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Pure and Simple 

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at the Academy of Movement and Music

August 6-8

Sandra Kaufmann is a hometown dancer who's made it big in the Big Apple. Well, almost. Formerly a dancer with Oak Park's Momenta, she's now a full scholarship student at the Martha Graham School in New York. Still, she seemed a bit embarrassed by the standing ovation she received the evening I saw her work at the Academy of Movement and Music.

The most refreshing aspect of Kaufmann's dances is their purity: they seem grounded in a strong faith in the goodness of human beings, something missing from a lot of dance and theater lately. Her dancers are strong spirited and beautiful people. If there's any conflict, it comes from without--rarely from within. Thus the performers become archetypal characters in symbolic confrontations. In the right hands this approach might convey some deeper truths, but unfortunately the dancers in this performance merely played emotional surfaces, and too often the dances themselves were melodramatic to the point of seeming silly.

The most blatant display of this melodrama occurs in Kaufmann's A, an excerpt from a full-length ballet based on Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. In this scene, the adulteress Hester Prynne confronts the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale after seven years of silence. Emotionally, it's quite complex and heart wrenching, but Larry Ippel as Dimmesdale seems afraid to play these emotions from the gut. And when he and Prynne (Kaufmann) touch for the first time, they do so from a distance, stretching their arms toward each other until their fingers just meet. Immediately they can't bear it and turn their heads away in a movement so melodramatic it seems to come from early silent films.

Some of the problem may lie in the choreography: its simplicity does have a certain beauty, but it might actually be too simple to express the depths of emotion in this scene. There are a few too many arms raised to the heavens with eyes turned upward in supplication, too many moments of intimacy torn asunder, too many torsos swaying as if swooning. Kaufmann conveys the emotions a bit better than Ippel, but overall the scene seems stuck in the same hackneyed feelings.

Kaufmann borrows heavily from the techniques of Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey, who also tended toward simple, dramatic, symbolic movements. This is a source of strength for Kaufmann--it's what gives that sense of purity--but it's also a source of weakness, preventing her from expressing any sort of complicated emotions.

In the opening number, however, this simplicity works beautifully to tell a tender mythical tale. In Axiomata, inspired by the story of Jacob, who dreamt of a ladder "so high that its feet were on earth and its top in the sky," a young man (Don Pietranczyk) finds himself in a world populated by beautiful women with long, flowing dresses and hair. Seeming to represent some higher ideal, they move simply and elegantly in circles and poses that make them resemble the figures on Greek vases. He desires them in an idealistic way and struggles to become a part of their group. Ultimately they bring him into their world in a sort of ritualistic circle dance around him. It's an open, gentle piece, with easy sways and leaps; it fit well into a rainy summer night in Oak Park.

The same idea of ritualistic initiation is played out in Bloodmoon, the last piece, with far less success. Sarah Hall plays a young maiden on a beach, arms wrapped in a large red cloth. Enter Stephanie Clemens, dancing the role of an older, wiser woman. Using a lot of circular movements and outstretched arms, Clemens and a troupe of six women initiate the maiden in the rites of womanhood. Some of the symbolic movements are too obvious, as when Clemens steals the red cloth and dances with it. Others, such as waving arms over Hall's body now on the ground wrapped in the cloth, feel too much like a child playing witch to carry any weight.

A People's Cry, Kaufmann's most powerful dance, won an award at the American College Dance Festival. Ironically, though it was one of the older dances on this program (she choreographed it four years ago at age 20), it seemed the most mature. Performed to deeply emotional and rhythmic songs by Miriam Makeba and Peter Gabriel, A People's Cry was intended as a piece on the oppression of native South Africans, but it stands more as a comment on the strength of the human soul in withstanding oppression.

The movements in A People's Cry are well defined and sit well in the bodies of dancers Penelope Gonzales, Ann Guerrero, Wendy Taylor, and Kaufmann. Wearing simple gray dresses with flowing skirts, the four women move with force and energy, swinging their legs up, bending deep in plie, lifting their arms in supplication. The interesting catch is that throughout the dance the women's hands remain clasped together, half resembling a prayer, half resembling handcuffs. That simple gesture roots the dance and makes it powerful, interesting, and uplifting.

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


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