Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Lucy Guerin Inc. in "Corridor"

I am hooked on Lucy Guerin’s Corridor. It’s a slow burn; with the company at Bryn Mawr College where I curate the Performing Arts Series, I saw the show five times over the course of two days and will be sustained on it for months.

What is it that’s gotten so under my skin? The dancing is the best I can recall in ages. Like a family of singers with distinct voices but whose DNA makes their tones blend beautifully, most of the three men and three women trained at Australia’s Victorian College of the Arts, which reliably turns out great dancers. They are fleet, flexible, brazen movers who are neither blank nor overly emotive. I could watch them forever.

Corridor’s scenes sweep up and down the expanse of an eighty-foot swath of marley flooring, building a tone at once humorous and terrifying. The show emerges stealthily out of the two parallel rows of audience facing each other as seated dancers answer their cell phones and begin milling about and chatting, some shushed by audience members confused by this hazy beginning. What ensues is a slew of variations on responding to inputs and commands, with seemingly less and less ability to fulfill anything completely. At one point the malaise manifests in a “sickness” duet with actions of retching, flinching, and groaning woven rhythmically into a tour-de-force essay on all-too-familiar suffering.

Sections are handsomely crafted, with any piece of the whole having its own ebb and flow, twists and turns. The sickness duet sputters and restarts and ends, surprisingly, as a quintet with all, doggy-style, looking up to Byron Perry as he segues into a new solo. Still, the whole does not easily cohere, and is no easy-read. As the setting shifts completely in the piece’s last quarter to a dark and ominous world of lab coats and lights from a rolling octopus-like structure trained on intimate encounters, the sense of puzzling out the meaning of the overall picture feels adult– complex and not easily contained.

Mirrored panels onstage and moving light boxes shuttled behind the audience let dancing be seen behind layers of shiny, smoky obscuration. As dancers and panels move up and down the long, narrow playing space each audience member has moments of watching at extremely close range, and other times of seeing as though down a very long hallway, observing different elements stacked.

Guerin’s physical language has absorbed everything from the classical to the released to the studied gesture. The dancers can create flow and connection between their movements but astonish most with intricately spliced action: footwork moves to tiny hand gesture, to big flailing fall, to bounding leap. In the case of Perry, whose marathon solo is framed by checking himself out in the mirrors on either end of the space, this quick cutting reaches a virtuosic zenith.
His utterances are halfway mumbled, or shouted, his focus turns on a dime. He is the modern multi-tasker, the one navigating too many inputs, impulses and possibilities. Life marches on around him in the guise of four dancers shuttling back and forth with technique class skips and leaps, now backward, now arcing. Perry hurls himself through space, as though on a continuously shifting precipice, and the quick change dynamics and broken snippets of commentary make him seem slightly mad.

In fact, they all begin to seem half-mad, part of a world gone crazy. Is it their constricted space? The effort and speed of trying to keep up? The continual inputs from MP3 players, being told what to do by the wielder of the microphone or blaring speakers, the subliminal messaging – all that “stim”?

Corridor is unsettling, not least because it ends on an ambiguous note of violence, with the soundscape mounting into a whirling machine-driven storm. Finally it all cuts out; the plug is pulled. In Thomas Great Hall the vast, dark space where we are left reverberates with afterimages of distress, with no easy fix.

I felt surprisingly tender toward these people portraying contemporary malaise, trying their best, coupling elegantly, fervently or manically, sailing through space with fine-tuned precision or shuttling through phrases of rhythmic non-sequitors: pop, you’re here, oops, sliding off there, and wow what about this thing? Movement mirrors mind. Guerin’s got it nailed.

The love of dance is life-long and getting a fix like Corridor comes not so often. I treasure the intelligence, dedication and gifts that make such moments in the theater possible. The poor artist is rich indeed.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Across the Great Divide

I wish I’d eavesdropped more after the A.W.A.R.D. show finale. Passing a parked van with disappointed dancers returning home (not sure which group they were from), I overheard “All they did was….” And then I filled in the blank to form a picture through their eyes of Nichole Canuso’s winning contact duet. “All they did was” roll around, pull and push each other, find lifts and perches, look out with quizzical perplexity. What they didn’t do was power leaps, or turns, or high legs. Or high drama, or unison, or big full out expression to thumping music.

The A.W.A.R.D. show concluded as it began, with audience and dancers divided into camps depending on personal allegiance and dance orientation. I wish I could say it expanded people’s ideas about what dance is and can be. Having been at just two of the four nights, I can’t fully say. But my impression is that once all the butts were in the seats, this captive audience could have used more skillful ways to get thinking outside their respective boxes. On Wednesday, the lady behind me commented on Gabrielle Revlock’s arch and extremely virtuosic hula hoop marathon: “She’s just hula hooping, that’s not dance.” It seems to me that by pitting different styles against each other and not offering dialogue illuminating what’s there to be appreciated, the audience gets left exactly where it started. The choreographers did speak about their individual aims in the preliminaries. But these kinds of descriptions are frequently far removed from what’s actually onstage and don’t necessarily help a watcher know how to “read” a dance.

On TV, talent contests involve judges talking about why what they see is or isn’t strong. And that helps a viewer understand what to look for. Here the judges voted behind closed doors and were all of one stripe – NY “downtown.” Bigwigs, sure. But were they capable of fairly judging “show” dance or contemporary tap?

I was distressed that a process that was supposed to uncover the best young choreographers in Philly ended up with a finale that from a choreographic point of view was exceedingly weak. As a Philadelphia-based dance artist, I was embarrassed that our community should be represented by work that seemed so unworldly – caught in a time warp, and, at its worst, unschooled in effective composition.

Maybe I’m wrong in thinking that I appreciate dance that’s well done, no matter the style. Maybe dance has its inflexible territorial equivalent of red states and blue states, evangelical right versus liberal left. Would it help to agree on substantive criteria that would allow us to “fairly” assess merits across wide gulfs? Potential, Originality, Execution and Merit, the rubric suggested at the A.W.A.R.D. show, seems insufficient. Would rolling up the sleeves to look more deeply just drive audience away? It’s a delicate, ahem, dance. And how much of looking is going to be subjective and alchemical no matter what?

If the aims of the A.W.A.R.D. show are to develop an audience for dance, the most helpful gesture in that direction came from Lois Welk, head of DanceUSA/Philadelphia who offered to pay for the ticket of anyone in the finale audience who goes to see a dance group they haven’t seen before within the next 30 days. Now that’s a tantalizing goad to seeing, and hopefully appreciating, more dance!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Defining Dance: A Letter to the Broad Street Review

To the Editor:
Jim Rutter’s critique of “more.” in the Broad Street Review (“Is it Art- or Just Movement?”) evokes the tired question “Is it dance?”. Whatever Rutter’s response to Headlong Dance Theater’s newest work, I suggest that he and every critic in Philadelphia catch up to what was a groundbreaking revelation in the 1960’s at New York’s Judson Church: Dance can be all-encompassing and does not need to be fashioned of traditionally virtuosic movement. Pieces that forever changed the field include Trisha Brown’s “Man Walking Down the Side of Building” which was, literally, that, or “Roof Piece” in which semaphore-like gestures were passed, as in the game ‘telephone,’ over the rooftops of then-developing Soho. Neither of these might have been recognizable as “dance” in their day, but both have come to be seen unequivocally as dance, and as representing the commendable artistic adventurousness of an era. Must we keep going backward? Critics are responsible for speaking from a context of knowing their field, and their field of today, not that of a half-century back.
Lisa Kraus

Friday, September 11, 2009

Notes on Headlong Dance Theater’s "more."

September 2009 in the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival

Usually on first viewing I form a composite sense of a dance’s elements in the same way that we all perceive movement while watching films - our brains link what are actually still shots. "more." initially defies this kind of synthesis. Its nature is of fracturing and fragmentation. Its six dancers do not interact so much as co-exist, demonstrating, at times for each other, at times for the space itself, their personal movement statement of the moment, then settling back into a generalized passivity – a state of waiting, watching, slightly irritated togetherness. All acts dissipate like waves in an ocean.

"more." is dark, something no other Headlong piece I’ve seen could truly be called. Christina Zani, her left leg in a big brace and often seated in a wheelchair, embodies physical dissolution. At the piece’s emotional center, she enthusiastically marks out for the five others a dance she envisions, but they slip back into their default position, poised on a four-seater turquoise couch in their living room set. Zani’s dance never happens. She is left alone, wheelchair-bound, facing the audience. The subtle play of responses passing over her face is wondrous - I see despondency and the kind of “bucking up” self-talk our society favors. Her story is of the fragility of the body, and isolation, and contrasts with Nichole Canuso’s repeating far-upstage displays of balletic virtuosity. Nice, in a chilling way.

Zani later receives a healing treatment onstage and the space is transformed into a verdant oasis with the addition of leafed-out saplings. Maybe things aren’t so bad after all…

Most of "more."’s movement is spasmodic . Occurring in snippets rather than arcs, movements are nearly all small, repetitive, and gestural, like enlarged tics with interruptions and responses. With an exception or two, no one dances “together” in more. Instead, unisons performed in close proximity or spread apart have the effect of underscoring the movement and calling attention to the space and its composition of seated figures, furniture, and upright dancers. Decisions are formalist and transparent- how do moments arise and transform and cut off? How does a phrase replicate itself at different times in different configurations?

Three of "more."’s players are nearly faceless. Nicole Cousineau in particular recedes, seeming to create a character whose modus operandi is vanishing . At one moment she stands up after having been concealed for some time behind an overstuffed armchair. It resembles a moment of seeing someone who had been previously “invisible,” suggesting a forbearing housewife or mother (“oh, don’t worry about me…”).

Headlong has often seemed less drawn to using movement as a medium for its intrinsic qualities than for its versatility as a vehicle for communicating about other concepts and states. The dancing in "more." sometimes appears like chatter: something to occupy its players, like random statements blurted out into an infinite ether. But "more." delves more deeply into the nature of its movement than any Headlong piece to date, with a movement palette that’s exploratory, thoughtful and of a piece. It unspools in a way that continually reveals the minds of its makers, and the myriad decisions comprising the whole. "more." could benefit from being pushed further structurally to reveal a logic for its myriad short movement bursts that now seem underdeveloped.

"more." is not warm and fuzzy. It’s not cute. But it has a tender regard for some of its characters – Devynn Emory begins and ends the show as an androgynous, human-animal spirit. She is given a whole new environment at the end - perhaps it’s the place of her dreams. This marks a moment of generosity in the piece, and isn’t saccharine, being tempered by the trivialization of a cheering throng.

Dance addresses the ineffable. One of Headlong ’s members said to me after the show that "more." is the first of the group’s dances where what it’s saying can’t be captured in language. I agree. While an unsettling viewing experience, I find it an exhilarating leap in the company’s artistic adventure. And, I wonder whether it might be one of those very few shows that yields its fruits slowly, being puzzling on initial viewing and later coming to mean a great deal, or even representing a turning point in theatrical convention.

[Disclaimer: I have worked closely with several of the performers and directors of "more." and cannot claim impartiality or absence of conflict of interest.]