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Flash Review 3, 6-2: Making 'Contact'
Stroman's Social Dance

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

(Editor's Note: The following was originally published last September, when Susan Stroman's "Contact" was still in previews, and before The Dance Insider Online launched. Since then, "Contact" has been nominated for a Tony as best musical. As the Tonys take place this weekend, we thought it was an appropriate time to reprint this one. This was originally sent out to our free Dance Insider e-mail list, which now receives the first paragraphs of the day's Flashes. To be added to this list, just e-mail

When people ask me if I'm a dancer, I reply, "Not that anyone would pay to see." What I mean is that I'm not a professional dancer, but I love to dance.

It wasn't always so.

I started dancing in private, to primitively dubbed mix tapes, as a way of exercising.

Then one weekend in 1989, fed up with just complaining that I wasn't meeting any women, I decided to hit a different club every night -- from Thursday to Sunday -- and ask as many women as possible to dance. My friend Dean, who accompanied me on one of these jaunts, dubbed me the kamikaze dancer, because no matter how many times I was hosed, I continued asking, undaunted.

My last stop was the Kennel Club in San Francisco, where DJ/VJ Doug Wendt spun a mix he called world beat.

I didn't meet anyone that first night at the Kennel, but I returned every Sunday after that for the better part of five years.

I did meet some people -- a few dates, but, more important, a group of regulars with whom I danced, usually on the club's stage. And eventually, I was going there primarily to dance.

I didn't find a bride, but I did find my dancing self. (And, along the way, my DJ self!) And, all of those Sundays at the Kennel, I had human, physical contact. This is where I fell in love with the visceral element of dancing -- as participant. The body connection -- to my own body, and to others.' Contact.

Later, initially while watching San Francisco Ballet during what was an emotionally dark time for me, I discovered dance's power to spiritually liberate, to free, to enable dreams.

I thought of all this Friday night at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse theater, while experiencing "Contact," the new dance play by John Weidman, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman.

The play does not officially open until October 7, so I will not review it phrase by phrase here. But I simply could not repress my feelings at finally -- finally -- seeing a dance work that expresses in a concert (let alone off-Broadway!) setting the power of participatory dance. What it feels like for me as a non-professional dancer to dance.

Stroman, Weidman, and their physically and emotionally articulate cast of dancer-actors do this first in the second of the play's three sections. It's set in an Italian restaurant in Queens, circa 1954. A wife who has obviously been physically beaten down by her husband -- "Don't fuckin' move!" he tells her whenever he gets up to refill from the buffet -- escapes him in dream-dance sequences that break out whenever he leaves the dining room. These get more and more elaborate, culminating in a sort of "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" sequence in which the waiters play three-card monte with the husband's gun, maneuvering it among their serving trays.

This second act is the first time I have seen a dance capture what dance does for me and, I suspect, many others, even those who don't dance. Like the wife (Karen Ziemba), we might not be professional dancers, but the extreme motions of the performers -- extreme in joy, and sometimes in pathos -- can evoke the same in us, and help us experience those emotions to the max.

Ms. Stroman and Mr. Weidman also offer something for those of those that do dance, if only in a club setting, in the third and final sequence, also called "Contact." Most of this part takes place at a pool hall where the tables are pushed aside at night and the floor given over to a group of regulars who come to dance. They dance to Charles Trenet and Jack Lawrence's "Beyond the Sea," to Ernest Maresca and Dion DiMucci's "Runaround Sue," to Robert Palmer's "Simply Irresistible" (a tired rock song given new verve here by Stroman and the dancers -- it rocks!), and, penultimately, Benny Goodman's performance of Louis Prima's "Sing Sing Sing."

Even though the performers here are professional dancers, in spirit they remind me of my group of regulars at the Kennel Club -- a certain group identity and ease with each other, and, despite that it was obviously choreographed, a feeling of spontaneity in the musical invention. Of freedom. Of organic expression.

I identified most of all with the principal character, Boyd Gaines's Michael Wiley. At the beginning of this segment, Gaines is the only one who doesn't dance, his discomfort with his body a metaphor of his more existential discomfort with himself. It is only after several failed suicide attempts that he goes to -- or fantasizes that he goes to -- the swing club. And it is only when he faces the imminent loss of The Girl in the Yellow Dress (Deborah Yates) that his heart conquers his body and he starts to, well, jiggle. The regulars emulate him. There's a segment -- reminiscent of the sequence in "Swan Lake" where Siegfried tries to find the Swan Queen through a maze of other swans -- where Michael tries to find The Girl.

He may or may not find her by the end -- I'm not telling! -- but he does find himself. "I was helping someone move out," he tells another character to explain the night's tumultuous events. It is he that has moved out -- out from his tortured soul and angst-riddled mind and into contact: with his body, with his spirit, with himself and with others. He has become -- in the way that any of us can -- a dancer.

Notable dancers in "Contact" include Yates, Stephanie Michels, and Dana Stackpole.

(It should be noted, again, that this cannot be considered an official "review," because the play is in still in previews. I went to see it early for Ms. Stackpole, who, along with her former San Francisco Ballet colleague Eric Hoisington, will grace the cover of the October Dance Insider.)

(Editor's Note, 6-2: For information on that October issue, go to "Contact" has moved to the larger Vivian Beaumont.)

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