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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 and veneer.

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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