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Flash Review, 4-7: The
Heron Straddles 'Water' at P.S. 122
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider
At P.S. 122, which the
Village Voice once coronated "the petri dish of downtown culture,"
it's customary to see performance artists throw everything but the
kitchen sink into the vat. But last night, premiering "The Water,"
Scott Heron started with the kitchen sink, diverted through various
tributaries: dripping from melting ice blocks encasing flower-like
buds; pumped into a glass bowl; filling aluminum tubs. And while
the "everything but" of other elements threatened a couple of times
to dilute this "Water" to the point of distraction, Heron and crew
eventually paddled out of the sandbanks and back into the river,
an ultimately conscious stream-of-consciousness reverie of a river
journey indeed, into which some real and solid dance occasionally
filtered, and in whose depths lurked a story. Oh, and did I mention
the splashy debut of nine-year-old Zane "Don't call me Gray" Frazer,
the first bona fide performance artist of the twenty-first century?
You read it here first.
Now then (he said after
treading water himself for several minutes): I'm in a quandary;
how much to tell you? Compelled or inspired by the presence in the
seat in front of me of the master of blow-by-blow criticism (that's
a compliment), my pen never left paper as I jotted down as much
as I could catch and with my comparatively meager vocabulary capture.
So I could give you a blow-by-blow. Really! But, hmm, that would
spoil the fun and--you haven't seen my handwriting--keep me up all
night trying to decipher what I wrote down just an hour ago. So
let's stick to the details that float to the surface and retain...buoyancy.
(And yes, I'm aware I seem mired in water images and have marooned
you with me. Sorry, but as an unrepentant punster, I don't think
I'm going to be able to fish us out. For those of you tea leaf readers
that look for meaning within meaning, or mean-ness within flippancy,
please trust I'm not making fun of the seriousness of the dance.
We have to start with
the rivulets on Heron's face. Seen first in a prelude of a dance,
Deborah Hay's 1995 "Exit," the unadorned, undisguised lines in Heron's
craggy puss are beautiful to watch. Appearing simply swathed in
pleated grey pants and a black button-down shirt, moving to the
Samuel Barber String Quartet op. 11, Molto adagio that you've heard
before, Heron, on the surface, does little more than slowly make
his way horizontally across the stage(The vertical stuff comes later!),
in front of a white curtain dropping from the back of the theater.
His eyes blink, too--he is serenely stunned. Hearing this music
in this theater--more used to trippy soundscapes--I thought of how
truly expansive it is to see modern choreographers create to classical
music. (Mark Haim's "Goldberg Variations" being another exquisite
example of same.) I don't buy the bromide that the classical ballet
vocabulary is tired and limited--see Mark Dendy, op. cit--but, having
said that, modern choreographers--theoretically, anyway--have a
much wider palette from which to choose, running the gamut from,
well--from pedestrian to ballet. And the, in this context, brave
choice of simplicity--in the choreography, in the dancing--I found
infinitely, quietly moving. Indeed, I myself was serenely stunned,
stunned into serenity.
With the full-evening
"The Water," we were back to performance art soundscape, as well
as, it seemed at first, and more precipitously, performance art
"everything but." There was Heron, but this time in drag, playing
"There's a Hush Tonight, All Over the World" on his Casio, his audience
a woman dressed in a heart costume and a drag (woman as man) cop
with a handlebar mustache and a perpetual scowl stripping and swimming
around a trapeze swing.
But let's back up a tad:
Heron's stage--actually at the actor's right of the stage we see--is
a hot-house/arboretum straight out of Chandler's "The Big Sleep."
It could also be a vodun priestess's parlor in Haiti or New Orleans.
There's the ice sculpture, yes, the fountain and, yes, the four
television sets emitting images and sounds of water. But there's
also a hella lot of plants, on tables, hanging from the ceiling,
watched over by peacock fans, loomed over by a rubber bat, inhabited
by a DD Dorvillier (the performance artist in her own right whose
head pops up under a pot of roses, mid-dance). And under it all
one of those huge "Oriental" rugs you see hanging from shop windows
on lower 5th Avenue.
I cringed at first to
see the Heron and the cop in drag--partly the homophobe, partly
the bad performanceartophobe in me--and winced at the heart's microphoned
patter to the audience, which hit bottom when, seeing the aforementioned
critic in the front row, she shared, "I'm going to get a whole new
career as a dance reviewer." Sophistry? Sophisticated? Pandering?
Regardless, annoying, at least to this humorless and less-accomplished
critic who knows one doesn't just "get a whole new career as a dance
Blessedly, this was the
only real low point in the performance for me. Notwithstanding one
or two moments where Heron's triple-ring circus of visual images
failed to cohere (and the ongoing monologue of the bodiless Dorvillier,
which seemed in its rote performance art non sequitur speechiness
oddly out of synch with this kitchen sink), what we mostly got were
The first of these came
when Heron, having rid himself of drag accoutrements, straddled
a rope a few feet above the stage. What's that band around his nose
for? I asked before realizing, deliciously, that it was miking his
nose, the amplified huffs of which accounted for the sound quake
I was hearing.
Another delicious, and
impeccably timed surprise came when, suddenly, a girl in the front
row started edging her seat forward and onto the stage, as if trying
to get closer to the action, and then became the action, contorting
around the chair, and joined, a few seconds later, by her real-life
mother, Cydney Pullman. Mother and child--Frazer--returned later,
mom in body-tight leotard and daughter in long tutu and black cowboy
boots, and fiddling a violin, emitting Cage-like sounds. She fiddled
a circle around the mom when the mom laid down on a small raised
platform. Then she stomped, delighted as we were to find that she,
too, was amplified on the boots. Eventually they both got down on
keisters, grabbed legs with hands, and skittered backwards under
the curtain and away. When they returned, Frazer was in yet another
costume, this time an over-sized suit. Did I mention the gun? Oh:
the cop hanging from the trapeze in the beginning eventually slid
a .45 from his/her sock, shooting the in-drag Heron and disemwigging
him. Flash forward to near the end, and Frazer in suit, accompanied
by a somewhat relevant story being told by the bodiless Dorvillier,
calmly but determinedly strode over to the gun, grabbed it, fired
in the air, and collapsed. A bit later and she was lifted and rocked
back and forth, blond hair cascading over her neck, by the mom.
I think here's where
I stop giving you general details and, as I try to do in any performance,
hone in on what's most new. With due credit to Heron and music/sound
installer Leslie Ross's conceit, and the rest of the cast, hands
down what was most new here is what Heron did with Frazer. I keep
calling her Frazer instead of the journalistically standard first-name
reference because this nine-year-old performed at the level of and
with the sophistication and attention to nuance of an adult. More
important, she was given tasks at this level. As someone who has
directed kids myself, I get indignant when I see young people used
as little more than props. (As a director and playwright working
with children, some of my best ideas came from them and yes, we're
talking starting at five years old.) So what a joy, what a revelation
of what I've always known is true to see Heron treating his youngest
cast member as an equal, giving her tasks just as if not more complicated
than those he gives the adults. And what a triumph to see Frazer
not just completing these but also--and this is rare, even among
talented kids--with a level not just of prodigious talent, but high
sophistication and serious concentration. (Playing Talthibius in
a high school production of "The Trojan Women," I was once mortified
to look down at the theoretically dead son of Andromache who I was
holding in my arms, having just hurtled him off a cliff, and see
him smiling and waving to an off-stage Helen of Troy.)
Yes, Virginia, there
is more to life as a child dancer than "Nutcracker" and thank God
there are prodigious performance art creators like Heron to provide
you with deep work to match your deep talent.
Credit for the museum-quality
living room/altars goes to Cypress; for the video/costumes/stage
design to Heron. Design consultant was Alessandra Nichols, and David
Herrigel designed the lights.
"The Water" runs through
Sunday. For more information, go to
www.ps122.org; you can also click on the P.S. 122 banner on
our Home Page.
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