33 Fainting Spells
at the Dance Center of Columbia College, May 10-12
By Kelly Kleiman
There are some interestingideas in 33 Fainting Spells’ September September, but as New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce once wrote, “I’ve never seen a good dance about an idea.” Dancing is about what’s under the skin or between the legs, not what’s between the ears. If the Seattle troupe’s engagement at the Dance Center of Columbia College had been advertised as performance art, I wouldn’t have been so disappointed, because I wouldn’t have kept expecting them to dance. As it was, though, I felt ripped off: the program lasted 80-some minutes, but only about 15 of them involved actual dancing.
September September’s central idea is that nostalgia is a trap, while paradoxically the piece’s central mode of expression is allusion to things past. In the course of the evening, choreographer-performers Dayna Hanson, Gaelen Hanson, Peggy Piacenza, and John Dixon go through a catalog of 20th-century popular culture: the Charleston, tap, and swing; the strobelike flickering of silent-era films; Rudy Vallee singing through a megaphone; Rudolph Valentino vamping; Chaplin’s mechanized movements in Modern Times; the mirror ball and upthrust arm of Saturday Night Fever; the back arched over the chair seat of Cabaret. But each of these gestures is isolated, the motion constantly interrupted so the dancers can sit at desks, yawn, cast out fishing lines, write on and tear up pieces of paper, and speak or sing or lip-synch into a bouquet of roses.
And there’s lots of speaking, as the dancers compete with or respond to a voice-over. Some of the text is garbled and some is in a foreign language, but the comprehensible parts are so elegiac it’s like being trapped in a parody of Remembrance of Things Past: “The smell of a daisy, the feel of gravel…I saw how you forget things, and that was my cue to save them and keep them brand-new.” There are also numerous physical references to catchphrases, among them “days of wine and roses” and “gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” suggested not only by the microphone-bouquets but by a bacchanal the women attend in rose-studded dresses as awkward as tents. Similarly, a card game in the first scene invites us to notice that they’re not only having a game but sticking the cards on their faces and blowing into them as if they were instruments”playing” cards. This is dance as vanity license platesomething you have to say out loud to understand.
The opening scenes are called “June” and the closing scenes “September,” the point being that we piss away June being nostalgic for nothing, then September comes and we realize there’s nothing to be nostalgic for except the June we wasted. This wistful tone is so clearly established that I suspected the beverage in an onstage pitcher was Country Tyme Lemonade Flavored Drink Mixthe dancers’ looks and moves conveyed precisely the smarmy falsity of those commercials, with their appeal to a mythical past. But this is not a point requiring a whole evening of elaborationMary Hopkin in “Those Were the Days” and Carly Simon in “Anticipation” (“These are the good old days”) managed to get it across in three-minute songs.
More interesting is the piece’s emphasis on the phenomenon of “odd man out.” This idea appears first in the literal sensethere’s one man to three womenbut soon recurs in every possible combination. Nearly every scene involves a threesome and a left-out soloist. Sometimes the soloist is intended to be the center of attention (as in the opening, with all the dancers slumped around when one abruptly begins to sob); sometimes s/he is intended to be neglected and ignored; but in any case there’s as little unity among the four as humanly possible. The theme of exclusion is reiterated at the bacchanal with a bout of musical chairs, though there’s plenty of seating. The message? Perhaps that life is organized unevenly and unfairly, with too many people or too few.
One of many mysterious references to horses leads to a rare episode of dancing: two of the women tap and swing, responding without irony to the music and each other’s movements. But this is the exception. During the rest of the horse sequences the dancers’ faces are contorted with disgust as they go about their business of dancing, slapping themselves on the tush to simulate racing, craning their necks to represent watching a race (allusion: My Fair Lady). They call on the audience to experience the moves as tired cliches. By the last of these scenesduring the bacchanal the man wears a horse’s head (allusions: Equus and A Midsummer Night’s Dream)I wondered whether they too weren’t intended to make a literal point: that this piece is beating a dead horse. Spare me from dance that complains about the limits of the vocabulary. The poor workman blames his tools, evoking satirist Tom Lehrer’s response to people who bemoan their inability to communicate: “If you can’t communicate, the very least you can do is shut up!”
Near the end there’s a serious dance of renunciation, a real “September Song” (allusion: Kurt Weill). But by then it’s too latewe’re worn out by a never-ending bit about writing a letter to one’s future self that’s left the stage strewn with paper. And in case by any mishap we’re touched by genuine emotion, phony leaves fall from the ceiling (allusion: The Fantasticks) to remind us that nothing is real (allusion: “Strawberry Fields Forever”). Then, while two of the performers sit with fishing poles and sing, the other two tap-dance behind them, carrying cardboard sun and clouds (allusion: Brecht, or maybe the inappropriate props carried by the chorus in “Springtime for Hitler”).
This is the kind of dance people have in mind when they say, “I don’t know what it means.” Confronted with a series of movements lacking emotion or any capacity to engage us, viewers genuinely can’t figure out what they’re doing there. But I would argue that the problem isn’t theirs.
The original score (composed by Kyle Hanson with Dayna Hanson and Sunday Sessions) is a challenging mix of free jazz, Latin, pastiche, and discord. Someone should set a dance to it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Mumford.