Jackie Radis, Bob Eisen, and Yoshiko Chuma

at MoMing

July 31 and August 1 and 2, 1987

Yoshiko Chuma, New York-based choreographer and performance artist, has said her works have “no meaning.” I don’t know exactly what she means by that, but it’s clear to me that Our Kind of a Town, which grew out of a performance workshop at MoMing and was presented with two other workshop premieres in “Dance Expo ’87,” does indeed have meaning, if not coherence or vision.

Composed for eight dancers, plus Chuma, to a variety of contemporary and classical music, this piece looks jazzy and arch. Less dance than performance art, its 17 “scenes” are rather ostentatiously disconnected (but of course even disjunction imparts meaning). The performers, who sit in the seats usually reserved for the audience while the audience sits onstage, switch rapidly from slow-motion agonies of boredom to ecstatic, wildly exaggerated applause, to individual recitations of performers’ “stories,” which all depart from a single point (“how I got to Chicago”) but quickly diverge as each follows his or her own tangent: “The carpet in our house smelled of dogs,” “My mother had a negative Rh factor.” Scenes alternate from the relatively static to the wildly kinetic.

One of Chuma’s themes is audiences and how they’re manipulated: it can’t be an accident that the real audience confronts Chuma’s “audience,” who are put through some pretty humiliating paces. Sitting in widely scattered seats, they watch with varying degrees of inattention a “screen” above the real audience’s heads while a movie sound track plays. They start eating–a banana, a piece of taffy–and build to a crescendo of chomping as they visually devour the “movie” and the sound track swells to a climax. True boredom sets in, at least for some, represented by slow-motion yawns, writhings, and facial contortions resembling silent screams. Finally whatever they’re watching is over, but it seems no longer a movie or TV program but a live performance requiring some response: all burst into a wild applause that degenerates from standing ovation to uncontrolled leaping in the aisles and from seat to seat. Apparently it’s less a sign of appreciation than of tremendous relief that whatever “it” was, it’s over.

The end of the piece, many scenes later, reiterates audiences’ conditioned responses, but with a twist. Once again all eight performers, now seated in a single row, erupt into violent applause and ecstatic whoops. Suddenly Chuma appears and slices the air in a gesture that silences them all instantly, as if she had turned off a TV set. There’s a slight pause, then she turns to the real audience in the unmistakable, and here probably ironic, supplication of dramatic artists: and we burst into applause.

In Chuma’s vision, the choreographer is godlike: she manipulates dancers and audience alike. And in the one scene in which Chuma herself dances, she jabs the air with some spectacularly quick arm and hand movements that suggest prestidigitation. She’s the magician; we’re the pawns and dupes. (In this context the dancers’ striped outfits, initially merely trendy, seem the uniforms of concentration camp victims, of prisoners, whether of our culture’s manipulations or Chuma’s.)

Chuma makes great use of the boredom and irritation that result from America’s “me first” attitudes: the performers interrupt each other’s life stories or try to surge ahead of the others as they all peer, from the vantage point of a coagulated mass, through “binoculars” at some fascinating object. But what we’re finally given is mere generalized dislike of American culture and a cynical refusal to offer any vision in its place. And when a critical, if imaginative, spirit disowns meaning, the logical product of criticism–satire–becomes impossible, and what we have instead is simple ill temper.

Incomplete Work by Jackie Radis is not ill-tempered or arrogantly aloof but gentle, thoughtful, and (especially in comparison with Chuma’s piece) purposely small. Incomplete Work (the title could refer to the piece itself or to the onstage relationship) seems to pose a riddle: Even when two people dance at once on the same stage and in close proximity, do they ever really dance together? And can they ever really dance separately, no matter how distant they may be from each other?

The piece opens with the two dancers (Radis and Bryan Saner) in a close if asexual embrace. The embrace is broken, but from that point, at least for the first portion of the dance, the two almost never lose contact. This continuous touching seemed to result from or to create not love, but irritation. When Saner attempts to support Radis at one point, he makes a series of minor adjustments (changing his grip, balancing a bit differently, grappling and tottering). They fail, and apparently annoyed, he allows Radis to drop to the floor.

Continual contact doesn’t work, so the two separate. Each seizes a board and a plastic globe the size of a baseball; each plays by rolling the globe back and forth on the board. Each has mapped out a territory and, perhaps too literally, manipulates his or her own “world.” But as they later toss the globes back and forth, they lose track of whose is whose, and eventually even the boards (color-coordinated with one or the other dancer) are confused. Finally the two dancers cross the boards, instantly creating new territories, and use the top one like a teeter-totter, balancing a globe at each end, first close together, then far apart.

The dance elaborates on this structure. In the first half Radis plays with her globe while Saner dances; and in the second he plays and she dances. But in a possibly bitter commentary on the nature of male-female relations, she watches him dance and even accompanies his movements by tossing her globe from hand to hand (the little percussive slaps are in time with the music); he ignores her dance completely, spinning his globe on the floor in isolated self-absorption.

The most exciting dancing occurs when the two boards are crossed, dividing a small area into four quadrants. Seemingly delighting in enforced proximity, Radis and Saner turn this part into a game; they whirl around each other, capturing and relinquishing space, testing the limits of intimacy and violation, grinning wickedly throughout.

Saner’s dancing has improved since his last performance: his obvious strength and ballon were here more controlled. His ropy muscles give him a taut look, like a rubber band ready to shoot off into space; grabbing movements and barrel leaps characterize this performance. Radis, always a relaxed dancer, on this warm evening looked almost wilted. She doesn’t have the typical squared-off alertness of most dancers, but especially in this performance her quiescence gave her an odd stability and earthiness. At the most moving point in the dance, she lifts and briefly supports Saner; the moment is surprising not because it reverses traditional male-female roles but because it embodies what we’ve already perceived subliminally–that the kinetic Saner needs an anchor.

Ollie, We Hardly Knew Ya (from a workshop with Bob Eisen) appeared to comment rather bitterly on the Iran-contra deal and patriotism in general, but the details were obscure. The stage was hung with signs proclaiming “Kiss My Ass Colonel” and “Use Arrid Extra Dry Wide Glide”; a dozen people (in addition to the five dancers) tromped around playing a John Philip Sousa march on kazoos. In this piece, meaning may have been intended, but little was apparent.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Davide Peterle.