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Flash Review 2, 5-5: Blending
Mixing it up with Sean Curran

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

In 1993, the singer Sheila Chandra told me that we were in a new era without musical boundaries. One in which, for instance, she, an Indian-born, London-raised singer, could move across borders and give her voice to recording Irish dirges and English folk songs. A couple of years later, Chandra became fascinated with a musical form, the drone, which can be found in the musics of many cultures, including the Indian and the Irish. The results, her album ABoneCroneDrone, would go on to be exploited as the soundtrack for many a modern dance. But only one choreographer I've seen has really, really probed the music -- going beyond just using Chandra's lush river of a voice for an exotic palette. Sean Curran reprised his 1999 "Symbolic Logic" last night at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church, and also presented some other attempts at blending, some more successful than others.

On first viewing in 1999 at the Joyce, what I noticed most about "Symbolic Logic" was how Curran really got inside the mathematics of the music. Or rather, found a mathematical system, which he expressed as a lot of arm angles and overall group patterns forming within and without a circle painted on stage. Where he went really deep, actually, is a section done to what sounds like a remix of one of the Speaking in Tongues songs from an earlier Chandra album, Weaving My Ancestors Voices. You may have heard this. "Takata Takata Takata ding ding" is one of the repeated phrases, in various permutations. I'm listening to it now and, in fact, Chandra follows it with an Irish dirge, a drone in the background. Ooh, that's cool; she suddenly switches to a more Indian sound.

This time around, I noticed that, in fact, Curran does incorporate traditional Indian dance gestures -- or at least what I from my minimal exposure to these recognize as such. In particular, there's a lot of the sideways movement, with the arms jutting out at right angles, the fingers pressed close together, the bodies tilting on one leg. Then there's that shifting of the head from side to side, particularly by Marisa Demos. An ethnic Indian choreographer friend who's seen this work tells me that to her mind, this is not stereotypical; Curran's done the research and shown 'nuff respect to the source. Last night, it didn't seen overblown. And, Curran and his ten dancers in their execution shifted seamlessly from this movement inna Indian style to a more traditional modern dance vocabulary.

The final section, to Speaking in Tongues, is the kick-ass one. Nine or ten of the dancers are arranged more or less in a circle around the circle, all looking at us stony-faced. (Or should I say, serene-faced!?) The vocalese starts, and more than dancing synchronized with it, they're really responding -- with their arms jutting, occasional bending at the waist, suddenly a jump, all ending with a couple of dancers in the center hoisting Demos, who arches her head and stretches her arm, fingers still clasped together, skyward. I'm not really capturing this, I'm sure. It's quite intricate and complex. When I was making my notes on this one, I was afraid to look down at my pad, lest I miss a single phrase picture. Plus, I almost couldn't look away; it was that mesmerizing. This is probably the most riveting section of a dance I've seen all year, captivating and not puzzling me with its complexity.

It was unfair, really, to follow this dance with "The Nothing That is Not There, and the Nothing that is," a pretty standard old-school modern quartet, set to Leos Janacek. What sticks in the mind most from this one, made in 1998, is a male duet performed by Tony Guglietti and Peter Kalivas, each dressed in pleated slacks and dress shirt. I'm going to betray my own prejudice here in the service of explaining what, at least, this straight reviewer found refreshing about this duet: This is more of a grappling, assessing match between two straight guys than what used to be referred to as a homo-erotic love duet. Oh what the heck, let's reveal even more prejudice at...6:47 in the morning.... Newcomer Guglietti especially, who also performs with Ben Munisteri and Peter Pucci (he was one-half of the hockey love duet in "Pucci Sport"), might be called the Great Straight Hope as far as male dancers go.

....Where was I? Oh yes: The women, in this case Heather Waldon-Arnold and Demos, danced beautifully as well, but overall, it was almost unfair to place this dance after a masterpiece like "Symbolic Logic." This one is more the evening opener, I think, the easy dance you put out there while the audience is still making the transition from their working world to suspending that and opening their minds to receiving the dance. It also doesn't really do full justice to "Symbolic Logic" to present it first; this is a dance that really demands one's full attention and concentration to get the full effect, and take in all the intricate details.

"Six Laments" might at first glance -- or rather, first hearing, as in the original Seamus Egan score -- be dubbed the requisite Irish dance of the evening. But Mr. Curran, he of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane as well as Stomp lineage, doesn't like to be pigeon-holed that way. So he introduces another element: three slat-like portraits by Kieren McGonnell. They're blinds, really. After each visage's story has been told -- this is my take, anyway -- a dancer removes to behind the blinds and twists them so that, gradually, the face fades. An echo remains, only to fully disappear once Philip W. Sandstrom's evocative lights come up more fully.

There are three standout performances here. First of course there's Curran. His solo is jolting; we don't realize until he's spun -- literally -- to the front of the stage that he's been lurking quietly at the way way upstage corner all the time. I'm thinking "trickster" here, because Curran turns with a speed -- more than speed, really, it's like a hurricane -- that seems inconsistent with his girth. I hesitated to use that word, "girth," because he's not "overweight" or anything -- maybe stocky is a better term. But each time, the super-human spinning becomes poignantly human when he suddenly stumbles, falls, and looks behind him for a moment, almost as if he's been struck, not just with the pain and shock of the fall, but an inner, remembered hurt. I'm getting a shiver in my chest as I write this the next morning -- it becomes clear to me, in memory, that this whole solo is mourning a lost loved one: Just as he starts to forget, carried away with the dance, he gets hit from inside, falls, and remembers the blow, the ache.

Curran as choreographer really goes to town with Donna Scro Gentile, who's got to have one of the most poignantly melancholy faces I've ever seen. You've maybe seen her with Murray Louis/Nikolais Dance or with Pucci, but none of these explores her depth of hovering sadness like Curran. When he made this solo on her last summer, Gentile was pregnant, and Curran used that rather than trying to pretend it wasn't there. Indeed, the slat she dances in front of is of a baby. Assuming (from the title) that he was lost, the tragedy is signaled from the beginning of the whole dance, when she stands there holding her stomach, ache on her face and in her haunted, remembering eyes. It's there in the dance, too, when she reaches out for some leg lifts and moves around a little, but never really travels too far from the slat, and always returns to stroking her stomach, remembering.

Demos is the final essential link in this tapestry of mourning, weaving and spinning throughout in short black skirt, until she rests, prostrate, in the end.

Curran could easily make a living as "that Irish guy" with sad wakes of dances like this, or jiggy dances like "Folk Dance for the Future." And, unfortunately, I think to a degree presenters expect at least one Irish dance on a Curran program. I say unfortunately because it's clear to me, from talking to him and watching his dances, that when it comes to choreographing, Curran likes to mindfuck himself. As soon as he adds another success, he doesn't rest on that laurel, but trips himself up.

Last night's risky business was "Approaching a City," a solo receiving its premiere. Actually, it's not totally a solo. Seven mini-mannequins in various poses and dress, arranged by Curran in a manic hurly-burly scramble at the dance's beginning, serve as demonstration models for Curran. Dressed in pin-striped suit, Curran then becomes a sort of Runyanesque tour-guide. "The residents of the city are to a large extent strangers," he tells us at the beginning, going on to rhapsodize "the city" in words by E.B. White, Galway Kinell, and Andy Young. Dance-wise, it starts off winningly, as he does a sort of scat dance-zoot suit dance to a swift "Harlem Nocturne." Things get comic when, after noting that everyone in New York complains their apartment is too small, this very white guy belts out the "Shakey Flat Blues" by J. Pointer.

Curran, er -- let's not mince words -- can't sing, and this is where the final number leaves me flat. Singing "Laughing Matters," he is neither good enough or bad enough (as a singer) to give it punch, making for a flat ending. (To be fair, this WAS a premiere, and the dance and Curran's performance of it could very well evolve.)

After the concert, my choreographer companion and I played that popular game "re-arrange the program," and came up with this order:

The Nothing that is Not there, and the Nothing that is
Approaching a City (Premiere)
Six Laments (1999)
Symbolic Logic

If you'd like to test our theory out -- or, more important, just see some experimental, high-caliber choreography and deep and charming dancing -- Sean Curran Company continues tonight through Sunday, and Thursday through Sunday next week.

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