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Flash Review 2, 9-22:
Emperors With No Clothes
Clarke Does HC Andersen
By Christine Chen
Copyright 2000 Christine Chen
SAN FRANCISCO -- The
American Conservatory Theater opened its season this month with
the premiere of "Frank Loesser's Hans Christian Andersen" at the
Geary Theater in San Francisco. So why am I reviewing this musical
"play" for The Dance Insider? I asked myself the same question after
I viewed the production last night, but the simple answer is that
Martha Clarke, as director and choreographer of the show, ostensibly
brought her unique movement aesthetic to the work. Clarke was an
early member of Pilobolus Dance Theater and her choreography has
been performed by Nederlans Dans Theater, the Joffrey Ballet, American
Ballet Theatre, and White Oak Dance Project. This project represents
her latest attempt to negotiate the intersection between narrative,
movement, music and theater.
'Hans' was loosely structured
around the life, dreams, hardships and classic tales of Hans Christian
Andersen. Interspersed throughout the play were Frank Loesser's
songs ("Thumbelina," "The Ugly Duckling," "Wonderful Copenhagen,"
"I'm Hans Christian Andersen"), originally written for the 1952
film of the same name. The musical sequences accompanying these
songs were trite at best and laughable at worst in this post-South
Park age of musical theater, staged as they were in such a traditional
and predictable manner.
The opening images were
promising: Women suspended on wires floated, glided, and tumbled
through the air as mermaids adrift in a watery world while John
Glover, the title character, and Rob Besserer, his shadow, plunged
from above in a surreal slow-motion free fall. The underwater ambience
was beautifully rendered by lighting designer Paul Gallo, who consistently
created stunning images throughout the play.
After this "Little Mermaid"
vignette, the play descended into gimmicks and cliches. Long after
the novelty of flying people wore off, Clarke continued to use her
female dancers on the wires as ethereal creatures with little variation.
From forest nymphs to faeries and ice maidens the women flit across
the stage with the same light, airy, wafty quality and tired maneuvers
and "tricks." Glover delivered some stilted monologues and fortune
cookie wisdom ("The only thing that is constant is change," and
"The person who teaches you the best hurt often teaches you the
best lessons"), various characters popped in and out, children sang,
and a dog walked around.
The play generally meandered
confusedly through familiar stories like "The Ugly Duckling" and
"The King's New Clothes" and despite attempts to the contrary, Clarke
missed several opportunities to transcend the play's juvenile content
While I have always been
confused by the differences between dance-theater, physical theater
and any of the other names given to works of this sort, I usually
understand why dancers turn to theater (to use words to express
what cannot be communicated through movement) and why actors turn
to dance (to express physically and viscerally what cannot be said),
but I do not understand what Clarke's intentions were with this
work. Given her dance background, I was surprised by the relative
inactivity and sterility on stage. The movement that was presented
was monotonous and added little to the thematic and emotional content
of the work.
Overall, I had little
reaction: the ending (a reunion/reconciliation between Hans and
his parents/past) was, I believe, suppose to be touching, but I,
like Morales in "A Chorus Line," felt nothing.
"Hans Christian Andersen"
runs at the Geary Theater through October 8.
Christine Chen currently
works in San Francisco with Jo Kreiter's aerial-dance company, Flyaway
Productions. She has an MFA in dance from Ohio State University
and an AB in Sociology from Princeton University.
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