at MoMing Dance & Arts Center

May 24-27

Some weird but magical things went on at MoMing’s “Choreographers Sampler.” Tongue of Fire, which closed this evening of five works, was more or less unclassifiable: part music, part dance, part performance art. If I had to call it one thing, I’d call it a meta-club act. You could imagine it happening in a bar somewhere, but it’s far more theatrical and organized than the usual Friday-night debauch, and in fact seems to comment–humorously–on that whole scene.

Tongue of Fire also comments on male-female relations–though it might be more accurate to say it literally stages the battle of the sexes. The group responsible for it, Long Bone (formerly Tarantula Moon), is made up of one woman, Shu Shubat, who plays guitar, and three men, Winston Damon, Tony Di Martino, and Olli Seay, who play percussion. They don’t so much play for the audience as at each other, boys against the girl. The texts that they eventually scream back and forth have been printed, for the audience’s enhanced pleasure and comprehension, on big red valentine hearts handed out with the programs. The slogans include: “I’ll be guilty till ya give me the word,” and “What makes me so dangerous since you moved in is I know where you live.”

Shubat comes out first. With her long auburn hair done up, she looks like a country-western singer, her electric guitar strapped around her neck and her song a bitter lament about love. She also parodies some sadly cliched rock-star choreography, hunching her shoulders with the big beats, for example. At one point she tries something fancy, stepping into the space between her shoulder and the guitar–but her arms, legs, the guitar, and its strap get all tangled up. This forces her to play scrunched over for a while, until finally she just falls down; then her playing really goes to hell.

Meanwhile the three guys are setting up their drums, casually walking on- and offstage and periodically crooning in a unison falsetto “yeah, yeah, yeah” at Shubat when she seems most upset. After initially showing some interest in her–while performing a routine as reminiscent of the Three Stooges as it is of Motown–they drop Shubat and turn their attention to her guitar. She picks up a spatula and a big kitchen spoon and slams the floor with them, then starts playing one of the drums, alternately banging and scraping it with her kitchen utensils. You can almost see the big black cast-iron skillet that’s getting all the abuse she’d like to give those men.

One of the pleasures of Tongue of Fire is the way its few props and musical instruments (here the two are interchangeable) resonate. Drumsticks and guitars are both phallic–but Shubat has her own talismanic weapons. She proceeds to teach the men a six-step routine that’s part cooking lesson, part martial-arts demonstration, and part highly organized shouting match. After this the fun really begins, with a big feedback buzz as Shubat chases the men offstage, then shakes her guitar at them.

What comes next is hard to describe. Shubat plays her guitar in the train-wreck style I associate with old Pretenders and screams the valentine lyrics; the guys play their drums but also dance around them, leaping in time to their own beat. There are variations–people go on- and offstage, for instance, the drums’ roar sometimes changes to a snarl, and Shubat’s “singing” becomes completely nonverbal, a kind of crying, laughing, mocking call. But these are subtle modulations, like the variations in energy and focus that sustain interest in an African-dance performance.

It doesn’t seem very sophisticated, but I liked Tongue of Fire partly because it was loud. It put its music in my heart in the same way that drum-and-bugle corps did when I was a kid. Then I liked the way the members of Long Bone transformed themselves. Damon, his face contorted, was an inspired dancer as well as drummer, the kind of person who has perfect rhythm the way other musicians have perfect pitch. Seay and Di Martino look more like accountants than musicians–they’re a little chunky, they wear their hair short, and Seay has glasses–but any initial impression of staidness was dispelled by their powerful, buoyant, funny performances (Seay’s especially). Shubat has an angelic, smooth, rosy face, but as she walked unblinkingly toward us, she seemed so demonic I felt afraid. When the four of them took their bows, they looked completely bewildered. I believe they were still in the state of trance they’d induced.

MoMing’s “Choreographers Samplers” include a discussion afterward between audience and performers, and this one, which lasted nearly as long as the performance, genuinely helped me. One older gentleman in the audience linked Long Bone with Fred Astaire. Though his comment might have seemed off-the-wall, in fact Long Bone provides the same total entertainment, the same elegant economy as this all-sufficient performer.

Also weird and magical was Kathleen Maltese’s Mapping the Canyon After Dark. This dream narrative–you feel there’s a story, but it’s obscure –has five characters: the tricky Coyote (Maltese herself in a long-nosed mask and a man’s suit covered with quills like a cactus), the serene Fiddler (Steve Rosen, a big guy all in black, with his long, strawberry blond hair in a braid), the Woman (Ann Boyd), and two Dogboys (Bill Dietz and Bryan Saner). The Dogboys are big bluffers, and the Woman is anxious and other-directed, though eventually she discovers her own rhythm and grace.

Mapping the Canyon After Dark has some striking movement. There’s the blowing fight between the two Dogboys, for instance, and the friendly/ hostile way each Dogboy hooks a finger in the other’s mouth. Other, more serious gestures are also evocative: the way a hand is raised high, for instance, palm out, and then curled under in some delicate, mysterious signal. Boyd, Dietz, and Saner bring to their dancing a loose, likable ease and freedom. But Mapping the Canyon After Dark is chopped up into too many scenes, as one audience member remarked, that are too brief and too inexplicable. It cries out for fuller development, perhaps to the length of an evening; if it’s going to be this short, it needs fewer, more developed scenes.

The remaining three dances were more ordinary. Anthony Gongora and Melissa Thodos jointly choreographed and performed In Two Time, a duet with some intricate and technically sophisticated partnering. But I find I’m less and less comfortable with modern-dance performance that aims for ballet’s finish, and an unfortunate choice of text forced quantum theory on us while we tried to watch. Lauren F. Helfand’s Strange Weather Reel has an interesting, rather circular structure–there’s a lot of spinning for the five dancers, and the dance itself seems to spin from a slow, coalescing beginning through a frenetic middle to a slow end. But Strange Weather Reel shows little or no emotional development, and the artificiality of certain movements–swinging the arms in slow motion, for example–put me off.

Douglas Wood’s Jackson Park-Howard juxtaposes a woman dancing in a flowing white gown (Emily Stein), a guy reading a newspaper (Wood), slides of the el and of news stories about Noriega, and a recording of Isolde’s “Liebestod” aria from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. There’s a lot to look at–too much–during this self-indulgent exercise, but nothing develops.

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