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Flash Review 1, 8-26: Estro Explosion
20 Womyn in Search of a Dramaturg

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

THE HANDY-DANDY INTERNET MAG I JUST GOT FROM EARTHLINK HAS AN ARTICLE WHICH SAYS THAT WRITING E-MAILS IN ALL CAPS LIKE THIS IS THE EQUIVALENT OF SHOUTING, AND THAT YOU SHOULDN'T DO IT BECAUSE IT UPSETS PEOPLE. I'M DOING IT NOW TO GIVE YOU A VISCERAL SENSE OF WHAT IT FELT LIKE LISTENING TO THE DIATRIBE THAT TRIED TO PASS AS PERFORMANCE LAST NIGHT AT THE CHARAS/EL BOHIO BIMBO RIVAS PERFORMANCE SPACE, IN THE ESTRO TRIBE'S "MENSTRUATION, MANIPULATION, MUTILATION; HERSTORY." HEARTFELT,YES. ART, NO, NO no.

Now then: I am not averse to being assaulted in the theater, as long as it's done with artistic integrity, convincing me that the artist has done the work to forge their opinions, their rage, into art. Thus, when Sara Hook, in "Valeska's Vitriol," spat at me, a bit of Sara-slime in my eye was a small price to pay for such a genuinely theatrical experience. (See Flash Review, 4-20: Over the Top.) And the action was totally justified by the character. Sara was truly channeling the '30s German cabaret dancer. Similarly, I'm not averse to politics in art -- whether it be advancing the cause of feminism or any other ism. But what I will always protest is when performer/creators think it is enough to simply preach their gospel to the already converted, without transmuting it into art. That may make it lecture, but please, don't call it art!

Another case in point: D. Chase Angier. Angier's "Lemons for Loveliness" is in some ways a total polemic against the images and standards of beauty women have to live up to. But she coats her bitter pill generously with sugar -- "Lemons" is a total comic romp thus, of course, melting any resistant hearts...and then seeping into them with it's righteous point of view.

When Maura Nguyen Donohue savaged sexual stereotypes of Asian women in her "Lotus Blossom Itch," she wasn't savage about it. In fact, from the beginning of the piece she disarmed anyone who might be resistant -- especially men! A woman greeted audience members by placing leis around their wrists. Then three fun guys took us on a sort of tour of, ahem, "Asian delights." Only after lasciviously joining the tour did we realize how sickening the sexual stereotypes were. And that Nguyen was spoofing such needs and images.

Jane Comfort didn't just get up and rail about the politics that elevated Clarence Thomas, who some might say was a demonstrated sexual harasser, to the Supreme Court. She simply presented a biting dance play in which the roles were reversed -- Thomas and the senators who downplayed the harassment played by women, Anita Hill by a man.

Many of those in last night's performance, I note in the program (and from the friend with whom I attended) are recent graduates of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, with a heavy quotient from the Experimental Theater Wing. This fact shocks me. (And partly accounts for any rage you might detect in this critique.) These talented (as actors and singers) young women and their parents likely shelled out $100,000 a pop for this education. Did they not acquire, were they not given, the means and training to take an earnest political kernel of an idea and make it theatrically pop? Did they not read Bertolt Brecht, who made brilliant, innovative, eccentric theater out of radical ideology? Did they not study the San Francisco Mime Troupe, since the 1960s the pioneering court jesters of activist theater? Not by what I saw last night. Instead, we got a sort of bad group therapy session in which the primal scream was directed at us, as if the audience were entirely construed of the men who misunderstood, abused, or raped them. Or, worse, with people who needed to be told that these things are bad. (With a no-brainer masturbation scene thrown in for easy laughs and titillation.) When, in fact, the audience seemed filled with their friends, boyfriends, and parents. What I saw last night was, at best, a classroom exercise that, forged into real theater, might eventually become something, but in its current form is little more than a staged screed.

Towards the end of the performance, a woman shouts at us: "If you vote for George Bush, and take away my right to choose, you don't stand with me." To which I wanted to respond: If you keep shouting at me, I'm not even going to listen to you.

About this time you may be wondering why we're reviewing this in a dance publication. Well....guess what!? The program describes this piece as, in order, "A synthesis of dance, music, performance art, ritual, poetry, paint, propaganda, and girl power!!!" Propaganda? Yes. Girl power? Sure. Dance? No. Moving people around on stage while they flail their arms does not make it dance. In fact, calling this 100% unreflected invective any form of art is an insult to artists -- like Hook, Donohue, Angier and others -- who do the work to deliver their politics in real, genuine, crafted, worked-at dance. Even those art world agit-propsters the Gorilla (Guerilla?) Girls take the time to apply real artistic craft to their campaigns to get the art world to stop ignoring women artists. Message to the Estro Grrrls: If you want to give a lecture or hold a therapy session, than call it that. But don't call it dance, music, performance art, ritual, poetry, or even paint.

"Menstruation" was created by the performers, the Estro Tribe. The director is Kimberlea A. Kressal who, in a program note, states: "Why the fuck do we need yet another play about 'women's issues'? Listen, you're about to find out.'" Well, I listened, and am left with one question. To put it in Ms. Kressal's own terms: "What the fuck gives you the right to call this a play?"

P.S. I am thinking back now to something called "Cave Theory," which, like "Menstruation..." is being presented in the Fringe NYC Festival. This sounds like an intriguing piece in which writer/director/performer Keiko Yamamoto has tried to express a heady Platonic philosophy in art. I was all psyched to see this piece last Saturday when a kindly crew member came out and announced that a strobe light would be utilized. Being subject to migraines, which can be triggered by strobes, I excused myself. Now I find myself feeling more open to this piece. A strobe light, honestly used, at least, as part of an attempt to create art, seems far less assaultive than a lecture masquerading as art. In fact, I think I will take my chances with the strobe tonight. Yamamoto's show gives its final Fringe performance tonight at 6:15 PM, in the Carol Watson Theater of the Charas/El Bohio, 605 E. 9th Street.

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