Gender Games

From Spain, Japan, and the Downtown Hinterlands

The way some people talk about flamenco, you'd think it was all about sex; the dancers seem to size one another up for conquest, to taunt the musicians and audience with their prowess. The typical flamenco duet is a hot item, rendered hotter by the fact that a man and a woman, circling close, only inches of space between them, rarely touch. However, this Spanish style, fomented among the gypsies of Andalusia, embodies more abstract passions: the rage of the outcast, the pain of living. Restraining these in musical and dance forms creates ferocious tension. As performers' feet punish the ground, their bodies strain into high-arched arrogance. Even in duets, partners might be mirrors for each other's anger.

María Benítez's Teatro Flamenco now boasts a strong group of four men and five women in addition to herself, but, interestingly, the male-female theme isn't featured. No stories of forbidden love appear on the company's program (at the Joyce through March 7). In Antonio Granjero's stylish Aires de Cadiz, women in polka-dot dresses hold intense rhythmic conversations with men in black. Benitez's Folies d'Espagne offers variations for couples that match the purling elegance of Marin Marais's 17th-century composition (viola da gamba player Rosamund Morley joins guitarists José Valle Fajardo ["Chuscales"] and Roberto Castellón).

The emphasis is on solos and fastidiously arranged unison dancing for the group. The solos often emerge democratically from the ensemble. Rosa Mercedes enters with castanets during Folies d'Espagne; in Benítez's Formas e Imagenes, dancers take turns issuing from a cone of light where they cluster, emitting individual bristling gestures (the atmospheric lighting design is by Clifton Taylor). Benítez appears in two numbers— mellow yet powerful, with wonderfully fluent wrists.

Sometimes the soloists hold the stage alone: Chuscales in a superb display of guitar virtuosity, Inmaculada Ortega in an Alegrías she choreographed, and Granjero in his own Alegrías. These dances belie their titles; there's nothing joyful about them, though Ortega occasionally dives, frowning, into the turbulence of her skirts and intrepid feet and comes up smiling. She's excellent; Granjero's some kind of miracle. He displays neither the long line that comes easy to taller men nor a winning personality, but he inhabits his mesmerizing solo as if it were a neighborhood he knows— strolling here, pausing to brood, unleashing a stream of intricately shaped heelwork, contesting with his feet the rhythms fine singer Francisco Javier Orozco Fernández (known as "El Yiyi") strikes from the box he sits on. Demons intermittently possess him, but he casts a spell on them too.

Both the musicians and the floor were overmiked on opening night; the splendid live performers sounded harsh and canned. Ah, technology! Where would a gypsy be without it?

Sometimes I wish Cydney Wilkes would just dance. But that's not her bag. We have to marvel at her precision, her fluidity, her range of dynamic expressiveness while she's talking about riding her bicycle "on this blue road going home" back when she was a kid. We see how big, mournful, and drastic she can be only because she's impersonating her mother's reaction to the bike accident. You love to watch her; you pay the price. And the childhood-memories drama of Gasp is a good setting for this jewel.

Wilkes is also showing a "big" work on Dance Theater Workshop's Carnival Series (catch her March 4, 5, 13, or 14). And in Premonitions of Latitude (Plot), none of her accomplished dancers does much dancing, except for some slippery tangoing in party scenes. The plot (or plots, as enumerated in the signs Clarinda Mac Low holds up) peeps through in slender pantomimed scenes, but never quite rocks us with its implications. An airplane is hijacked (to show flight, passengers stand in a spaced-out line, daydreaming or gazing out imaginary windows, while stewardess Julie Atlas Muz tiptoes down the "aisle," barefoot but clearly high-heeled). Suddenly guns are whipped out, and "The Woman Named G" (here played by Emily Fraenkel, but eventually everyone gets a turn) is shot. But (a) was the shot intended for someone else? and (b) is she dead? She's on a desert isle and moving, but can you be alive and meet an "Angel Dolphin" (Alejandra Martorell)? Government agents are involved; so are doctors (who walk while lying on their sides), patients, and scientists. The all- female cast of this ungendered world (including Paige Martin, Karen Sherman, Nami Yamamoto, and Wilkes) is a whiz at quick changes. The women are entrancing, but many of the scenes fall into the doldrums. What's happening? What's supposed to be happening?

The society Jeremy Nelson and Luis Lara build in Morphylactic (it's at DTW March 6 and 7) also makes a statement about gender by ignoring the standard roles. Anybody in the male-female cast can wear a little brown dress and/or a ringletted silver-gray wig. As expected when these men pair up, the slashing, sprinting, curling pomo dancing they both contribute careers around in a landscape of stuff created by Lara. It's pretty gorgeous stuff— especially the draped white backdrop in which you gradually discern a subtle and spooky jumble of figures.

Whether the title is meant to evoke the structure of milk or play a word game with prophylactic seems immaterial; in any case, it gives no clue to what happens. It's possible to imagine that the piece originated not in ideas about movement, structure, or theme, but in a vision of collaged clothing, pink chairs, and hair. In the terrific opening, blue snakes emerge creepily from a mountain of wigs (they're the arms of a completely concealed performer). At the end, Lara sits Nelson down, drapes him like a beauty parlor customer, and begins pinning little brown objects to the fabric (tiny limbs? penises? curious desert plants?). In between, other images of self-decoration occur. Gabriela Solini attempts to manipulate a figure blinded by a smoothly pretty silver mask topped with a hairdo of beige rolls. Two empty chairs converse about such topics as the danger of bad nose jobs (tape recorders strapped underneath speak in alto voices with valley-girl intonation).

The dancers sometimes project an asleep-on-their-feet air, like people waiting for a bus; at other times, they're strenuous, bustling, and faintly hostile. Two bewigged figures in white bouffant skirts advance on each other with drills whirring. Douglas Henderson's music— coming in bursts, its industrial-sci-fi ambience pitted with long silences— underscores the oddities. The expert dancers (including Luciana Achugar, Maria Hassabi, Anna-Sofia Kallinikidou, and Antonio Ramos) engage in multiple variations of musical chairs on pink wooden ones adorned with fur booties. Lara and Nelson tangling on a chair! Nelson and Solini duetting on two chairs with Lara underneath moving them!

Somewhere, buried under the trimmings, a structure lurks; somewhere, a theme. But as the eye- catching events keep spawning similar ones mixed with spicy non sequiturs, I despair of finding them.

The biggest gender game in town is also the oldest. At Japan Society, two experts in Kabuki dance heighten reality through artificiality. In Kusazuri Biki, Nakamura Kannojo plays in the blustery, hyper-male style known as aragoto. He needs to get into a banquet where his brother is embroiled in a quarrel. Because he's such a stamping hothead, a court lady tries to hold him back. She's all wiles, and, weak as she is, her delicate tugs on his kimono or fancy armor give him pause. And this strength-in-weakness character is played by a man, Nakamura Kyozo. In Ninin Wankyu, the same actor plays a man dancing with a vision of the courtesan whom family honor decrees he may not have. But the magnificent Kyozo performs in the wagoto style suitable to sad young men, with more than a trace of the classic feminine in his mournful gestures. At one point he and Matsuyama (Nakamura Shijaku) don each other's outer garments as an indication of erotic intimacy. A vision we think of as contemporary appears cloaked in silks from centuries ago and miles away.

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