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Flash Review, 4-7: The Kitchen Sink
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. Really.)

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 reviewer."

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 riveting images.

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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