Raw to Cooked

A Critic Roams the Island

I remember there was music. But the sounds that ring in my head after a performance of Alfred in the Courtyard: The Hanging Man are not, say, Jiri Stivin's passages for flute, but the amplified clankings and squeakings of wires winding over pulleys. The work, which originated in Prague under the direction of mime artist Ctibor Turba, keeps its performers suspended— freed from the ground, but not from gravity. In a black-and-silver industrial landscape, performers walk into the Kitchen's black box, affix themselves to equipment, and get hauled up. Halka Tresnakova even sits on a trapeze to perform her virtuosic number for solo tongue. Attached by the blade of one ice skate to a frighteningly slender cable, Petr Krus(breve) elnicky´ thrashes his free leg around, causing his body to torque and flip through the air like a hooked fish. Hanging by both feet like a side of beef, Ondr(breve) ej Lipovsky ´ , his shaved head turning red, strains to curl himself upward so he can grab his legs.

Like all single-minded enterprises, this one invites speculation. Why hanging? For this group, perhaps because the state of being both off the ground and tethered creates a tension between freedom and constraint. In the bizarrely witty Insects, Lipovsky´ and Kamil Bystricky´ are attached to their lairs (padded columns) by their ankles; walking on their hands, they can't venture far before elastic cords tug them back. Still, one manages to kill the other. Tenderness, too, is stressful— Tresnakova, suspended upside down, can barely reach to nuzzle her head against that of Lipovsky´, who's standing and leaning, feet anchored to a platform. When she and Krus(breve)elnicky´ hang together, proximity makes them edgy; they butt heads, he bites her hair.

The cables are not just leashes but lifelines. The ominous noise of ascent and descent accentuates danger, no matter how matter-of-factly the performers tie themselves on. The Gravity of Being is the grimmest of the short episodes. Tresnakova is hauled dripping wet from a trash can by her belt. Rocks hang from her feet, one wrist, and her pigtail. After a few moments of twitching her free arm, she's lowered into the can, unhooked, and wheeled away.

The performance is both fascinating and chilling. The men with their identical shaved heads, washboard stomachs, and blank demeanor evoke a millennial Metropolis of athletes, practicing punitive feats whose purpose they've long forgotten.

In the summer of 1944, John Cage wrote a piano score, Four Walls, for a "dance-play" Merce Cunningham had written to be performed at the Perry-Mansfield summer camp in Colorado. Cunningham was still somewhat in thrall to Martha Graham, and he and Julie Harris appeared as a brother and sister snared in a plot that had overtones of Greek tragedy.

Since 1985, encouraged by Cage and Cunningham, Korean choreographer Sin Cha Hong has performed four different interpretations of the 75-minute score, working with a different pianist each time. At Japan Society, her collaborators are pianist Aki Takahashi (noted for her interpretations of contemporary music), singer Lisa Bielawa (there is a brief, mystical, vocal passage with words by Cunningham), and lighting designer Brian Haynsworth.

Silence is a vital part of the rhythmic structure; perhaps the longest silences originally allowed for dialogue. Hong moves through these and sometimes disappears during a musical passage. Haynsworth has created an analogous structure of darkness and spare, foreboding light; rarely do we see the boundaries of the stage. Because Hong's full cotton garment (by Tae Ok Jin) is black, she has but to turn her back or bow her head at the end of each brief section, and as the lights dim, blackness swallows her.

Takahashi is a traveler through the music. She makes a reiterated four-note pattern sound as if she were trying it out for the first time. Hong, with her broad face and strong, earth-bound movements, seems both quester and seer— a woman journeying through an enigmatic, partially hidden landscape, perhaps at times merging with it. She gives us a long time to absorb each image. In profile, she bends forward and fans her arms into wings; she lies on her belly, flexed feet off the floor, a swimmer in space; she molds a ball of air between her hands. Cracks do appear in her intrinsic serenity. She mouths words distractedly. She gestures as if she's plucking out one eye, then the other, and hurling each away; perhaps it's blindness she's discarding.

Just before the end, Hong bats at the back wall, a surprisingly literal reference to the title. In this haunting work, the power of walls lies in their invisibility.

The stunning performer Maia Claire Garrison, a onetime member of Urban Bush Women, founded M'Zawa Danz in 1995. Her program, the opening event of the 92nd Street Y's Harkness Dance Project at Playhouse 91, features rich, juicy dancing, and music by the crack members of Keep Bangin' that goes beyond accompaniment. Drummers Raymond King and Larry Wright strap pots and pans to their joints for a good-humored duel. Later they challenge each other on inverted plastic buckets. In an atmosphere that's part concert, part village party, musicians egg on dancers, and students— "M'zawa Kids"— clamber out of the audience to strut their stuff.

I get the impression that Garrison's devoted most of her creative life so far to establishing a movement language. Her style is a wily and wonderful fusion of West African, hip-hop, jazz, and postmodern dance. Her terrific women— Kristin Carpenter, Jeneen Cleare, Omagbitse Omagbemi, Alethea Pace, and Kemba Shannon— can move from undulating and stamping to crisp kick steps to an easy pomo fling into the air, integrating the flavors into a tasty stew.

A solo, Cypress Said, shows that Garrison can modulate her exuberant vocabulary to show pensiveness, sudden outbursts, and an elastic kind of lyricism. And Cleare's performing typifies all that's best about the company's style. When she looks at us, her calm gaze seems simply to say, "You're there, I'm here." There's no attitude, no gloss. These women focus deeply into their dancing yet take us with them. At the end of a boisterous display, the smiles they flash at us radiate pure pleasure.

In her group works, Garrison experiments with bouts of sisterly acrobatics, breaking up unison and contrasting power dancing and freeze poses. There's an appealing rawness about her choreography, but her creativity with structure hasn't quite caught up to her movement imagination. When it does, look out!

Twyla Tharp's fundraiser for the Hunter College Dance Department, where she is in residence, proved both terrifically entertaining and rife with irony. The centerpiece of the event was her 1970 The One Hundreds. Originally Tharp and Rose Marie Wright performed in deadpan unison 100 11-second phrases. Five people then simultaneously performed 20 phrases apiece. Finally 100 recruits each executed one, in an 11-second melee. The piece, I think, was about disintegration.

At Hunter, the performers came attired à la the '60s. The stage was awash in fringe, tie-dyed shirts, beads, and go-go boots. In a best-costume contest, engagingly judged by Isaac Mizrahi, I rooted for the middle-aged couple in chinos and white Ts, who said this was how they actually dressed in the '60s, fashion be damned. While in 1970 Tharp and her dancers were serious about not going out of the way to be entertaining, the capable Hunter students (Kettye Voltz and Eryn Mayfield) who performed the first 50 (someone counted) flirted with the audience at every hip swing.

Nostalgia may have been the theme, but the fallibility of historical memory was a potent subtheme. In a video made prior to the performance, Tharp and stellar early company members Wright and Sara Rudner revisited The One Hundreds, stumbling and laughing, and Tharp queried participants on their vision of the wild decades. However, this is the '90s, and she knows it. Onstage she taught a 100 to André Gregory and engineered an applause-meter contest between dancers Gabrielle Malone and Andrew Robinson. Celebrities and competitions are where it's at.

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