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Flash Review, 9-12: Phrenic
New Ballet Skews Ballet

By Anne-Marie Mulgrew
Copyright 2000 Anne-Marie Mulgrew

PHILADELPHIA -- Five knockout Pennsylvania Ballet dancers, Christine Cox, Amanda Miller, Kelly Moriarty, Matthew Neenan and Meredith Rainey command the stage at National Warehouse in Phrenic New Ballet's two premieres: "Fly on the Wall, " choreographed by Cox, Miller, Neenan and Rainey; and Risa Steinberg's restaging of Bill Cratty's tour-de-force "Kitchen Table." Directed by Cox, Miller, Neenan and film maker Tobin Rothlein, both works exemplify Phrenic New Ballet's willingness to explore new vocabularies, take risks and pump the envelope.

I felt like a voyeur Sunday watching "Fly On The Wall." The alternative theater space is preset with a TV, chair, Cratty's signature kitchen table, and a blue bench. There's talking in the dark: "Excuse me...I don't understand this... " and other words I cannot decipher. The opening image is Rainey on the chair in front of the TV, Neenan reading the newspaper and Cox lying on the floor.

"Fly On The Wall" is an in-your-face series of solos and duets built on an intimate view of the dancers' private lives, through live performance and eye-popping video by Tobin Rothlein. I recognized pools of material from an earlier concert at the International House in August, such as the opening solo by the striking long-limbed Amanda Miller. Framed by the formality of a black intimate space and with the dancers forming a tableau, Miller's solo served as a wonderful introduction to the 30-minute work. Dressed in black dance bra and trunks, exposing a sleek articulate body, Miller performs an introverted solo. One hand is draped across her forehead, the other holding her breast. I notice Miller's tattooed ankle and abdominals, adding a personal aesthetic to the piece. There's a wonderful moment when Miller does a back to the front ronde de jambe, her leg extending beyond the horizon. The solo ends quietly with dignity as Miller takes off her top, exposing her back as if she's undressing for bed, and a lover.

I wasn't prepared for Rainey's arresting (or should I say arousing) solo of a man watching himself watching TV in pajamas. He sits. He eats. He picks his nose, scratches his private parts and more. All this functional movement is interspersed with a contemporary vocabulary of floor work, double turns in the air, flops into the chair and wacky zoned out facial expressions. As audience, I'm torn: Do I watch the real physical him, the him on TV or the bigger projected image of him on stage right. I question which is more real. Rainey answers by clicking off the remote and ending in darkness.

There's more talk in the darkness, two female voices. I sense fear of being alone. Cox and Neenan's duet begins innocently, the two seated on the blue bench. Neenan is tapping his feet as if bored and restless. Cox flirtatiously rubs her foot on his. What ensues is a touching coming of age duet-- with some fabulous partnering. Cox does a straddle handstand, and is picked up and by Neenan. He carries her like a Chrysler hood ornament. Graphic moments of young lovers playfully experimenting with intimacy ensue.

The final section features Kelly Moriarty revisiting mirror themes and projected images that question our perceptions as to what is real. All in white, Moriarty looks at his own image projected on white fabric held by Miller. There's a wonderful, delicate duet between Miller and Moriarty, based on mutual understanding and support that employs the white fabric. It becomes for me a metaphor - of binding, tying, stretching, and transforming their view of themselves and their relationship. There's a hauntingly poetic moment that sends chills up my spine, when Moriarty, hologram-like, crosses into his own projected image. Later, the image disappears, leaving him at home alone in the bathroom shaving.

Instead of a pause, the narrative continues. Rainey reads a series of words - 'crime,' 'sickness,' etc. What? What will happen? Moriarty continues in an "all out' expressive dance responding to the words. Music for "Fly On The Wall" is by Medeski, Martin & Wood, and William Orbit after Henryk Gorecki, Maurice Ravel and Rufus.

In August, Phrenic New Ballet teased the audience with an excerpt of Bill Cratty's poignant dance theater work "Kitchen Table" to music by Baby Dobbs, leaving many of us hungry for more. Cratty performed with the Limon Company and Anna Sokolow's Players Project, and died a year ago. I asked Cox Why this work? She answered that she danced the part of the wife for American Ballet Repertory Company about eight years ago and loved it. The work has four major characters and would be a perfect point of departure to build a repertory for this new company. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago had the set and costumes. According to Cox, "The lead into it was a calling from God and it took a lot of work."

"Kitchen Table" requires state-of-the-art acting and dancing abilities. Phrenic goes over the top and takes the audience with them. Cox plays the mother; Miller the daughter; Neenan the lover and Rainey the father in Cratty's timeless narrative masterpiece based on a family in the 1950's. The set is a striking kitchen-size see through wooden table (designed by Jack Neveaux) and chairs.

Cox's opening solo is a show stopper. She's cooking, cleaning, daydreaming, talking on the phone with such finesse, totally absorbed in her domestic world only to be interrupted by Rainey's entrance as the stern all-demanding husband returning from work. He reads the paper. Paces back and forth like a hungry lion. He throws the paper onto the floor, to have Cox retrieve it like an obedient dog-wife. There's wonderful marching band music that pushes the action.

With the birth of their child (Miller) the table, now a crib, is the center of their life. It's a thrill to see this drop-dead gorgeous creature in a short red dress dance/play a small child. She rocks, screams with her body, slowly floats as if entering sleep. The young happy couple do a charming spoofy waltz-like dance around the crib. Miller grows into a despondent teenager -- nothing is right. Her parents don't understand her and she's miserable. Family dinner hour is hell. Mom is cooking but no one is talking. Dad eats like an animal devouring its prey. There's a fight. Mean Rainey punishes Miller with a spanking. The audience gasps. Caring mom Cox is freaked out and torn between protecting the daughter or holding onto dad. Neenan the lover enters. There's a scene reminiscent of "The Moor's Pavane" where there's conflict, characters moving close and away, exchanging places and stances and long quiet pauses. It's so delicious to see Phrenic's clarity, characterization, tenacity and focus at close range. These dancers have the audience in the palms of their hands.

The scene culminates with Neenan leaving with the daughter. There are some sublime moments where Miller does a handstand into the table. Her legs land on Neenan's back as he lifts her out of the table and leads her to a new place. Cox and Rainey are so disturbed. We see them lower themselves in slow motion and silence, slumping to the chair, numbed by the departure of their daughter forever.

Lights out. Lights on. The daughter is now cooking, cleaning, becoming the mother. Neenan is seated on the chair where Rainey sat reading the newspaper. Dad Rainey is not around and mom is slumped on the middle chair, her back rounded by years of carrying the family burden. In a compelling tell all moment Miller looks at Cox (who now appears to be 80 years old) with a knowing look that brings tears to my eyes.

"Kitchen Table" worked for me as a powerful piece that crosses time, generations and traditions. See it. It repeats Thursday at 9:30 PM and Saturday at 1:30 PM and 9 PM.

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