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Flash Review 2, 5-31: Whacking with Jennifer
In the End, Muller Leaves Me Feeling Nothing

Video Clip! 1.6 MB

By Ben Munisteri
Copyright 2000 Ben Munisteri

Jennifer Muller's determined blend of Modern and Jazz celebrates its 25-year anniversary this week at The Joyce Theater. Last night's program of Jennifer Muller/The Works ("A") was a long one and featured four premieres and one revival. It is hard for me to reconcile Muller's diametrically opposed sensibilities -- modern art vs. clever entertainment -- especially since I claim to be a fan of both. The concert was at times witty, often virtuosic, sometimes musical; at times monotonous, sometimes hackneyed, occasionally beautiful; and, finally, puzzling. Almost two hours after the concert's end, I must ask "How could something that consciously puts forth so much drama and heart leave me feeling so empty?" I'm not sure of the answer right now (Flash Reviews aren't designed for much reflection), but my disconnected feeling is made more disconcerting by the abundance of program and press packet rhetoric about the company's passion, community, and commitment to "dance that matters." While I genuinely enjoyed the first part of the program, I am heavy-hearted to admit that, by the end, like Morales in "A Chorus Line," I felt nothing.

Which is not to say the program was not altogether without merit (and I'm not just saying that because the Joyce Theater's Martin Wechsler was sitting next to me). The first piece, the new "Beethoven -- Not Four Naught," set to a Beethoven quartet was well-made and musical. Groups of summering and playful folk wove around each other in sharp diagonals and reconnoitered in one long horizontal line upstage. The compositional interplays were fast, funny, and impressive. Muller arranged her 12 dancers with such aplomb and musicality that I was surprised when the piece ended so soon. But "Beethoven"'s unexpected ending is refreshing; the length is perfect. I wish that this piece's terrific qualities -- composition, invention, brevity -- had imbued more of the evening's program.

The next piece was Muller's new "aSOlo," which is a very clever and demanding duet (of sorts) for composer Marty Beller and a single dancer, who will vary throughout the run. Leonardo Smith was very impressive tonight as he put himself through his paces while speaking a difficult and often intense monologue. Beller's homemade percussive accompaniment required the composer to race about and around a large upstage table; in his blue pastel pajamas he is a delight to hear and behold. He drums out a funky beat on the floor, runs to break open a head of lettuce, speed-sweeps the floor, and plays a digital sample of NBC's Olympic theme music. He and Smith are very funny together.

Muller's text concerns the speaker's chronic anxiety as it relates to everyday life. Indeed, the litany of worries -- encompassing credit card debt, frequent flyer miles, the empty refrigerator -- sounds familiar. Smith's comic delivery is very good, his dancing is remarkably clean, and he never runs out of breath (and I'm not saying that just because his father was sitting behind me). But the text's humorous, schticky complaints never developed into anything more, and I wished they had. Yes, at one or two points Smith concludes that in order to fix his problems he must change his entire life -- reminding me of Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo." But where this statement is Rilke's shocking epiphany it isn't much more than a punch line for Muller. (Also, I have to address Muller's statement about "changing from a human being into a human doing." Am I the only one who recognizes that as a line from a Simpsons episode some eight or nine years ago?)

The next piece, "Hymn for Her," puts forth the conceit of an angel (Anton Wilson) who descends from heaven and watches over a tormented woman (Yumiko Yoshikawa). Then they dance a duet, which I believe is meant to convey conflict and pathos. But this device can't survive the monotonous and hackneyed choreography and partnering. Unfortunately, it got very tired very fast.

The following dance, "Winter Pieces" was resurrected from The Works's debut season in 1974, and, wow, did it look that way. The score, by Burt Alacantara, could have been titled "Fun with the Moog Synthesizer." It was very difficult to listen to, and the choreography was infuriatingly opaque and endless. I appreciate it as an early effort in a long, successful career, but why do people have to pay to watch it now? It's awful!

At this point my downward spiral is all but unstoppable. So, I do not have much patience for the final piece, "Spores, Solitude & Summer Humming" (a premiere), which is a group work set to music by Bobby McFerrin. About half-way through the piece three men lift three women across the stage. The side lights are hot and the dancers are glistening. For a moment I see three deities soaring against a crepuscular sky, and it's lovely. The rest of the dance is self-consciously funky or sexy -- like a bad actor trying to convey "sultry," or "hot." The compositional density so evident in "Beethoven" is almost completely absent here. After a while I cannot see anything; dancers walk on stage, do their section, and leave. I would love a diagonal, or a canon, or some other device on which I can focus my eyes. But the dance is interminable and rambling.

A very accomplished dancer once remarked to me that, in his opinion, Jennifer Muller's dancers were mostly concerned with "whacking." He meant that the paramount goal of their kicks was maximum leg height. His implication was that to whack one's leg as high as it will go -- while visually arresting -- is to sacrifice dynamic range, turn-out, pelvic placement, line, expression, and ultimately integrity. I wish Muller's choreography were less about whacks, turns, and what I perceive as simplistic and phony representations of emotion. But obviously, after 25 years, she is clear about her artistic choices. She is making the kind of dances she wants to make, and I can certainly respect that. For info on Muller's Joyce season, go to http://www.joyce.org/muller2k.HTML

Ben Munisteri is a New York-based choreographer and dancer. For more info on Mr. Munisteri and his company, go to http://www.munisteri.com/.

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