at the Dance Center of Columbia College

February 27-29

A woman in a lavender gown seems painted on the wall of a rather mundane apartment: facing us but with her head turned in profile she leans impossibly, away from the multipaned window toward an empty picture frame; a rickety table with an iron on it stands in the foreground. In a moment we see that she’s real and that the draped ball gown is actually part of the window curtains. Then one of her arms begins to creep upward in a perfect arc, just skimming the wall, like the hand of a clock. Though the image is utterly contemporary and in some ways foreign, something about the scene recalls Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a late-19th-century American story about the creeping stillness familiar to women trapped by domesticity.

So begins Tilt, the first work on a program at the Dance Center by Nucleodanza, an Argentinean troupe formed in 1974 by Margarita Bali and Susana Tambutti. Tilt is Bali’s work, a solo performed by Ines Sanguinetti, and it is as stylish, as sexy, as elegantly performed, and as deeply angry and despairing as anything I’ve seen in a long, long time.

In our country the sexy is too often cartoonish, parodic–think of Madonna, Mae West, dinner theater. Perhaps that’s a vestige of our Puritan origins. And when we pursue a sexy look or style straightforwardly, without apology, it’s often in a commercial context that debases the whole enterprise–think of Obsession ads. Certainly U.S. choreographers with something to say rarely harness the considerable rhetorical power of sex, rarely consider seizing it from business and using it for revolutionary ends.

Nucleodanza has no such compunction, and the result is art that’s both sexy and deeply political. Sanguinetti in Tilt seduces the audience with no trace of self-consciousness or self-parody: she’s a ravishing presence, with a thin raptor’s face, long legs, long hair. After she unwinds herself from the curtain, we see she’s wearing green tights, black ankle-height boots, and a shiny black and yellow dress slit to the crotch front and back (even the iron is stylish– Italianate and bright red). Nevertheless Sanguinetti doesn’t relate to us but to her environment: she dances a tango, for instance, with the kitchen table, caressing it with her foot, entwining her leg around its leg. The result is funny, seductive, and horrifying: this is what happens to women’s imaginations and sensuality when they’re enshrined in the home.

The style of movement in Tilt is extraordinarily elastic–as it was throughout this concert. Still, the emphasis is on making pictures rather than on creating movement that has its own reason for being. As in fashion photography, it’s as if each moment must be perfect and striking. Often Bali seems to aim for a two-dimensional rather than a sculptural effect (as Tambutti does in a later dance, The Stab): though Tilt never devolves into a series of poses, it proceeds on the basis of a head flipped from one profile to the other, of an arm crooked rather than straight, of legs seen outspread, cycling in profile, or upside down.

Illusion is central in Nucleodanza’s work. In Cadavre Exquis (1989), Bali seems to comment on the sorry state of traditional male-female relations by using a variety of props to distort the human body and a musical collage (arranged by her and Claudio Morgado, with some original music by Morgado) that’s alienating and disruptive. The three women (Mariana Blutrach, Paula de Luque, and Sanguinetti) at first appear in elaborate gowns of silvery plastic and paper; the man (Gustavo Lesgart) is first wrapped in bandages, then dons a suit made of black garbage-bag plastic. He behaves in stereotypically piggy fashion, beckoning the women to him arrogantly; when they all come running to embrace him, he throws them off.

The rest of Cadavre Exquis is designed to undercut any liking you might have for heterosexuality. Two people in gas masks “kiss” to a taped assortment of snorting, snuffling, suctioning noises, and when one of them produces a giant egg, the other appears to suck it dry. A woman in a slinky Harlow-style gown and fluffy platinum Monroe-style wig performs a dance that seems to come entirely from her revolving hips; she’s joined by two others in identical wigs and similar gowns. Eventually we realize what’s wrong with their faces: they’re all wearing nearly transparent masks that subtly distort their features–and then they suck in the lips and make themselves completely grotesque. People enter with extra arms or legs (inventive “body sculptures” by Roberto Parini) with which they caress themselves and seduce others.

I puzzled over the title of the next dance, Tambutti’s Mysteriously, This Won’t Happen (1990), until I saw it. This duet, danced by Blutrach and Lesgart, expresses an ideal vision of the relations between men and women; the title gives the piece an irony and sense of loss it wouldn’t otherwise have.

The dancers are dressed in tight black shorts and black tank tops; the lighting, especially at first, makes their flesh golden, luminous. The dance grants the man and woman the kind of physical equality and emotional parity rarely seen in a “romantic” pas de deux; the result, once again, is very sexy. Blutrach and Lesgart–who are young, slim, strong, elegantly muscled, and about equal in size–remain in almost constant contact, not miming romantic involvement but lifting one another in a way that’s both straightforward and intense, dropping and catching one other with complete trust. When they play at removing their own shirts, they both play; when they pull at each other’s shirts, they both pull: titillation and violence are the prerogatives of man and woman alike. For every time he lifts her, she lifts him–you don’t see the odd “astonishing” lift of a man by a woman.

As Mysteriously, This Won’t Happen goes on it heats up; the symbiotic configurations become more intense and astonishing. She holds him horizontally before her, lets go, and as he seems to float before her she seems to float backward into a deep back bend. He seems to lift her with just a palm to her nape; she does the same to him. Blutrach and Lesgart appear to breeze through this demanding choreography, so easy and smooth they seem part of some sexual perpetual-motion machine.

The final work, Tambutti’s The Stab (1986), featured Sanguinetti in another remarkable solo. Here she plays both man and woman, and sometimes at the same time (the illusions so crucial to Nucleodanza recall the “magic realism” of some Latin American novelists). With its occasional suggestions of military swashbuckling, The Stab also hints at political satire in a way the other works on this program do not.

As the piece opens, what we at first think is a man in a hat turns out to be a sort of scarecrow: merely a hat and coat draped over a chair. A woman emerges from behind it in a bustier, dark glasses, and false nose and mustache; she plucks the red rose from the coat sleeve and puts on the garter it’s attached to, dons the hat, pulls on the baggy pants, which float around her waist supported by suspenders, and knots a scarf around her neck as ascot. This macabre figure, both male and female, then launches into a silent-comedy routine, nerdily pushing up her glasses with a little finger, grunting and groaning, full of manic vitality and confidence until she socks herself in the cheek by accident. Eventually, by reclining in profile with the side away from us holding a fan and wearing a glittery slipper while the side toward us is in a male coat and hat, she seems to become male and female at once and seduces herself, groping the hat-and-coat side with a bare arm while her bare leg waves salaciously in the air.

The Stab offers up the strangest mixture of comic entertainment and grim social commentary. It seems to poke fun at machismo and a possibly related phenomenon, political dictatorship–until the end, when suddenly it’s not so funny anymore. It entertains us with a phantasmagoric male/female performer, but it also genuinely blurs sexual identities: Tambutti sets out to explore roles, not bash men.

As much as I enjoyed this dance, I felt that I was missing some critical cultural allusions. The taped montage, for instance (by Tambutti and Anibal Zorrilla), contains snippets of recordings old and new that may be well known and deeply meaningful to an Argentinean audience but conveyed virtually nothing to me. Of course when you import the works of other cultures, many of the nuances that make them unique may be overlooked. But this import at least is so strong it speaks to us anyway: Nucleodanza offers that rare thing, art that entertains and educates at once.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andres Barragan.