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Flash Review, 5-12: Boy in Babeland
Donohue's Righteous Dance

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

But first, a caveat: This guy did not seem at first like the best choice to Flash Maura Nguyen Donohue's "Righteous Babes," the dance set to Ani DiFranco tunes which opened last night at P.S. 122. Mostly because, hey, I am a guy. But one of our two main New York babe reviewers was performing in the show, the other was unavailable, and we don't yet have the budget to fly Asimina in from Chicago. So it fell to me. I certainly had seen Donohue's work before, and had found it alluring even as I realized it was trying to lure me into an a-luring (or unalluring) message. In other words, to be Frank (as opposed to DiFranc), being a guy I probably came more looking for titillation than affirmation. The one thing I didn't expect, and got, was kick-ass dance and dancing.

I did expect to be engaged, in a subversive way, based on the last piece I saw by Donohue, the 1997 "Lotus Blossom Itch." This piece explored/exploited the western male's over-sexualized ideal of the Asian woman. Even tho the satirical premise -- a tour agency which introduces you to samples of these women -- skewered such perceptions, it also played to them. I felt titillated even as I realized that my reaction was exactly what Donohue was making fun of and was even angry about (so much so that I still have the mini-lei a woman handed out at the beginning of the 1997 piece). Where I felt less than stimulated was the actual dance. It was energetic, but any choreographic blueprint was pretty vague.

So the surprise last night was to see a choreography (the show was conceived and developed by MND/In Mixed Company, with the performers and designers) that not only matched the actual sounds of the DiFranco music, but did so in differing ways. Sometimes Donohue offered an almost literal interpretation, as with Nancy Ellis and Brian Nishii's enactment of "Hello Birmingham," a pretty direct lament over and indictment of abortion clinic bombings and other anti-choice/pro-life violence. He's in hospital greens, she's in the patient's white smock. He seems to be protecting her, and in the end he might be holding up a fetus. In a talkback after the show, Donohue said she added the Nishii video explicitly spelling out the toll and events at clinics because she wanted people to get the meaning of this dance and song and thought otherwise they might not. I'm not so sure I agree here; both dance and song are pretty direct. "Hello Birmingham, it's Buffalo; heard you had some trouble there," DiFranco sings. Too many elements competed for my attention. Song and dance would have been enough.

Where video did work for me was in Donohue's solo (which, interestingly, followed the abortion clinic duet) to "Lipstick/I'm no Heroine." First we hear DiFranco riffing on "Not a Pretty Girl" (the song that opened the program to a video mix of Barbie dolls and come hither/women in teddies scenes), talking about "pretty as a metaphor for passivity and inaction."

The stage reaction begins with scrims on which is projected a fuzzy almost puppet-like visage of a woman, talking. Then those disappear to be replaced, starkly, by a buck-naked Donohue, with the words 'slut' and 'cunt' written on her body. The lighting here is dark enough to cast sharp shadows, but light enough so we can see her intimate features. And then her body becomes beautifully illuminated with the lyrics, which scroll in rippling white light over her torso. When she busts out, the dance seems to owe much to martial arts moves, in the angles of the arms and the kicks.

By this point you may be getting a misimpression, so let's discuss those lyrics and the danced reaction. Heard without music, DiFranco's songs might seem like just so much didactics. (Er, at least to a guy! Most women would probably nod, sigh, and "Right on!") The musical surprise here -- and the one that helps make possible the dance surprise -- is that the music itself is so kick-ass and varietal. "Not a pretty girl" in its listenability is somewhere in-between Sarah McLachlin and Alison Morissette. DiFranco sings with more edge than Sarah, but is not quite so angry-sounding as Morissette. Other songs are buoyant and even Caribbean-sounding, which Donohue and dancers find particular joy in reacting too; and even gothic. Throughout, there's a beat, it's hot, and the choreography and the dancers got that beat.

The use of the men I found intriguing in one number and disturbing in another. The first, "Every State Line," starts with the cast's three men in a prison line-up, with one of the men, Hanson Tse, in drag. Then they belt, "Every state line is a new set of laws -- smile pretty and watch your back." Then Tse, Nishii, and Tom Lee each tells how and where he got stopped and sings his own story. This section rang quite poignant, especially the a capella singing.

Then there was "Letter to a John," which starts with Lee entering as a dog, with leather collar, before Maura or Maeve Donohue (sorry, they're sisters, and they switched off as mistress) grab the leash and steward him. Peggy Cheng takes a phone sex call; then Nishii enters looking for some. There ensues a hilarious/scary seduction/fight scene where the three women basically dance/jiu jitsu the man into submission, stripping him to the buff and then even walking over him. As he lays on the ground, the women debate their preferences in men, as though he and most are meat. Then Tse enters in white button down shirt and tie, and the women make him bend over so they can look at his butt. Then they place a roulette wheel over a strategic spot, which they spin to determine the next song.

Just when I was about to get annoyed at the overbearing sex role reversal, the joy and zest and general equality of roles in the next dance won me over.

In fact, what I loved most about this evening of dance is that, like "Lotus Blossom Itch," even if Donohue's political point comes from a complaint, the overall spirit of choreography and especially dancing is positive, joyous, buoyant, free-spirited and, most of all, a humorous romp. It's probably what saves this work from being a diatribe and even makes it almost a celebration.

Indeed, this morning, as I digest the evening with the further leavening of some very intense and grotesque early morning sexual dreams it provoked (I won't go into details because, as a friend says, there is such a thing as TMI/too much information), I think that Donohue is more celebrating women than condemning men. While men are women-handled in a couple of sections of "Righteous Babes," it's -- well, it's not about us, guys. That is to say, Donohue isn't so much dissing men as championing women. And she teaches me that it is possible to be actively (as opposed to reflectively, reactively, inna Lilith Faire mode) pro-women, without being anti-men.

From a strictly dance point of view, there's no question but that Donohue succeeds in, well, enacting and visualizing the songs. And I don't say that as a put-down. If you're a DiFranco fan, you've got to see this dance, which brings her music to life. "Righteous Babes" continues tonight through Sunday. (And is a perfect Mother's Day date for you and yours!) For more info, go to http://www.ps122.org, or click on the P.S. 122 ad on our Home page.

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