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Flash Review 3, 5-19: The 58 Group

By Asimina Chremos
Copyright 2000 Asimina Chremos

Seeing "58 Group at HotHouse" Wednesday evening was in general a fun experience of excellent live music and skillful dancing and choreography in a 40's club type of setting. Perhaps unfortunately, a small part of the total evening leaves me musing about one of my favorite topics: sexuality in contemporary performance. I don't think the artists meant this to be a focus of their work, but inadvertently, I think unconsciously, they touched the hot button! In the midst of amiable, technically intricate, inventive jazzy modern group dances to live music, the audience was presented with a startlingly feral, erotic duet for female dancer Lauri Stallings and male vocalist Seth Hitsky. This powerful duet, entitled "Aerie," was such a change of pace, such a shocker compared to the aesthetic of the rest of the show, that it clearly took the audience aback. I heard one woman exclaim afterwards to one of the box office workers "I didn't like that at all! You can strike that from your program." What a response!!!

What sexual responsibilities does Ginger Farley, choreographer of the 58 Group and former member of Hubbard Street Dance, have as she displays the bodies of dancers for the eyes of audience members? How do we as artists acknowledge and deal with the fucked-up sexual mores of our culture while promoting healthy and positive attitudes towards the human body, sex, and gender?

The costumes for the opening sequence of the multi-part, seamless hour of music and dance consisted of flesh-toned panties and see-thru slips for the female dancers, shorts or pants and no shirts for the male dancers. Each dancer wore a tinkling bell, which elicited a dreamy quiet in the room. The dancers improvised stop/start movement, passing along ledges around us drink-sipping men and women at tables. The dancers were inches from our noses. As a (sensitive, I hope) viewer, I was forced to decide how invasive my eyes could be on the bodies of the dancers. I had the opportunity to be very lecherous. But I've never entirely mastered the penetrating, entitled "male gaze."

Tonight, anyway, I was more interested in the dancers' faces and thinking about why so many of them looked out into imaginary distance even though they were so close to the audience and so close to each other. The dancers were so serious in their faces, staring blankly and improvising so earnestly in their bells. Hell, I've done that dancer-face! I know what that is. It's about performing material that leaves you open to being objectified while you are performing art that is supposed to be glorifying your beautiful skill over and above your beautiful ass. It's also about being over-invested in how you look, rather than deepening into the visceral experience of your body dancing. It's about form over feeling.

After the bell-tinkling flesh-toned improvisation which took dancers from the audience area out onto the stage and then away, the band kicked in. Dressed from neck to shoes to wrists in concert blacks (well, Julie Wood, impressive on the big baritone sax showed some arms), the seven member musical ensemble led by Cameron Pffifner busted in to an uptempo groove. What a contrast! The rest of the performance was conventionally tasteful, creative, and delightful. In "Flamingo," the female dancers costumes included charming hats and gloves by Jana Stauffer. This dance was truly like a floorshow in an old-time supper club, a crew of dancing bird-like girls flitting around the bandstand with two unsuccessful, hapless male suitors in the mix. The audience followed the dancers into the large open gallery space of the HotHouse for a wonderful group dance where the musicians joined in posing and moving with the dancers, the dancers sang, and the piece flowed through various playful and serious sections. Farley had a total of 18 bodies to move around the stage, and did so with confidence and effect. I particularly enjoyed a section with what sounded like a rhythm in five, the dancers stepping and moving their hips in syncopated time.

But back to the sex. "Aerie," Stallings rolls onstage in flesh toned panties and bra, covered by the filmiest short little chemise you can imagine. While Hitsky stood against the wall moaning and sighing, Stallings was all legs and ass in the air, at one point shoulders and hips on the floor, knees up and crotch to the audience for a good ten seconds. Stallings is a charismatic, girlishly lean, and delicate performer with lovely technique and idiosyncratic style. Her own carefree generosity about her body is sweet and non-self-conscious. But once again as a viewer I found myself up against my own notions of modesty, honesty, and pornography.

I think a lot of the agitation I feel about the sexuality issue has to do with the overall context and aesthetic of the 58 Group. The dancers are for the most part very technically accomplished in a commercially viable jazz/modern style. The music is fun and as far as I can tell the musicians are great. The choreography is full of detailed steps and patterns, and it is smiley and swirly with pretty lines. Whatever non-narrative relationship plot lines exist do would not offend a straight and narrow audience. In the larger sense, the 58 Group is not doing work that is challenging the status quo notions about modern dance or sex or gender or bodies. What Farley and Pfiffner are doing very well creating is creating a tight live music/contemporary dance collaboration, which is something that should be heartily encouraged. Their work is strong and the music/dance relationship is mature, developed and rich.

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