Bob Eisen and Jackie Radis, Jan Bartoszek and Patricia Pelletier

at MoMing

June 12-14, 1987

Collaboration — laboring together — might also be the word for what couples do. And in artistic collaboration, as in collaborations of love, the more equal the partners, the better the chance the resulting work, dance or marriage, will succeed.

In “Making Collaborations,” part of a continuing series at MoMing on making dances, Bob Eisen and Jackie Radis performed, then discussed, their successful collaborative duet, Silent Partners (originally presented at MoMing in March). This odd but likable piece, in which the dancers cyclically engage and separate, is danced entirely without accompaniment — no music, no sound track of any kind. So, in MoMing’s close quarters, the dancers in effect accompany themselves — their breathing and the sounds of their feet are the music for the dance. (At one point, Radis repeatedly shoves Eisen in the chest so hard his breath is forcibly expelled in a loud, weird wheeze.) The resulting intimacy, between the two dancers and between the audience and the dancers, is awkward — like being pressed too close to a stranger on the el — but entirely appropriate.

Eisen and Radis said in the discussion afterward that the dance grew out of a very simple desire to make a duet, but a duet to which no theories about male and female should be brought. Instead two dancers, who happened to be male and female, would cloister themselves in a studio for four hours a week, improvise, then link recurring movements coherently. (The program note says the piece was “structured,” not choreographed.) What Eisen and Radis discovered, as they improvised, was that they persisted in moving in ways that were emotionally uncomfortable — Eisen, for example, felt compelled to run continuously, and Radis to stop him — by jumping on him. That part, among others, they made sure to leave in.

The result, to me, was not so much a meditation on male and female as a portrait of a friendly conflict. True, Eisen was louder and often more active than Radis (early in the dance, he runs around the periphery of the floor, stamping heavily at each corner, while she, at the center, makes quiet, fluid movements from a stationary position), but the similarities in their behavior were more noticeable, and the differences seemed personal, not sexual. Each aggressively irritates the other; both make gestures of reconciliation.

Their often childish movements (a pushing match, a competitive imitation) were enhanced by the costuming: loose-fitting tops and bottoms of T-shirt material in primary colors. Both wore bright-red pants. The structure, too, reminded me of young children playing, coming together for periods of intense interaction (often hostile), then exploding or drifting apart, each apparently ignoring (but always keeping an eye on) the other. It was this childishness that gave the piece its humor and lightness.

At the same time, the dancers’ ages and occasionally sexual gestures gave it gravity. Neither Radis nor Eisen is young, and indeed that was part of the plan. Radis’s smooth face, her somewhat loopy concentration, her mature body, and Eisen’s look of a boy grown old work for the dance. Some moments are intensely sexual, as when Eisen grasps Radis’s hip, in the middle of a conflict and as if accidentally: their breathing changes, their bodies pause. One violent conflict ends with both dancers suddenly quiescent, curled up on the floor with their backs to the audience, in the spoon position of comfortably attached couples.

Ultimately we don’t perceive these dancers to be children, but adults acting in a childlike manner. That each has an individual style, which is retained but adapted to the other dancer, also suggests two grown people coming together in an aggressively ordinary way: what they do often doesn’t look like dance at all. Eisen’s quick, quirky movements, especially in the opening segment, seem to grow out of everyday gestures, linked by rapid, smooth transitions; the effect is of a conversation speeded up. Radis often concentrates on moving without moving, the periphery of her body reaching away from its center as she moves slowly and experimentally through a series of balances that suggest an inner exploration. Their styles come together in a way so matter-of-fact that at one point, as they glanced at each other and smiled, I thought the dance was over and the discussion had begun.

Where Silent Partners has the elegance of the elemental, the dance excerpt from Flight Distance was riveting, but in a less satisfactory way.

Flight Distance is an evening-length work first performed at MoMing last November, a collaboration by performance artist Patricia Pelletier and dancer Jan Bartoszek. The story that Pelletier wrote, based on some life-size chess pieces by sculptor Don Seiden, considers the breach in a family of three when the daughter, an only child, attempts to kill herself. The excerpts chosen for “Making Collaborations” show the couple’s ultimate deterioration, first in a performance segment written by Pelletier for two actors, then in a dance for three, parents and child, choreographed by Bartoszek. The dialogue reveals the reasons the couple split as well as their longing for each other. Their relationship is perverse and childish, but in the sense of acting out childhood dramas neurotically, hopelessly.

This perversity is re-created in the dance, but magnified a hundredfold — in part, I think, because the dancers wear masks. And not your ordinary masks, either: these are flat, photographic reproductions of the actors’ faces, slightly larger than life, pasted over black hoods. The dancers, their “real” identities completely obscured, always present frontally to the audience, maintaining as much as possible the eerie illusion.

And not only eerie but positively horrifying, for reasons I’m not sure I understand. For one thing, the concept seems to deify the personal, as if People magazine had entered the realm of mythology. And for another, I kept losing the illusion: when a dancer turned even slightly to the side, his or her “face” disappeared. If a mask caught the light wrong, it turned into a shiny blank oval of reflected light, not a face. And I kept peering at the holes cut in the masks for the dancers’ real eyes, wondering who was behind those black circles. Although Pelletier said in the discussion afterward that the masks were partly intended to create more continuity between the characters in the dialogue and the dance, ironically they had the opposite effect.

The discussion also revealed that the dance had originally been choreographed without masks, and had had to be greatly modified to accommodate them. Unfortunately, the distance the masks created between dancer and character danced was repeated, I think inadvertently, in the choreography: to enhance the illusion, most of the dance occurs far back on the stage, and the dancers are physically distant from the audience.

I would guess that another constraint on Bartoszek, besides the distance and frontal presentation, was that if movements were too violent or continuous, the masks might fall off or be dislodged. As a result, the choreography is somewhat static; the dancers assume positions in one tableau after another, the emphasis on picture rather than movement. The movements they do perform are tortured. The couple writhes across the floor in a pseudosexual embrace, or they torment each other by manipulating each other’s heads, which bob mechanically like the toys you see in the rear windows of cars. The result is, finally, that we seem to observe something nonhuman from a distance, insects swarming in a mysterious ritual.

The dance does add something to the story by suggesting a motive for the daughter’s suicide attempt. In its final phase, as the daughter leaps about her parents, lying on the floor in a distant embrace with their hands clasped, she releases them from, or malignantly destroys, their symbiotic relationship by forcibly unclasping their hands. Again, I felt I was being manipulated, and the effect was eerie but distanced: we are not like these masked creatures acting out their perverse dramas. I think it was not the effect intended.

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