at MoMing

July 17-19, 1987

The second program of MoMing’s “Dance for $1.98,” an annual showcase for new dance pieces, provided some true thrills. I left the theater in a rare state of exhilaration, thanks mostly to Inside Out, by Barbara Magee, and Garden in Darkness, by Anne Kuite. These two works were carefully staged, innovative, and had some breathtaking imagery.

Magee’s Inside Out defies convenient classification. The dance was a romp, a free-for-all, a children’s game, or perhaps an unrealized dream. The piece began with two young girls tying themselves into a playful knot, then standing, shaking hands, and saying, “They’re in a dream, and they don’t know it.” From that point forward, the only firm directive for the three adults and two children performing seemed to be, “Make up the rules as you go along.”

And perhaps this child’s dictum is fundamentally what Inside Out was all about. Through flurries of rapid-fire, hyperextended body movements, contrasted with moments of dreamlike stillness, Inside Out constantly cajoled the audience into guessing what “rule” prevailed onstage from moment to moment. Audience members laughed aloud when rules suddenly changed and performers unexpectedly ventured into seemingly forbidden territory. For instance, near the end of the piece, the two children, who had spent most of their time mimicking the adults, were suddenly flung into the air by them, as if they had been marionettes. At another point, two adults stood back to back, joined hands, and then leaned apart, creating a human “V” in which a sleeping child slowly lolled.

Inside Out explored the rules of movement: how adults move, how children move, and how children and adults move together. A child onstage is of course potent, and Magee allowed these children to be children, not affected miniprofessionals. They did their version of the adults’ dance, setting their own standards for precision and grace. And not only were the children raised to the level of accomplished adult dancers, but in a most touching way, the adults were raised to the level of children.

Magee’s strength as a choreographer rests in her ability to orchestrate frantic energy. Her stage pictures were precisely drawn, often relying on five people doing five different yet complementary movements. Inside Out proceeded at a breakneck pace, constantly evolving and re-forming, yet remaining clear in tone and style. All of the dancers seemed in perfect control, perhaps because their gestures–holding hands, shuffling feet, reaching upward–invited a personal interpretation. The dancers seemed to imply rather than state what they were doing, and thus they could simultaneously perform the same movement with slight variations and still appear perfectly synchronized.

Stylistically, Garden in Darkness is the antithesis of Inside Out. Inside Out was thrilling in its rush of images, always riding the joyful moment just before the exhale. Garden in Darkness, on the other hand, presented the excitement of stasis, of anticipation.

It began in darkness, as a puff of smoke entered from offstage, and I prepared myself for self-conscious dramatics and forced spookiness. But then–nothing happened. In a most effective use of stillness, we all sat for perhaps 30 seconds, watching the cloud before us slowly creep across the stage. Without lights or music or even dance, Kuite deftly established an image of suspension, an image that pulled the rest of the dance along with it.

Garden in Darkness was replete with sustained tones, from the live flute playing languidly in the balcony to Kuite herself, who, dressed in a skin-colored unitard adorned with intermittent tattoos, elegantly and seductively swam along the floor. With its static imagery, and with the light shining through a series of blinds stage right, the dance created the sensation that the dancer was suspended underwater, just as the cloud slowly moving across the stage had been suspended in air.

As the piece continued, a most amazing thing happened. The cloud, which had slowly made its way across the stage, suddenly turned the corner, paused for a moment as if looking back at the dancer, and then gradually dispersed. Whether intended or not, the cloud half-wrapped around the dancer, protecting her and at the same time threatening her, gave the piece a supernatural quality: the human dancer was not the controlling intelligence. One might criticize Kuite for allowing a bit of dry ice to upstage her, but it’s a sign of the maturity of Kuite’s work that she gave herself a mere supporting role. The dance seemed to ask, Is a human being the only thing that can dance? The soft, almost-imperceptible movement of a cloud of smoke proved to be as graceful and intriguing.

What seemed most evocative about Kuite’s dance was her nearness to the floor: she crouched and stalked as the cloud of smoke hovered just above her head. In this sense, the dance was overwhelmingly tactile, highlighting the dancer’s contact with the ground. Instead of a neutral, “poetic” space in which a dancer might perform lyrically, gracefully leaping and turning, the frame was concrete and sensual. I was constantly aware that a dancer is a physical body, not a wispy goddess.

Ripening, by Elizabeth Wohl, continued in this tactile mode. It opened with Wohl sliding across the rubber floor on her back, oddly twisting from side to side as if emerging from a cocoon. Then the music began–“I Hear You Calling Me,” a standard Irish-tenor ballad a la Nelson Eddie recorded by John McCormack in 1927–and Wohl proceeded to mime waking up, drinking water, and generally bringing each of her five senses to life.

The second movement of the dance, in which Wohl ran about, collecting invisible wildflowers and sowing seeds, was accompanied by “Rickover’s Dream,” a free-form guitar piece by Michael Hedges. Wohl, dressed in a bright orange frock, reminded me of a Day-Glo Wyeth, a fluorescent earth mother. The dance at first seemed simpleminded–moving from constraint to liberation, from the stilted love song to the folksy guitar playing–until the third movement, when the original ballad returned and Wohl continued with the same child-in-the-woods movements. Here Wohl seemed to be pointing up the sheer nostalgia of her dance, making it clear that the romanticism of Windham Hill is potentially just as soupy as the romanticism of the Irish tenor. Because of this slight self-mockery, I was more willing to accept the dancer-in-touch-with-the-earth character. It’s cheeseball, but a part of me wouldn’t mind spending the day picking wildflowers.

The innocence of Ripening carried over into the next dance, The One You’re Born Next To by Krista Willberg. In one of the wittiest sequences I’ve seen at a dance concert, The One You’re Born Next To began with two dancers who were too lazy to dance. They rolled all over each other, sitting back to back and rubbing heads like two comfort-crazed cats. Then they began to try out ingenious ways of acting as pillows for each other. One of the dancers lay on her stomach on the floor with her feet up, and the other dancer used her feet as a backrest. All performed in silence, this quasi-clown routine had some nice touches of naive inventiveness.

But then the piece shifted gears, as the women separated from each other and performed a lot of free-form spinning and leaping. I sensed that “legitimate dancing” was imminent, and the sudden intrusion of Bach’s Suite No. 3 in C Major confirmed my suspicions. The piece lost the charm and simplicity of its opening sequence and became a pretty but uninteresting hop-skip-and-jump. Unlike Inside Out and Garden in Darkness, both of which established initial images and then explored them, The One You’re Born Next To made no use of its early clownishness.

The final piece, an embarrassingly personal and superficial self-analysis entitled The Water Shifted, made the potential schmaltz of Ripening actual. Choreographed by Kris Eric Larsen, The Water Shifted was structured around five key terms, representing an escape from uniformity and collective norms through moral decisions and judgments. I found the rhetorical dimension suffocating, as the narrator of the dance overcame his “loss of individuality” and learned to speak “his own language.” Larsen did have great poise on stage, and at the end performed a beautifully evocative and ambiguous dance. At earlier points, however, the more “meaningful” the dance became, the more I looked at my watch.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Sam Griffith, Jan Ceravolo.