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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
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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