Going Nowhere 

Spectrum Dances 2002

at the Duncan YMCA Chernin Center for the Arts, through August 4

Even though a choreographer can communicate constraint by having a dancer hesitate, hobble, or stay her own hand, an entire evening on limitation shows it's not an ideal subject for an art form that consists of bodies moving. Yet being hampered in one's movement might well be foremost in the minds of the choreographers represented in Spectrum Dances 2002. Like the rest of us, they can't go to an appointment at a downtown office building if they happen to forget their photo ID, get on an airplane without being stopped and challenged and prodded, or go to a public celebration without considering whether the pleasure is worth the risk. These interferences with everyday life likely informed the development of the five premieres on the program. But instead of making a comment about being fettered--whether "We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore!" or "So it goes..."--the evening becomes an example of it: plenty of motion, but no momentum.

Choreographer Michael McStraw sets the tone with the first piece, Craving. To music by Seal featuring the lyrics "We're never gonna survive, unless...we get a little crazy," he has Paula Frasz dump a shirtful of flashlights onto the stage and then arrange them so that her progress in any direction is obstructed. She then proceeds to roll in them, shine them at the audience and in her own face, and dodge among them. Novelty, Frasz's intensity, and the music's rhythmic drive make the piece moderately interesting, but its ideas don't bear repeating throughout the concert.

Perhaps choreographer-dancer Rachel Bunting suspected this, for she jazzed up The Afterwords with a video backdrop. As it happens, no such compensation is needed: her solo, to Beethoven's Pathetique, ably celebrates the small gesture's capacity for expression. Though bounded by an imagined nutshell, Bunting reigns over infinite space. Unfortunately Craig Sorensen's video of empty rooms or of Bunting at odd angles, with its static-ridden sound track, draws focus from the dancer's work. I'd like to see The Afterwords again without the bells and whistles, to give proper attention to Bunting's lovely piece.

Frasz's The Death of Marat makes most explicit the tension between action and stasis. But again, from a dancing standpoint there's really no contest: McStraw as the French revolutionary is mostly immobilized, and the twitching and stomping to which he's relegated merely distract from the intricately patterned efforts of a sort of tripartite Charlotte Corday, made up of dancers Candace Cavallaro, Heather Kroski, and Casey Pennel. Dressed in period petticoats with outsize trains, they balance the delusion and the passion, the fear and the determination, of the woman who thought she could save France by killing Jacobins. In the evening's most satisfying choreography, these dancers have an actual purpose, revealed in the brisk pace of their crosses, leaps, and rolls. Meanwhile McStraw--horribly costumed in a diaper as if to underscore his impotence--has nothing to do but wrap sinewy arms around himself or lie on the floor with his legs twisted together. Perhaps Frasz should consider calling the piece "Corday's Mission."

New York choreographer-dancer Mary Wohl Haan's 1998 Portraits on a Journey employs the same device as McStraw's Craving: a soloist carries junk onstage and then battles with it. Portraits on a Journey, which features a large bag and lots of handkerchiefs, works slightly better because Haan is a strong actress as well as dancer: she's so involved in wrapping herself up in the bag or turning it into a wind sock that for a while we're interested too. It also helps that there are several portraits: though it may take only a small thought to fill a life (as the lyrics in the Steve Reich accompaniment keep telling us), it takes multiple ideas to fill a dance.

In the second half the subject matter shrinks still further: two of the three pieces are focused on the specific limitations posed by female insanity. In Marcelo Evelin's Eclat, performed by Anna Simone Levin, the dancer is enshrouded in a matted pelt and spends ten minutes trembling and tossing her hair while moving forward in small steps and then falling over. In this depiction of a bacchante, whenever Levin's face is visible, her expression suggests deep concentration. If we'd seen what she was seeing, we might have seen an interesting dance too; as it is, it looks only like literal collapse.

In the duet Ophelia, Ophelia Dmitri Peskov handles madness with greater sophistication and includes some beautiful individual figures: one dancer steadies the other, for instance, through a cartwheel she begins seated. A blond in a black slip (Cavallaro) and a brunette in white (Jill Economakos) offer sometimes clashing, sometimes complementary interpretations of Shakespeare's madwoman, using a pair of metal folding chairs to represent everything from imprisonment to refuge. But the interesting question about mental collapse is not how it happens but why: in the play, Ophelia's rant is of little interest unless you know that Hamlet loved and betrayed her. Peskov disclaims any effort at an interpretation of Shakespeare, and I'm not demanding one; but his two women don't show us the content or the context of their character's insanity.

More important, Ophelia, Ophelia crystallizes the problem of using constraint as a choreographic theme: how much satisfaction can be achieved when the whole point is that the dancers are stopped in their tracks? Seen in isolation, the piece might be intriguing, but as the sixth of seven works highlighting paralysis, it's overkill.

Nor does Cindy Brandle's Incantation redeem the subject. The choreographer and four other dancers stand on stools doing nothing or balancing awkwardly. Then Brandle vocalizes while the other four break into pairs, still on stools, in which one dancer keeps the other from falling forward. Brandle's voice is strong and lovely but no real competition for the industrial clanging of Lance Grabmiller's score. Once again the result is stasis--a condition dance is better suited to remedy than explore.

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

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