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Flash Review, 5-15: Transformation
Hunkering Down with Sean at the Church

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

When I go to a dance concert, it's work. It can certainly be fun, it can impress me, it can make me laugh, it can even move me, but always in the back of my mind I'm thinking, How will I explain this to you? I'm always taking notes, to make sure I can remember at least a couple of details to demonstrate my points. Mind you, I'm not at all complaining; hey, nice work if you can get it! Just saying that, as much as I love dance, I don't receive it quite the same way a normal audient does. Namely, because I'm not just receiving it, but am aware I'll have to respond in some organized fashion. Sort of a folly, in a way, because when you think of it, dance's non-verbal appeal is not always something that can even be responded to verbally. As dance itself is visceral, so often is one's response; you know it's affected you, but you can't always articulate just how. This is not accidental. Choreographers are not always working in a linear, regurgitable way; if they could, they'd make speeches instead of dances! And dancers, too, are not so much interpreting an intellectual idea with their minds as a purely kinetic idea with their bodies. Even where a choreographer has a narrative in mind, choreographers and dancers have often told me, he/she doesn't want the dancers to think about it because he/she knows in simply dancing it, that narrative will get across.

After seeing and Flashing Sean Curran's program at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church when it opened May 4 (See Flash Review 2, 5-5: Blending), I had the feeling there was more left for me to experience from these dances. And perhaps that I couldn't fully experience when I was pre-occupied with having to explain. So I checked the show out again Saturday night, intending to do so purely for my own personal nourishment. But, of course, even tho I left pen and paper at home, I've returned with some new observations, critical and personal, worth recording I think because even in my mostly glowing previous Flash, I underestimated the impact of this artist.

Let's start with the fact that, even viewed again just a week later -- and for the fourth time overall -- there remained more to be seen in "Symbolic Logic," which opened the program. I've already commented at length on that Curran has gone where no other choreographer working with the Sheila Chandra music has gone before -- namely that, far from just using the music by the ethnic Indian Chandra as exotic background, he has really probed its structure and then deconstructed it mathematically. The new things I noticed this time around include that the dancers all have their eyes shut at the beginning; and that the final taka-taka section is actually divided, musically and dance-ically, into three sections. Also that there's a point about two thirds of the way in where the dancers, lead by Marisa Demos, start smiling, puckishly. But most of all -- merely in being able to find new things AGAIN in this dance -- it occurred to me that it affects me like Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" in that I can re-read and re-read it, and always find something new. In other words, it's a masterpiece, Curran's "Agon" (Balanchine) or "Day Two" (Pilobolus).

Another reason I wanted to officially, in Flash form, revisit this program is that on second viewing, I realized I was unfair to and underestimated the quartet which followed this piece, "The Nothing That is Not There, and the Nothing that is," by calling it "a pretty standard old-school modern quartet." I think it's just that this piece to Janacek is a different sort of dance from "Symbolic Logic" that left me unprepared for its smaller-scale gems. If "Symbolic Logic" makes it impact on a grand scale with larger patterns, the revelations here are more nuanced, having to do more with relationships between individuals than spatial relationships. And they are complex relationships. The two men, danced again Saturday by Tony Guglietti and Peter Kalivas, have some sort of a father-son or brother-brother thing going on. The women have some sort of relationship to them, but it's not necessarily romantic. There's some sort of hinted-at rapport, indicated by subtle glances, and I liked the mystery here. I also liked that everything is under-played. Too often in a dramatic dance we are asked to believe, from the get, that the dancer is experiencing some kind of intense emotion -- conflict, hurt -- and I don't buy it. Here the dancers are not necessarily showing us everything; there's some room for us to fill in the blanks. Amy Brous in this cast added to the overall subtlety and depth.

Demos was fine again in the quartet and overall I'm a great fan, but I'm not so sure about casting her as the sort of central woman in black (she concludes the piece by sort of dying) in "Six Laments." Demos's physical strength is her clarity of line, her emotional strength her vivacity. In 'Laments,' I don't get the same sense of deep sorrow, suffering, and even tragedy I do from, say, Donna Scro Gentile as a woman who has lost a child. My guess is that the challenge here is just one of maturity; Demos probably does not yet have the life experience from which to draw a real memory of sorrow and loss -- at least not that she is able to project. I trust she'll grow into the role.

It was about now, during this dance, which opened the second act, that something extraordinary started to happen to the audience. During the intermission, we'd discovered that it was storming outside; we were all hunkered down in the church. (And not just any church; this one holds the bones of many a city-founding Stuyvesant on its grounds.)

New Yorkers are rather wary folk; we are so crunched into this tiny island, we guard our individual space carefully. I rarely get the feeling that an audience has bonded with itself. But I started to get that during "Six Laments." There was a feeling of being around a campfire with strangers; the isolation of the setting made us discard the boundaries. And Sean and dancers were telling stories around that campfire, creating a whole 'nother world for us. I noticed the people on the cushions in the front three rows getting comfortable, stretching on the floor or resting their heads on the laps of neighbors.

By the time the final piece, Curran's new solo "Approaching a City," started, Curran had us transfixed. From the moment he appeared in a sort of pre-amble, rushing around to cartoonish hurly-burly music arranging his seven-mini mannequins, we were his, captivated. The thunder from outside, not to mention the lightning that occasionally lit up the stained-glass windows, made it seem like we were truly on a journey, with Curran the magical time-travelling host. "The residents of the city are to a large extent strangers," he told us at the beginning, quoting E.B. White, but by the end of this dance, we weren't. During the dance, I noticed that people weren't clapping at the junctures where one usually would -- after the completion of a dance number or a song. I thought for a moment this was the dreaded dead-audience syndrome. But it wasn't that. You wouldn't clap during a church service, and this was that same experience -- or, at least, what it should be.

The first time I saw a performance in this space, I wondered about the appropriateness of performing in a church -- whether it wasn't sacrilegious. But Saturday's performance had at least one effect that a church service perhaps should have, and that I know a dance experience should have. We left feeling different than when we arrived. I have even dreamed differently in the two days following the performance. Truly a transformation.

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