at Puszh Studios

May 3

Concert dance is a young art, pulled in different directions by other older arts. Music pulls dance to a strict meter, to steps following the rhythm of the music; theater pulls dance toward characters, plots, and situations. The best Romantic ballets, such as Swan Lake, give equal weight to music and theater, telling a story through dancing that reflects the music precisely. But the old forms have been broken, and much of recent dance explores its individual elements.

The leaders in the movement toward more theatrical dance have been German practitioners of Tanztheater (dance-theater). Started by Pina Bausch of the Wuppertal Dance Theater in West Germany’s industrial Ruhr Valley, Tanztheater creates a theater based on dancers. Although the dancers sometimes speak, their talk is not the polished prose of playwrights but daily speech distorted and re-formed. Its language does not follow conventional conversational patterns but repeats and overlaps like steps in a dance. Tanztheater deals in primal emotions and situations–rape, the failure of community–while maintaining a dispassionate clarity.

The members of Xsight!–Brian Jeffery, Tim O’Slynne, and Mary Ward–acknowledge that their increasingly theatrical dances have been influenced by Tanztheater. “We were already making theatrical dances,” says O’Slynne. “When we were in Europe touring, we saw Tanztheater. It confirmed for us that we were headed in the right direction. You could say it encouraged us to follow our own instincts.” The first dance they created after seeing Tanztheater was the very popular The Pope’s Toe, which attacked the rigidity of the Catholic church, showing priests as thinly veiled homosexuals who oppressed women’s spiritual lives. The Pope’s Toe was fueled by indignation and anger, and occasionally spilled over into needless vulgarity. Its pungent diagnosis of Catholicism’s failings as a conflict between differing sexual directions reflects a recurring Xsight! theme. Its wild, loopy humor kept the anger and the analysis alike in check.

As part of the preparation for a successor to The Pope’s Toe, Xsight! offered a workshop, open to any dancers who wanted to participate. They got 13 people–Bridgett Cooper, Carrie Cullinane, Maria Dicintio, Matt Glavin, Laura Gould, Ruth Klotzer, Jane Nolan, Ann Oglanian, Holly Quinn, Shannon Raglin, Leslie Ross, Jacqui Sapien, and Kathy Smith–ranging from beginners to semiprofessionals. Xsight! asked the dancers such questions as “Why are you a dancer?” then used their answers as the basis for the dance.

The results, with a working title of In the Works, were shown with three Xsight! repertory pieces last weekend as part of Puszh Studios’ 1991 Studio Dance Festival. At first In the Works takes off in many directions, but it settles finally into hilariously on-target character sketches. One section begins with Raglin proclaiming “I am a Modern Dancer. The power, wisdom, and truth lie in my palms” as she makes angular shapes–the worst cliches of 50s modern dance. Glavin says he’s a dancer so he can pick up women. A California dancer says she doesn’t do pointed feet because “they’re not rad, dude.” Cullinane says, “I’m a woman, woman, woman dancer. I’m into the ERA, body hair, the goddess within, and other women, women, women dancers.” She shivers delicately when she talks about men lusting after her body. Finally, Klotzer struts to center stage and says in a Brooklyn accent, “I’m a New York dancer. Need I say more?” The wild variety of characters capitalizes wonderfully on the variety of workshop participants. Xsight! pulled some excellent characterizations from these performers. When dancers are allowed to talk, they can be very funny–they remind me of psychoanalysts, who when they’re finally permitted to drop the blank silence that Freud imposed are often chatty, warm people.

Some sections are send-ups of modern dance cliches. Water imagery has been part of dance since ballerinas first portrayed water nymphs. In one section, O’Slynne comes onstage dressed in a diving suit, complete with fins and a face mask, and sings into his snorkel like a Bill Murray imitation of a bad lounge act. Meanwhile the dancers run between the front of the stage and the back, forming a human wave. Each dancer is singing her own song, creating a cacophony. The wave that the dancers are making gradually grows smaller, until every dancer is lying on the floor in a fetal curl, and the songs drift slowly together. Eventually we realize that the dancers are singing “Row, row, row your boat” in unison. The progression from egotistic chaos to sleepy order has a poetic, distinctly American rhythm.

In the most fully realized section, Klotzer keeps demanding of Sapien: “Kiss me.” Sapien walks away, but Klotzer follows her. When Sapien leaves the stage, Klotzer turns to the rest of the dancers, imploring them to kiss her. In variation after variation, Klotzer begs for kisses. A mob of dancers cluster around her, and then she breaks free. The dancers sit on white chairs, legs spread, as Klotzer jumps from chair to chair, placing her feet between their legs. Feeling the urgency of her need for affection, we are reminded of the origin of promiscuity. Later Klotzer and Sapien are reunited, and after they leave the stage a different dancer turns to the other dancers and says “Kiss me”–and the cycle begins again. Klotzer’s compelling performance and the formal inventiveness of the choreography combine to give a new insight into sexuality.

Xsight!’s handling of the large number of dancers is masterful. It’s a pleasure to see many dancers onstage in individual movement, and to watch duets, trios, and quartets emerge from the mass and melt back into it. A dance employing many dancers with varying levels of skill can easily slide into chaos; Xsight! moves its dancers between chaos and order so well that chaos and order become themes of the dance.

Dance that pushes its theatrical dimensions is starting to address new topics not usually touched by the Western dance tradition. From the failure of the Catholic church in The Pope’s Toe to the origin of promiscuity in In the Works, to the oppression of women in Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater, dance is becoming more political and social. Any American form of Tanztheater will borrow elements from its German cousin, but like Tanztheater it will explore the roots of its own society. Though its humor almost suggests that Xsight! not be taken seriously, in fact the group shows how an American Tanztheater might begin.