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Cruel Country 

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at the Dance Center of Columbia College

November 12-14

We're so inured to violence (or so we think)--to shootings, rapes, the murder of children--that it comes as a shock to encounter a dance group that in its way is more horrifying than any television news program or movie. The Argentinean troupe El Descueve, appearing at the Dance Center as the last of the New World/New Art '92 festival participants, brings violence, treachery, and abuse home, to our everyday emotional lives. The five young members of this collaborative company, all in their early 20s, use nudity, loud, almost assaultive music, and stark lighting--dusty squares falling as if from a window, glaring blankets of light that flood the stage--to create a world whose cruelty seems accidental, impersonal, without motive of any kind.

The two dances on this program bleed together, partly because images carry over from one to the next, partly because their concerns and emotional tones are alike. The first, La fortuna ("The Fortune"), uses physical manipulation to evoke emotional power plays. As the lights come up slowly near the floor, rising like water in a flood, we see two sets of legs standing rather far apart and assume we're looking at two people. Soon we see that the "standing" legs are limp and that they belong to two women, naked from the waist up, being held under the arms by two other shadowy, fully clothed figures. Slowly the women are turned, pushed, pulled, all in slow motion; one has her neck squeezed and drops to the floor, the other is pulled up onto her toes by the neck, then pushed down. When the "men"--one is a woman--step away from their victims, we see that they're both wearing platform shoes several inches high. Somehow this glimpse of reality is more horrifying than any of the illusions that have come before it.

A man and woman enter. He pushes her down softly, but we have a strong sense of her complicity. Standing behind her he begins to move her arms, his fingers laced through hers; her head, face bright and wooden, moves with the jerks of a marionette. After a while I realized I was mesmerized by her and ignoring him; paradoxically the puppet was the one full of life and the puppeteer was a cipher. My sympathy began to shift from her to him, and suddenly I was less sure about who was manipulating whom. When finally the shadowy puppeteer's grip was broken and he stood before her, exposed and vulnerable, while she placed her hands over his eyes, the shift in the balance of power was complete. Later in the dance we find that she's blinded him.

Scene follows scene, image follows image, with complete clarity; in a dreamlike way people retain their characters and carry them into new scenes. There's a strong sense that shit gets passed along to the next guy; the search for power is a constant, but who has it and why changes continually. Though this work is not overtly political, it's no accident that it comes from a land wracked by violence--where at least 9,000 and perhaps as many as 30,000 people were "disappeared" between 1976 and 1983; where political and economic instability is a given, and has been for decades.

All the images are violent. When the blind man, chasing a woman who cruelly teases him, finally runs into her by accident, catching her up in his arms as their paths cross, their embrace has the force of a blow. When three scared-looking "soldiers" in a line push each other down, their aggression and hostility are as volatile and undirected as in a playground fight. When two lovers kiss, their open mouths approach each other in slow motion as if they were two animals about to bite. We see greed, a tense sexuality, aggression, no love. Or a strange kind of love.

There's more emotional variety, more tenderness, in the second dance, Criatura ("Creature"), in which one young woman is naked almost throughout. There's nothing like nudity onstage for creating a sense of vulnerability. But the pity she arouses is not an easy emotion in the context of this dance, which takes a cold-eyed look at psychological dependence.

The first few brief scenes set up the themes and images. This dance too opens with one person holding another under the arms in a dim light; gradually we see it's a woman holding a man. He turns to look at her and embrace her, but remains in a lower, dependent position, burying his head in her neck like a baby. Slowly he draws one leg up around her waist, then the other, until he's attached to her like a parasite. She makes no move to embrace him and in fact pushes him away. He springs back. She inserts her arm between them and tries to pry him off, then pushes him away by the forehead. He springs back to clasp her around the knees. She leans backward, topples, then tries to roll away while he grabs her by the ankle. The music throughout is like a train hooting and chugging. In the next scene two women stand facing each other and take turns putting their fingers in each other's mouths and rolling their heads in each other's crotches in a motion that's caressing, catlike, sexually appeasing.

In the third scene a woman in a white dress bounces on her knees; the train sounds now resemble the panting of sexual excitement or fear. Bouncing harder and harder, she's finally jumping on her knees; then her motions subside and she looks sad and tired. A man enters, also on his knees; they bounce toward each other and she looks ecstatic until he grabs her by the upper arms and violently forces the rhythms of her bouncing to meet his, then pushes her away. She rolls in backward somersaults while he follows her, walking; when her legs are in the air he strips her of her gown in one motion. Somehow he catches her by the back of the neck and lifts her so she's slung across his front, her bare legs dangling, her buttocks exposed. He doesn't hold her there, nor does she hold him; she's like the gruesomely comic needy figure of the first scene but sapped of volition: sick, empty.

Complete babyish dependence, oral sex, masturbation, near rape, sexual rejection and humiliation--there's some pretty scary stuff in Criatura. And more pain to come: people in fetal curls rolling like balls of dust, people separating others by leaping or crawling into the midst of an embrace, people crying, poking themselves in the gut with a gasp, drawing their fingers over their eyes then letting their hands fall, fingers wriggling, to the floor. Meanwhile the music pops in our ears like gunfire or screams like air-raid sirens over and over, and the baby, the naked woman, confronts us kneeling or totters over to the others--who compulsively repeat earlier motions of rejection and betrayal--one arm stretched out in an ineffectual gesture of help. Finally she's caught, accidentally, between two lovers going through the same old neurotic motions, bringing the whole wicked machine to a grinding halt.

La fortuna and Criatura are not so much acted or danced as passionately lived before our eyes; Gabriela Barberio, Mayra Bonaro, Carlos Casella, Ana Frenkel, and Maria Ucedo seem to inhabit a country where children grow up too young and the helpless body registers every cruelty, then passes it along. What's scary is that, though we don't see this country often, it's ours too.


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