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Flash Review, 4-20: Over the Top
Hooked by Valeska at Joyce Soho

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

I see many quote unquote "over the top" performances. But as often as not, I get the feeling that the artist's primary intention was to be over the top -- the effect came before the cause. Sara Hook, on the other hand, gives herself an intellectual challenge, and then asks: How can I best realize this in performance? In answering this question, Hook sets herself absolutely no limits and thus has produced the most beyond-limits, er, personality I've ever seen on a stage. It's Valeska's world, and God help you if you just want to be a distanced bystander, as several bystanders discovered last night at Joyce Soho.

I should pause here for a second to note that Sara is a friend. But having said that, I should further note that I insisted she move on from the staff of The Dance Insider specifically because of Valeska. No, Valeska wasn't molesting the staff -- although she did spit on me at a previous incarnation of "Valeska's Vitriol." Rather, it's a potential conflict of interest for us to promote the career of one of our own, and I wanted to be free to tell you about an artist who truly understands, but doesn't exploit, the concept of Risk.

Sara, a former soloist with the companies of Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis, among others, was making original work long before The Dance Insider existed. The work I've seen ranges from difficult solos -- "What could possibly be going on in that woman's mind that is producing that twisted movement?" I'd asked myself about previous Hook characters -- to ensemble send-offs. These include "Buff 'Em Up Baby Doll," which depicts a group of women who at 35 still live for the Dolly Dinkle dance school. Tho this satire does have a serious undertone, nothing in the movement or characterizations prepared me for Valeska. But then, maybe I should have been prepared, knowing that Sara is one of those rare artists who has both the intellectual depth to ask questions not many of us have asked before (or maybe, some of these questions arising as they do from the detritus of society, have avoided asking), and the well of movement artillery to express the answer in ways as broad as they are specific, as idiosyncratic as they are universal.

I get the feeling that Valeska is the culmination of probing in both these areas, the intellectual and the kinetic. Having "met" Valeska Gert while preparing a graduate paper on this Weimer Period cabaret dancer, Sara decided to adapt her as a performance. (Or maybe, having seen Valeska twice now, I should say that Valeska simply over-powered Sara and insisted on occasionally taking her over as a channel.)

I am avoiding giving you the specifics of Valeska's escapades last night because Valeska is more than a catalogue of outrages. And, without seeing her live and in your face, you might not get the sense of total commitment that convinced anyone in her presence that this is not an act. So let me just give you some generalities: First, Valeska bares her self, literally and physically. Audience interaction is, er, involved. Audience seduction is involved. Audience abuse is involved. Requests for audience members to stimulate and abuse Valeska are involved. Attempts by Valeska to stimulate specific audience members are involved. When Valeska drags an audience member on stage, kicking their chair aside, she doesn't put them in a safe, pre-conceived bubble where the demands on them will be minimal and still basically safe. She makes demands!

Again, I'm not toying with you here. I could give you a specific, graphic, lewd detail, but then you might think that it's the detail that provoked my interest and would capture yours.

No, in fact, some of these details -- Valeska's behavior -- made me squirm. But it was the best kind of squirming. I wasn't squirming because someone was trying to foist weirdness on me as art -- hey, I can be weird too, but that doesn't make me an artist, tho maybe an artiste -- no, I was squirming because this woman scared me. The boundaries were gone. The theater was no longer a safe place. But it was hella stimulating. And ultimately, I'll suspend my safety for an hour to be with an artist who really, truly takes me over the top and into her universe.

And, I should add, Valeska also touched me. She's disturbed and troubled, and it's ultimately this poignant fact with which she captures and breaks your heart, even as she inhibits you with her unbridled sexuality.

Sara/Valeska was just one artist on the program for last night's event, Dancing With a Purpose. But I'm actually going to just list the others -- not because that's all they deserve, but because, to be honest, and with no disrespect intended, they are all performers. Hook was more than a performer last night. She was transformed. And so, for a blessed fearful moment, was I.

Music for "Valeska's Vitriol" was composed by Nick Didkovsky. Oh, and while we're on the subject of music, I do have a bone to pick with another artist on the program. Christine Doemke performed an effective and nicely simple choreography to John Oswald's "Spectre." Only problem is the program neglected to credit the artists who made the recording -- in this case, the Kronos Quartet, basically over-sampled on itself 2000 times. Other performers last night were Kathryn Tufano of David Parker's company, and the companies of Gina Gibney, Jean Vitrano, and Jeanine Durning.

Dancing for a Purpose, a benefit for emerging choreographers produced by Gina Gibney, Robin Staff, and David Parker, repeats Thursday and Friday, with slightly varying programs. Valeska is in the House both nights. Consider yourself warned.

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