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Flash Review 2, 9-9: Nappy Neumann, Tibbitts Teeters
Mixed Bill, Mixed Results

By Andrew Simonet
Copyright 2000 Andrew Simonet

PHILADELPHIA -- Allan Tibbitts is a stunning dancer. He effortlessly mixes fierce ballet training with percussive hip-hop and sensuous, inventive gesture. In his solo "Dirty Laundry" (excerpted from "I Think I Ken"), he dances a wistful and witty elegy for a lost love. Making use of both the form and content of Sinead O'Connor's version of "Nothing Compares 2 U," Tibbitts finds a distinctive, vivid movement language. His long, articulate legs scythe through the space as his arms curl smokily through pleading gestural phrases.

But in another solo, "Ready? O.K.!" and in his duet with David Neumann (who shared Thursday's Philly Fringe program with Tibbitts), "Side Effects," Tibbitts relies less on, and trusts less in, the power of his dancing. In "Ready? O.K.!" he is a cheerleader rooting for the unbeatable H.I.V. squad. Predictable cheers ("Give me an H!") and an utterly unconvincing recorded "play-by-play" detract from Tibbitts's winning evocation of an awkwardly sexy, ultimately loveable cheerleader rooting for, and warning us about, the evil and cunning H.I.V. team.

"Side Effects" begins with a crisp barefoot tap duet. Neumann marks through the movements for a big tap solo with a hilarious tension between stealing the spotlight and not doing much at all. Later, Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" propels a staggering solo by Neumann and a momentum-filled duet. But the piece covers so many bases (an emergency broadcast system end-of-the-world message, an overly-winking analysis of the difficulties of watching postmodern dance, a lovely ukelele version of "Endless Love") that it can't find home plate.

Neumann's solo "It's Gonna Rain" is an essential dance, a truly contemporary dance, a signal buoy in the rough seas of the post-postmodern dance world. The music is Steve Reich's "It's Gonna Rain," a manic deconstruction of a single recorded phrase: a preacher proclaiming that "It's gonna rain!" Reich churns the recognizable words into a furiously rhythmic collage of their component sounds. Human utterance transforms, through repetition and rearrangement, into a wall of emotion-laden sound. Neumann does the same thing with his movement.

After criss-crossing the space while we hear the original, unedited words of the preacher, Neumann enters a circle of downward-pointing light where he will remain for the rest of the dance. He is shaking his head furiously so that his face becomes a grotesque Francis Bacon-like blur. The shaking grows larger and faster, then transfers to other parts of his body. Perfectly matched to the shifting, asymmetrical rhythms of the music, he launches into a twitching, popping fury of movement. He is a cartoon, a movie played backwards and too fast, a malfunctioning robot skipping like a scratched CD. Pedestrian gestures, contorted convulsions, and flowing jumps bleed into one another through frenetic repetition, shifting tidally with the music. And suddenly, as the music cuts off, he turns sharply and walks out of the circle of light.

It's a whiz-bang throw-down of a dance, leaving the audience breathless. Neumann has a deep connection to the raw power of movement, and this solo hits me as viscerally as the most spectacular break-dancing, gymnastics, lindy-hopping, or drill team routine. But it also has a potent choreographic intent, using the specific evocations of his movement to create a fearsome character locked in a frantic world. Neumann's skills as a hip-hop dancer, particularly his masterful locking, are in the service of the dance (and not the other way around.) It's gonna rain, Neumann's dancing warns us, and rain hard on our relentless, fragmented world. (Although maybe the rain will bring relief to the compulsive body onstage.) His movement structure is a gem-like analogue of the musical structure. He appropriates movement from everywhere and subjects it to rigorous postmodern parsing. He takes a physical skill from African-American dance -- break-dancing's locking -- and excavates the contemporary emotional/physical energy behind. It is a brilliant synthesis that uses the tools bequeathed by the postmodernists to actually SAY something. The Merce/post-Merce generations fought so many battles to open the movement palette of dance and to investigate rigorous compositional techniques. When I see a dance like "It's Gonna Rain," I know why they fought so hard.

Neumann also performed "Dose," a solo in which his movement mirrors the juiced-up salesman scatting of Tom Waits's "Step Right Up." Neumann enters in a loud polyester shirt, pimpy leather jacket, and a suave street-corner hat. Again in a small circle of light, he is a Bob Fosse heroin addict used car dealer, jazzing his way through seductive hat tricks and funky sidewalk stepping. Using more "character" than in "It's Gonna Rain," he creates a swirling world that includes abstract gesture, sweeping full-bodied movement, and wrenching physical states. They all appear, repeat, and transform in perfect synch with Waits's word salad salesman.

Again movement shape-shifts through ever-changing correspondences with language. Recognizable gestures and characters appear and vanish like subliminal frames in a film. Neumann is a con-man, then he is the rhythm of the con-man's pitch; he is a junkie, then a magician, then a stereo equalizer displaying the pitch levels of the music. The brilliance of the piece is in his rapid-fire embodiment of different takes on the music and his character. He presents not a solitary, final take on who he is and what the dance is, but rather shuffles through takes so quickly and expertly that he reveals the aesthetic machinery (and agreements with the audience) that manufactures the takes. Step right up. Only a dollar. Step right up. Just as Waits turns the sales pitch upside down and inside out until it becomes a thing of nasty beauty, Neumann the showman dismantles the seduction of the performer.

David Neumann performs a new group work at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival tonight at 7 PM and tomorrow at 6:30 PM.


Andrew Simonet is co-director of Headlong Dance Theater, which performs "Ulysses: Sly Uses of a Book by James Joyce," October 19 - 22 at Dance Theater Workshop in New York City.

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