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Flash Review 1, 4-29: Stuffed
New Stuff at P.S. Bats .500

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

As sensations go, New York and particularly the East Village are tough places to try to get attention. At the table next to us at the Indian place we repaired to for dinner after seeing New Stuff at P.S. 122 last night, a man was talking to a friend about how if his 15-year-old daughter was going to do something so stupid as getting pregnant, damned if he was going to be saddled with raising the baby. And how sure, he'd hit his kids a couple of times, but if they wanted to report him for child abuse, he'd be more than happy to just take off. So, in an environment where riveting reality theater is often to be found for free, dance-theater that isn't striking is going to find it hard to catch our attention -- even more so when presented on an evening whose very title promises the new.

The newest thing on this program, curated by Kari H., is probably the contribution from Sarah Michelson. Michelson, a fierce mover, has many times made her imprint as a dancer on the P.S. stage, but usually with other companies. So I was curious to see what kind of choreography she'd come up with. And Susan Yung's Flash of her recent program at Dixon Place with Julie Atlas Muz (See Flash Review 1, 4-10: Blister Me) left me prepared for anything.

In its structure and the way it used the stage geography, Michelson's "The New Aut Norm" was actually surprisingly traditional. One figure -- the only man in the cast, Mike Iveson -- spends most of the piece hunched over and squeezed into a square that looks to be made of styrofoam. Another, Tanya Uhlman, sadly regards the shenanigans of Michelson and Adrienne Truscott, which always produce the same reaction in her: She dips her hands in a square bowl, they emerge with some sort of bubbles, she stands, she looks behind her, she falls, and she stays prostrate for a few beats before starting the whole sequence again. Since she's dressed only in panty hoses and panty hose material with nothing underneath, whenever she falls, you can clearly see her sex demarcated. It's so clear, that I can't help but think this means something.

On the other hand, on the other side of the stage, in a repeating motif, we have a 16MM-like nature film of birds, projected on a piece of plywood anchored by stacks of what look like astroturf packages.

The wild element is Michelson-Truscott. "Do you love me?!" Michelson starts it off with, in cockney accent. "I love you," Truscott responds. Their dancing, mostly in partnership, more or less seems to riff on this. There's some teetering on her toes by Michelson that stays in my head. And a penultimate tableau upstage left, next to the plywood, where Truscott is curled between Michelson's legs, and Michelson repeats releasing her, piling her with increasing packages of the astroturf, and then enfolding her again.

Oh, and did I mention that while Michelson and Truscott's lowers are garbed in panty hose-like material like the rest, their tops are plastic shopping bags with the bottoms cut out, and the straps serving as, well, shoulder straps? Add onto this that the one song used is Prince's "Most Beautiful Girl in the World," the bubbleness and for all practical purposes nakedness of Uhlman, and even the dazed presence -- center-stage, peoples -- of Iveson, the only male, and you realize that Michelson is actually doing something pretty sophisticated her. Her mental energy appears as vivid as I'd previously observed of her physical energy.

Tory Vasquez, too, I'd seen before; she's a staple of Elevator Repair Service, the gods in deconstructed, re-collaged, as rip-roaringly funny as it is rip-roaringly dark dance theater. While her "Cuban! Veronica's Story" was easily the most engaging piece of the night, I get the sense that it's a work-in-progress. And I don't mean that in a derogatory way.

A Cuban! extended family--extended even to include the radio d.j., Carlos Velazquez, who sits at the far left of the stage spinning and taking requests, notably from teeny-bopper Veronica -- does a romp that exposes each character's tics, and humorously so. As in the ERS model, the dramedy is intersected with dance segments, to Cuban music and top 40. The choreography, credited to Jared Patton and the company, also shares with ERS dance segments that when it's time to dance, the characters seem not entirely in control of their own regimented movements, but seem a bit bewildered by them. They are reacting to their fate.

What's missing here -- and why I'm guessing "Cuban" is a work in progress -- is a dark edge. Not everything has to have a dark edge, but there's enough here to hint at that - the mother's prohibiting the daughter from going out because she might get knocked up, even while she, the mother, sexes herself up for a night on the town -- that I get the sense more is to come. What I'm saying is I saw enough to know I want to see more. Vasquez gives herself the part of the slightly confused grams -- she's great at playing confused, disturbed, and disoriented characters who might be on their way into or just out of a mental institution -- and rounds the cast out with Alexandra Vazquez as the mom, Lisa Quintella as the school uniform-clad girl Veronica who just wants to have fun, Gregg Bellon as an uncle or brother, and Velazquez.

Vazquez, like Michelson, is operating at a much more sophisticated level than that I saw in the other two pieces on the program. "Awakening," from First Avenue Project, is based on Kate Chopin's book of the same name. In the excerpts we saw -- the complete play is to be performed at P.S. 122 in November -- this tale seemed very obviously and pseudo-mysteriously told. Seen so close, as is the case in this theater, this tale of Victorians interacting in a ghost-fraught seaside locale was hard to buy. An exception was Nicole Alifant as Edna; she was luminous, delicate and deliberate at the same time, well-defined in her dancing of the character, and gave me at least one moment which hit me in the heart. Finding a way to use one of those pillar/columns that are permanent fixtures on the P.S. 122 stage, Alifant stands on one side, almost leaning on it, while a suitor, played by Christopher Logan Healy, stands on the other, smoking. His arm is around the pillar so that his hand is on her side of it. She slowly moves her head towards the arm, and so slightly -- but significantly -- strokes his hand with her chin.

The major boggler in this evening -- as in, what is this piece doing in a program called "NEW" Stuff? -- was unfortunately the piece that began it. I'm guessing the conceit here was that the pairs of flashlights manipulated by, respectively, Mei-Yin Ng and Christina Ottolini, were supposed to themselves be dancers. But, as my companion noted, this was not a dance, but a light show. And I've seen more interesting light shows--and so have you, probably -- in clubs, even ten years ago. In fact, they were probably doing more interesting light shows not far away at Bill Graham's Filmore East, thirty years ago. Plus, this one for me committed the offense of assaulting the audience. The flashlights frequently shone right in our eyes; this coupled with a loud and mostly monotonous beat started my headache and potentially migraine going. And I found a new meaning for indulgent -- when you are so into indulging your vision that you don't consider things like the physical comfort of the audience.

Hmmm... That's a rather negative note to end on, so let's return to Michelson for a moment. I think she's doing something unique here. It's performance art, but her props are carefully, sparely, economically chosen. There's a method to her madness; you never get the sense that she is just trying to throw in every possible weird element. It's like Pina Bausch on a budget. I evoke the great Pina because in both cases, I may not always know what the story is, but I can tell the director has a roadmap; like an Ives symphony, it may be whacked, but it's definitely orchestrated.

New Stuff continues at P.S. 122 through Sunday. For more information, go to www.ps122.org, or click on P.S. 122's ad on our Home page.

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