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Flash Review, 8-7: Heroic Banality
White Oak Polishes up Judson for Another Spin

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2000 Susan Yung

PRINCETON, N.J. -- The White Oak Dance Project, under the guidance of Mikhail Baryshnikov, is re-staging selected works from the Judson Church movement and commissioning new ones by some of the original choreographers. The second program of Past Forward, bowing at McCarter Theatre Saturday before a national tour and lit by Jennifer Tipton, contained some prime examples of the scruffy, reductive quality of Judson. It began, as we entered the theater, with Simone Forti's "Scramble" (1970), in which a group of dancers -- White Oak members plus a selection of local people -- traced loops around the stage, folding themselves together like dough being mixed. It had no discernable middle or end but was more like, as the artist describes it, "a steady state activity," implying a long half-life. Next, in an odd-bird segment credited to David Gordon, Jim Lewis, and David Forni, Baryshnikov narrated an illustrated history of the project and his involvement in it, including funny thinking-man shots of himself pondering the subject matter, but also valuable historical footage of the movement's inception.

Steve Paxton's "Flat" (1964) seems to be developing into an icon of the movement (I saw it not long ago at Dancespace Project at St. Marks Church, performed by Paxton). The suit-garbed Baryshnikov alternately and frenetically paced in circles and disrobed bit by bit, hanging his garments on hooks adhered to his chest and back. This study of the dissolution of the line between art and daily life feels remote and scanty on a proscenium stage; proximity seems important to the everyman aspect of the character, which is also at odds with the luster of Baryshnikov, despite the fact that he certainly dresses, walks in circles and undresses every day. There is also a sense of urgency to this rendition which battles with the heroic banality of the dance.

"Homemade" (1965) by Trisha Brown, a solo performed by Baryshnikov while wearing a machine that projects recorded footage of him performing the piece, touches on replication (the medium of film; the simultaneous repetition of the dance), the possibility of synchronization of the dance sequences, and biography. This piece, in contrast to the Paxton solo, fits more easily in a big space (it was recently performed at BAM in the capacious Gilman Opera House), as the projected image enlarges the character while it pertains to matters about the medium. It is a seminal work that still feels pertinent, though for the sake of his back's health maybe they could rig up a smaller Misha-cam.

David Gordon contributed two dances which constituted the meat of Saturday's program, demonstrating how relevant the Judson movement can still be when combined with a deft ironic touch and a little humor. "Overture to 'The Matter' " (1979), performed to Leon Minkus's score from the famed "Kingdom of the Shades" scene of "La Bayadere," had Baryshnikov carrying props onto the stage and making a composition of them, while Michael Lomeka alternately pushed a broom upstage, or pretended to push a broom (this segment is credited to Ain Gordon.) Meanwhile, instead of arabesquing ballerinas, we got ordinary people walking across the stage in an endless stream as their faces were projected behind them. The piece as a whole evoked the work of Robert Rauschenberg, who at his best has combined all generae of junk and media in remarkably structured compositions.

"For the love of rehearsal" (2000), also by Gordon, ended the evening and was just reward for sitting through a fairly unphysical -- but intellectually provocative -- program. Danced to Bach solo cello suites (which felt like biting into some exotic ripe fruit after a sparsely scored evening), the work's premise allowed the dancers to break character to discard a piece of clothing or toy with the steps. By incorporating pedestrian (non-dance) moves and blurring the limits of on- and off-stage, Gordon enfolded some of the tenets of the movement while choreographing a wonderful, physical, technically demanding dance to music, showing that pleasure needn't be completely sacrificed to principle. The highlight -- drumroll, please -- was a solo by Baryshnikov, who seemed to savor every elegant phrase, obviously enjoying Gordon's mix of classical vocabulary with less codified movement. How could he, much less we, resist a perfectly paced triple attitude turn? We couldn't; nor could he, and succumbed in complicity.

Yvonne Rainer contributed "Trio A Pressured #3" from 1966. The first duet (Rosalynde LeBlanc and Emmanuele Phuon) seemed to utilize adjacent timing, where the dancers' steps coincided at times but were not precisely alike. In the second part, Lomeka chased Raquel Aedo around the stage; she performed her steps immune to his attention. The third section, to "The Midnight Hour," was buoyant and marked with Rainer's signatures -- a perpendicular bent knee and elbow, palms flat down, gaze forced upward.

Deborah Hay's "Whizz" was far drier but perhaps no more analytical, and seemed to be at odds with a taped video quote of Hay saying her goal was to shock the hell out of people. To a soundtrack called "Clockers" by Alvin Lucier (marked by ticking and industrial sounds) the dancers' faces were projected huge on the well-used screen and performed small individual ticks and moves, then assembled to perform in unison. Emily Coates broke off to perform on her own, goaded on by the others to continue her silent celebratory dance. Four bowed, two kept dancing, and I scratched my head.

Like a vintage auto concourse, through a process of evolutionary selection -- original quality of craft and materials, design, and TLC -- only the finest, best representative, or lucky examples of a time period will survive to be rebuilt, freshly painted and driven gingerly around the track and admired by new, and old, generations of spectators. There may be oddities that provoke head-scratching, but no doubt they sit alongside some cars that remain as gorgeous, fast and desirable today as they were when they were designed. We acknowledge those prototypes of success, as Baryshnikov is recognizing the pioneers of modern dance who broke the trail for what followed. Taking an old car out for a spin, or remounting a seminal dance, can remind us of how far we've come while evincing nostalgia for the good old days and illustrating the roots of it all.

For our review of the first program of Past Forward, see Flash Review 1, 8-4: Misha's Homily: Bored at the Church. For some examples of Robert Rauschenberg's work, visit his page at Mark Harden's Artchive.

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