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Flash Review 1, 9-8: The Downtown Season Opens
Dancenow: See it Now, See it Often

By Vanessa Paige-Swanson
Copyright 2000 Vanessa Paige-Swanson

A shower of rose petals falls from the sky.... An astronaut poses for pictures.... A frieze of women passes an invisible object back and forth.... A billowing white cloth is both a sail and a shroud.... And a woman dances a private paean to loss as home movies of children flicker, flicker, flicker in the background. Welcome to the Dancenow Downtown festival 2000.

Directors Robin Staff and Tamara Greenfield have done it again. Judging from last night's opening at the Joyce Soho, Colloquium Contemporary Dance Exchange's signature festival will live up to its promise to showcase "the tragically hip, the cool old pros, (and) the as-yet-undiscovered." Towards this goal, Staff and Greenfield have selected more than 150 choreographers/dance companies, presenting them in traditional and alternative venues throughout Soho and the East Village. But the sheer magnitude of the project is less important than the meticulous care and daring artistry with which it was assembled.

Last night's program opener serves as a touchstone for the entire festival. Jeanine Durning's "A Good Man Falls" mixes unpredictable theatricality with choreography that is at once seamless and punishing. Following an angular, disjointed duet, two cocktail-clad women are joined by a friendly astronaut, who disrobes to reveal another elegant woman. Against a backdrop of gushing interviews with old-time Broadway stars, the women dance an elegant, roundabout parody of the public vs. the private self. They at times appear almost as show ponies, following patterns repeated so often as to be robbed of their original meaning. They finish by bowing endlessly as the lights fade.

Oddly enough, this struggle between the public and private self recurs in some of the evening's other works. "Ikuko's Alter Ego," created by Erico Villaneva, includes a dead-on satire of Olympic gymnastics, with dancer after dancer prancing stone-faced on a makeshift balance beam. "I can't dance" the voice on the soundtrack exhorts as the dancers arch, flip and preen, "I can only tumble." This piece is for everyone who has ever wondered "What are those gymnastic girls THINKING?" I won't tell you what Ikuko's alter ego wishes for, though, only that it starts with the letter "T" and rhymes with "bits." As with Durning's "A Good Man Falls, " the duet and group work in Villaneva's dance is less compelling than the solo turns; the material in both works is strong enough to make the extra duets superfluous.

"She's the Rowan Atkinson of modern dance" my companion observed about choreographer Ariane Anthony. Indeed, Anthony's sharp, innocent features and deliberate, loose-jointed movement vocabulary build a quirky, tragic and altogether human persona that is impossible to resist. In "Best Foot Forward," Anthony dances what seems to be a female version of Eliot's "The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock." Dressed as an office worker and confined to a rectangle of light, Anthony seems to relive her life in all of its glory and embarrassment in front of an invisible mirror. Fascinated by her own humanity, she appears to ask if her whole is truly the sum of her parts -- if her actions are germane to her intentions. She finishes in a striking balance on one leg, constantly moving as though soaring above us, finding the divine in the mundane.

Speaking of poetry, Le Minh Tam is a choreographic e.e.cummings, a maker of dances that are so precise, concise, and emotionally evocative that you don't even register how creative they are until they are over. In "Boat Project," he juxtaposes a group of people who are simultaneously victimized by and dependent upon a group of white clad furies who are wielding a long white cloth. Images of suffering and poverty, death and resurrection are brought into sharp relief through movement phrases as menacing and beautiful as the sea.

Sara Joel's "Will (Wake)" is equally haunting. With her incongruous ringlets bobbing away, Ms. Joel uses her articulate, limber body as a conduit for emotional longing, while singing a plaintive version of Red River Valley. She abruptly exits, and we are treated to an authentic home movie of children, which, if the ponchos are any indication, dates from the 1970s. Ms. Joel reappears and dances a heartfelt, subtle solo of longing and loss; she spins as though attempting to turn back time. Her shadow appears as a wraith, a presence in a past that she cannot revisit.

Though the theatrical works are compelling, the curators have wisely included some more movement-based dances to round out the program. Naomi Goldberg's "Fisherlid" is a gorgeous dance for four women who (call your orthopedist now!) never rise above their knees. Goldberg's work fuses ritualistic underpinnings with Duncanesque ecstatic lines. The gestures are lush, and the choreography transitions fluidly between ensemble and solo work, though the piece is a bit too predictable in its relation to the music. "Quintet No. 1," choreographed by Kara Tatelbaum, is another movement-based work, giving a nod to Cunningham, Graham and Balanchine. Reminiscent of college choreography class, the dance is nevertheless shockingly well-rehearsed and flawlessly executed.

"Mergers and Acquisitions," choreographed by Jon Zimmerman, closed the show on a strong note and is perhaps the most memorable and organic piece. Out of nowhere, a shower of rose petals falls on a man in a business suit. He is joined by another man, who stands on his prone body for an excruciatingly long time. Eventually, the lovers rise and gently lift one another as the lights fade. The direct, brutal yet tender choreography reminds us that beauty is found in the oddest places.

In 1997, I attended every single show in the Downtown Dance Festival. Every single show. I was new to NYC and unemployed. (I had an apartment but no job -- have you ever noticed that people move here with one or the other but not both?) Granted, that was a lot of shows, but it was a vast improvement over my usual pastime, which was watching X-Files re-runs and drinking beer out of cans. Regardless of your employment status, I urge you to take advantage of Staff and Greenfield's considerable efforts in curating this wonderful festival. See one, see them all, fall in love a little -- it's September, after all.

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