STANDING IN THE WINGS
at the DanceSpace Performance Center
A choreographer once said that making a dance is a lot like cooking. A good dance has to have the right blend of spices: too much oregano, the sauce will be too bitter; too little and it will have no bite. She would probably say that last weekend’s “Standing in the Wings,” a showcase for emerging choreographers, was a rich stew, almost too rich. Its several excellent dances and performance works retained their separate flavors, and the flawed, immature, and just plain bad works added the right accent of bitterness. It was an evening for stumbling away from the table, groaning about how much you’d eaten.
The concert was dominated by Tim Buckley. Buckley is the genuine article: he dances, choreographs, sings, plays accordion, and composes music. Most important for this concert, he always seems to have a cluster of dancers around him and inspires them to create their own works.
In the program Buckley adopts the pseudonym “Willi P. Johnson.” The Willi character comes from Economy, Indiana, and learned how to dance by watching The Lawrence Welk Show. Willi’s dances do look a little like Lawrence Welk’s; most of the movements are stepping patterns, and the dancers seldom go to the floor in any of the “level changes” so prized by modern dancers. The dancers’ bodies are relaxed and fluid; they almost look like they’re tap dancing. But the movements are postmodern staples: such large and vigorous motions as stamping on the floor or jumping in the air, arms reaching up like a four-year-old’s. The dances are just about moving; their structures are musical. With his sharp musical sense, Buckley knows when changes in the movement are needed.
Buckley’s Husker Beat best shows this musical sense. The steps are remarkably simple–often one step per beat. One dancer (Christy Munch) beats out the rhythm with a tambourine and drumstick. The rhythm is varied and driving, providing a perfect motor. The dance’s themes develop, climax, and resolve with almost perfect timing. Stick Dance is a variation on Husker Beat: the dancers (Balinda Craig-Quijada, Julenne Graham, Lauren Helfand, Dawn Herron, Ruth Klotzer, Linda Lenart, Munch, Louie Miller, Julie Schiller, and Heather Sultz) carry broomsticks and beat a rhythm on the floor with them. In the first section, they look like morris dancers in Lawrence Welk clothes. The second section, which starts with a terrifying thump of sticks on the floor, takes on a darker tone; the sticks are used like cattle prods. The section ends suddenly, without resolution; perhaps the work is unfinished.
Munch’s Fulton Avenue is a rather slapstick variant of Buckley’s style. Munch and Sultz walk out wearing lime green tunics trimmed with black pompons over black tights and sneakers. They engage in a tap-dance duel, but because both are in sneakers, it’s just goofy fun. Then the remaining dancers (Anthony Alvarez, Lenart, Suzanne Merkel, Rebecca Rossen) walk out, Gary De Michel starts playing on his trap set, and the dancers begin an energetic dance that looks a lot like Buckley’s. The dance doesn’t have the rhythmic drive of Husker Beat, perhaps because only one rhythm is used; but it is fine dancing for about three minutes. Then the work falls apart into irrelevant material that appears to be partially improvised.
Sheldon B. Smith takes Buckley’s idea–dancers making their own music–in a unique and interesting direction in his Eat Cr O2 (pronounced “eat crow”). The dance starts in total darkness. We hear electronic music and see little red lights, like the LEDs on boom boxes, move across the stage. Suddenly we make the connection–the music is coming from the boom boxes, and we’re “watching” a rather witty sound installation. When the lights come up, we see a single boom box in the middle of the stage, with Helfand circling it as if the boom box were home. The movement, which she danced very well, is simple, clean, and postmodern. Eventually the other dancers (Lenart, Munch, Sultz) enter carrying boom boxes, performing Smith’s energetic movement in an odd but compelling display of virtuosity. The movement tends to occur in bursts, like the bursts of music in Patrick Cohen’s score. The rest of the dance is episodic, building to a series of images. My favorite image was the four dancers kneeling in a semicircle facing a stack of boom boxes; the music’s crackling noise planted in my mind the idea of people staring into a campfire. The final image, of Lenart and Helfand twisting on the floor while Sultz is entwined in recording tape, seems obscure at first. But when Smith later explained the dance’s pun–CrO is chromium dioxide, a compound used to make recording tape–even the last image lit up like daybreak. Smith’s dance is immensely witty and a fine response to Cohen’s music.
Images dominate Daughter, conceived by Royd Climenhaga, Cynthia Haskins, Mark E. Lococo, Francois McGillicuddy, Trish Suchy, and Mark Weston and performed by four of them. They use long passages from J.M. Coetzee’s novel In the Heart of the Country, about a girl whose father remarries even though the girl is still anguished over her mother’s death. The score is a voice reciting Coetzee’s text against the background of a haunting, wordless song; often the voice is recorded two or three times and played back slightly out of synchronization; we can almost catch the words. This creates a dense texture that captures the girl’s tortured feelings. The two characters are a woman in white and another in black; they are illuminated by flashlights held by two men completely outfitted in black–even their faces are covered.
We are caught inside the girl’s mind as she hears the sounds of sex coming from her father’s and stepmother’s bedroom. She is caught between arousal and horror, a combination that eventually tears her to shreds. The two characters take the two sides in her conflict; sometimes the women represent her mother and stepmother, and at other times they seem to represent the sensual and grieving parts of herself. The men masked in black represent her perception of men: distant, black, and terrifying. The performers use poetic images, such as mirrors, to capture her schizophrenia: the white woman and black woman stand on either side of a picture frame, mirroring each other’s movement; the girl wonders who she is–sex or grief, person or reflection, alive or dead.
In the last section of Daughter, “Burial,” the women drag the mother’s body in a black shroud to center stage, then slowly cut it open. Instead of a body inside, they find surgical gloves inflated like balloons. Finally the woman in black holds aloft a glove filled with red liquid–clearly an image of the girl’s heart. The woman in black slowly punctures the heart with scissors and lets the blood run down her arm. This is a rich, stunning work, carefully conceived and executed. I only wish the performers had not glorified what is, after all, the breakdown and suicide of a sensitive girl.
Disturbed women are also an element of Rebecca Rossen and Vicki Walden’s Losing Yourself in the Weight. In its charming beginning, Rossen and Walden walk out standing on tin cans, as if the cans were stilts, holding them on with twine threaded through holes. They try an awkward, funny tap routine, and sway like samba dancers. They’re like children playing. Winding the twine around their bodies they create an image of bondage that strikes a discordant note. Then both dancers begin to move obsessively back and forth across the stage, as Vanessa Grimm (in a voice-over) talks about a perfectionist high school student who turns in 20-page papers when only three pages are assigned, and whose obsessive dieting leads her to bulimia. At the same time both dancers repeat heavily weighted movements, such as Walden’s spiral release to the floor. The section ends with twitching arms. This dance jumped from one topic to another too quickly for me to follow; it did not make sense on a first viewing. The subject seems too big for a short piece. Movement alone would have been enough; in certain moves Rossen’s lanky body caught fire like a struck match.
An untitled dance by Ruth Klotzer relies on movement alone, with fine results. It starts slowly, as the dancers (Stephan Choiniere, Graham, Amanda M. McCann, Annette Queyquep-Pearson, and Mauren Sledge) enter one by one, each dragging a chair. The first man sweeps his hand in to himself in a lovely gesture. From that point the dancing starts, fitfully at first but then fully. Klotzer mixes movement styles, with the long lines of a ballet arabesque followed by a modern dance contraction and release to the floor; later, the dancers beat a rhythm on their thighs with their hands, a postmodern movement straight from a Buckley dance. The dancers performed flawlessly. Klotzer gives each one a different sequence, but they interact with imaginative lifts. Klotzer’s delicately varied movements find a fine resolution in the last one. Each of the five dancers walks forward, lifts an arm to the ceiling, and slowly releases it; each moves at a different time, in a different way, with different emphasis. The variations within the same movement bring the dance to a satisfying close.
Louie Miller’s duet, Mother Tongue, which he performed with Herron, is a smaller, more laconic dance than Klotzer’s but it also works well. Atmospheric music by Dead Can Dance combines the sound of a thin trickle of water with a slow-motion rhythm section. Miller crosses to Herron in a lovely walk in plie roughly like a spider going courting. They travel back across stage with tiny sideways movements of their feet, looking oddly like statues being moved. Herron jumps at Miller, who catches her but finds his face buried in her stomach. In other imaginative movement, Miller and Herron carry water to their mouths in their cupped hands, then suddenly stop and look around. The last image is possibly one of reconciliation: Miller reaches out, offering water to an unseen person, and Herron reaches out, offering water to him.
Winifred Haun’s Trials also offers lovely movement and talented dancers, but somehow it doesn’t work. Haun has chosen a steely Webern score of seemingly random sounds. Three talented dancers in brightly colored unitards (Heather Girvan, Sara McAffee, and Sue Collins) create intriguing sculptures with their bodies. But the dance is only a sequence of shapes–it has almost no movement. Though the shapes themselves are clever variations on Martha Graham’s, they feel shopworn. Haun has created a good piece of modern dance but presented it in what was essentially a postmodern showcase.
Another dance that seemed out of place was Leigh Richey’s solo for Maggie Kast, Queen of Heaven. Both Richey and Kast focus on liturgical dance–dance as a form of worship. Queen of Heaven would have been more at home in a church sanctuary than in this loft space. The soloist tells a story, with movements like drawing a figure in the dust with her finger and holding her hand to her mouth in horror. Perhaps because the setting was not religious, I did not follow the story’s development. Nonetheless Kast looked striking, with her white hair and wearing Caryn Weglarz’s flowing white costume.
The only performance without redeeming value was Jean Howard’s excerpt from Dancing in Your Mother’s Skin. Howard walks out wearing a red miniskirt, black lace stockings, high-heeled boots, and black sweater; her first line is “The sky is fucked up. Stuffed to the gills and fucked up.” Clearly she means to shock us with profanity and sex. But I couldn’t hear what she said because her articulation was poor. The “performance” consisted of striding around the room a few times, sitting in a chair, and twirling a strand of her hair. I can hear better poetry any Sunday night at the Green Mill’s Poetry Slam. After the richness of the other work, of people struggling with real problems, Howard’s “poet with an attitude” stance was truly an obscenity.