitz. They traveled to their deaths together on October 16,
1944. It would be accurate to say that the setting of this work
has been inevitably shaped by a response to their music and their
The 1992 ('94?) "Women's
Duet" is another example of the Pilobolus choreographers having
the chops to find movement that matches the most exotic and evocative
of musics. To "Rosenfale," based on Norwegian songs, arranged by
Jan Garbarek and sung by Agnes Buen Garna, they created an erotically,
sensuously charged duet in which the relationship of the women is
ambiguous: might be sisters, might be lovers, might be mother and
daughter, might be simply friends. Many are the choreographers who
are drawn to exotica; few are those with the skill to create dance
at the same high level as the music, but Pilobolus can do this.
And then there's "Sweet
Purgatory," set to a powerful Shostakovich composition (I want to
say String Quartet #8, but that's probably not exactly right). Created
I believe either during the War or during Stalin's purges, this
music is powerful, cutting, and sad, bespeaking some kind of horror,
or Shostakovich's reaction to horror. When the American Dance Festival
brought the piece to Russia a few years ago, audiences wept. Part
of this response was due to the music, sure, and their knowledge
of what it meant when it was created; but I think if the dance had
been inadequate, just a surface match to the music, the response
would not have been felt so deep.
And again, the brilliance
of both choreography and dancing in "Sweet P," as its fondly thumbnailed,
is that it matches the music specifically and in capturing its overall
spirit. So powerfully, in fact, that when I've seen others attempt
to create to this music -- and a couple have tried to in the past
couple of years, including David Brown of Monte/Brown Dance -- I
can't even see their dance, but can only see and feel "Sweet P."
So where does this leave
us? With a company that, I think -- talking now on three hours sleep,
folks! -- is, simultaneously, an under-achiever in its recent attempts
at humour, and the standard-bearer for serious dance work. (For
more on this, see Flash Review 1, 4-3: Getting
Piazzolla.) Modern, ballet -- no one is creating work at this
high level of musical and thematic achievement. And, most blessedly,
COMPLEXITY. Pilobolus is to most seriously-themed narrative dance
like foreign films are to American flicks. Sure, the Pils prompt
a visceral reaction, but the other part of their uniqueness in dance
today is that they make you think--not just about dance, but about
life, history, and the human psyche. And that they don't provide
easy answers. More like riddles.
Okay, I've got at least
a temporary answer to the riddle. It strikes me -- having returned
from a place, Princeton, that was the site of some of my own high
thinking and undergraduate shenanigans -- that this company founded
by Dartmouth folks still has at its kernel the heavy and light sides
of a college milieu. They can astound you with their sophomoric
hi-jinks one day, and the next astound you with a cerebral achievement
that makes you think things you never thought before, and introduces
questions that continue to germinate in your mind. And remind you
why you admitted them to your school in the first place!
And we need art like
this, so we don't forget.
.... As well as testimony.
Here is one bit of that, a poem called "The Garden" written by Franta
Bass, a child who perished in the Holocaust, and who wrote the following
while interned in Terezin. It's collected in a Holocaust classic
I recommend to you all, "I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children's
Drawings and Poems from Terezin concentration Camp, 1942-1944."
(Schocken Books, 1978) Appropriate, I think -- as was "A Selection"
-- for Passover, which starts at sundown today.
A little garden,
Fragrant and full of roses.
The path is narrow
And a little boy walks along it.
A little boy, a sweet
Like that growing blossom.
When the blossom comes to bloom,
The little boy will be no more.
season concludes tonight, with its signature "Day Two" substituting
for "A Selection." Pilobolus purists take note: Tonight's a "family
program," meaning no nudity and you'll have to settle for those
dreaded flesh-toned "Esthers." For more info on tour dates go to
(To see the list of paintings
released by the Met, go to http://www.metmuseum.org/news/index.htm.
To read more about the David Irving case, go to http://news.ft.com/ft/gx.cgi/ftc?pagename=View&c=Article&cid=FT34LTDRX6C&liv
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