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Flash Review 3, 8-28: Portrait of the AIDS Hero as an Artist
Hernando Cortez, Choreographer

By Rosa Mei
Copyright 2000 Rosa Mei

Politics was never the same after Nixon. Dance criticism was never the same after Arlene Croce. Think back to 1994, when Croce's article about Bill T. Jones, "Defending the Indefensible," came out in the New Yorker. Now known as the infamous rant against "victim art," Croce's article claimed that "of course no one goes to see 'Still/Here' for the dancing." In her reactionary diatribe, she became overnight the voice of intolerance in the dance world. Croce, once hailed as one of the great dance writers of our time, along with Edwin Denby, became that grotesque Tonya Harding-type figure, thus catapulting Bill T. to fame and sending herself into minor exile as a dance critic. In the backlash that ensued, other critics compared Croce to Jesse Helms and Stalin, calling her article a "crude act of negation." Go back to the original article, though. Croce, though admittedly patronizing and presumptuous in tone, was neither simple nor stupid in her critical approach. She brought up the issue of how or to what extent critics should adapt their aesthetic standards in reviewing highly political work or work grounded in special movements...

It's damned hard to judge art that's made for a good cause. No one wants to be labeled mean or intolerant. But when reviewing art made for a cause or affiliated with a cause, take for example Cortez and Company and Ailey on Ailey (for the latter, see Flash Review 2, 8-28: Planning Life After Dance), should the critic report, review or simply act as an industry cheerleader? I think that unless someone's blind to the fact that dance is a dying art form struggling desperately to survive amidst dwindling funds and shrinking audiences, it's hard not to be a bit of an industry cheerleader. Then I keep thinking of that Lyle Lovett song that goes "She ain't good, but she's got good intentions." The point is, does it matter if she's good, or is the intention good enough?

The Cortez and Company concert in Bryant Park Friday evening was not specifically a benefit for the cause of Dancers Responding to AIDS. Hernando Cortez, formerly a Paul Taylor dancer, is founding director of DRA, having received both a Dance Magazine award and a New York Dance and Performance Award for his work with DRA. However, Cortez's admirable work with DRA is so well known in the dance community (and rightly so) that it has almost overshadowed his work as a choreographer for his own troupe, Cortez and Company Contemporary/Ballet. That said, how's the work?

Friday night's concert showcased a mixed bill of works from the past few years, some dark, some celebratory. "She referred to the evening as if it were a person," the first piece of the evening, featured the dancers in red lingerie prancing about to a percussive piano score punctuated by bird calls. Cortez's dancers are for the most part sturdy mesomorphs, muscular yet well-sprung like good gymnasts. The Taylor influence resonates strongly within his work -- the lush movement, clear lines, weighted runs, the slightly quirky gestures and partnering work. In 'She referred...,' however, all these neat elements somehow failed to converge into a cohesive whole. There was the hint of something dark and feral, but the overall effect was that of a dance drill squad working out a routine.

The two solos, "Dark Wood" and "A Moment More," confronted issues of mourning and loss. In "Dark Wood," Cortez, a taut performer with stage presence to burn, appears a bit ill at ease with lyrical movement. What seems like an attempt at soulful, elegiac dancing comes across more as angst a la Fosse. "A Moment More," danced by Michael Trusnovec, shows a much broader emotional range. Trusnovec is himself a gracious, enchanting mover with catlike aplomb; he's able to sigh with his torso in an understated, yet compassionate interpretation of lost love.

The final piece of the evening, "Planet Soup," is a festive romp to a mix of world music ranging from Afro-Celtic to the Baka Forest People. "Planet Soup" is a rapturous piece, filled with radiant energy and intricate footwork -- Irish step dancing to belly dancing and everything in between. Djassi Camara Johnson is a real standout here, displaying the grace of a gazelle and innate musicality that radiates from her pelvis. At times, the evenly spaced unison work and well-patterned stomping make the piece feel a bit like an Olympic pre-show spectacle. The company dances, though, with such verve and communal spirit, that you almost forget tackier elements. Glitter's good in the right context. Cortez's choreography actually seems to work best in celebratory mode. The dark pieces seem somewhat overwrought in comparison. It's as if he's still searching for a way to articulate pain and suffering, without seeming trite or heavy-handed.

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