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Flash Review 1, 7-26: Where's the Dance?
Jamison Premiere: This Emperor Has No Clothes

By Ben Munisteri
Copyright 2000 Ben Munisteri

I am thinking about Chris Dohse's wise words on dance writing (see Flash Report, 7-25: Millennium Too), which stressed humility and understanding (as opposed to judging). I am replete with humility at the task of writing about the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. But last night's big premiere at the State Theater, Judith Jamison's "Double Exposure," has left me feeling disappointed, alienated from the rest of the audience, and just a tad disgusted at what I perceive to be an Emperor's New Clothes syndrome. In short, I couldn't understand it, and, at least as a choreographer, I am about to exercise my judgement.

The concert opened with Ronald K. Brown's "Grace" (1999), which showed off the choreographer's thrilling ability to turn out beautiful, funky, meaty dance phrases. I love what Brown comes up with -- his hybrid of modern and West African dance startling me and my eyes over and over again. I wanted to yell out "WORK!" as the dance began. Brown's innovation gave way to monotony, however (industrious, allegro unisons grooving on uninterrupted for several minutes at a time), and I would have preferred to skip through most of the middle of the piece. The beginning and the ending sections, though, had some truly gorgeous material, full of pathos and invention, which I adored.

Jamison's piece is a big deal. It was commissioned by the Lincoln Center Festival for the New York State Theater, and the program credits have more multi-media collaborators than I could follow (the "Media Concept and Creation" were by Art in Commerce, which is a "cross media company" directed by Robert Ruggieri and Georg Skerbisch with visual design and animation by Eugen Danziger and production coordination by Jason Bodner; the "Electronic Environment Design" was by The Company V, which is another design and media company and is headed by Jay Valgora and Jessica Corr; and additional elements were by Troika Ranch's Mark Coniglio). We end up with an enormous amount of high-tech spectacle and precious little artistic content (Remember the movies "Independence Day" and "Episode One: The Phantom Menace?")

Now -- to be honest -- when the piece began I thought it was pretty exciting. Two monolithic screens stand upstage, and throughout the dance various colors, techno-designs, and close-up camera shots of the onstage dancers are projected onto them. Another projector hangs visibly above the stage; it casts an array of rings, concentric circles, and moving lights across the stage floor. Matthew Rushing -- one of my favorite dancers in the world - stands center stage holding a small camera, which he uses to scan his face. Simultaneously, his expression is projected onto the upstage screens: Matthew in jumbovision. There is something witty about this and also something very revealing and vulnerable. Three women steal and leap onstage. They are costumed in vivid solid colors, which are as arresting as Ruggieri's live electronic and vocal music score. We have a beginning; the stage is set with promise.

But that's it. It becomes clear quickly that there's nothing holding this dance together. The score becomes hokey and bombastic as the lights and digital patterns run through their cues. The most interesting technological device is Rushing's tiny hand-held camera -- infrequently filming the dance for us as it happens and displaying it from a different point of view (his). But even this eventually reveals itself as nothing more than a cool trick. It's almost as if the designers of this dance were trying hard to be post-modernist (maybe they saw Streb do something similar in January 1998?) but have forsaken any true design or poetics. It's as if they forgot to invite the muse to their dance. The result is pretense but no art.

Of course, the real reason the high-tech lights, effects, and music didn't work was because there was no substantive choreography to hang them on. I was really surprised at how Jamison's craft looked haphazard and derivative. Her comp ideas were very weak, and one floor section was embarrassingly awkward -- five dancers lost on a giant stage. There are the obligatory leaps and undulations; poses suggesting tension, betrayal, yearning, and concern; and the overused multiple pirouette (another high-tech trick, really). But what is going on here? A trio of women versus a male duet? The dance wore on and on, more and more imperceptible as I struggled between the vague shapes on the screens, the valiant efforts of the dancers to feign the kinds of meaning and drama the choreography was trying to hide behind, and the histrionic facial expressions of the singers in the pit. When the piece ended the orchestra-seated audience members leapt to their feet. Jamison and her many collaborators ate it up. I was appalled.

I was thankful for Ailey's "Revelations" (1960), which closed the program. It was wonderful (especially Jeffrey Gerodias's stunning solo in "I Wanna Be Ready") and changed my mood completely.


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