Of Marvels

Three Generations of Artists Break Strange Ground

For years, choreographer Erick Hawkins and composer Lucia Dlugoszewski explored each other's minds and serene yet breath-caught sensibilities. His dances conversed with her music. She might let a burst of motion fall into silence, or create a thunderstorm on the piano while a dancer delicately picked his way across the stage. Her compositions created a landscape for his poetic, but never romantic, visions of idealized nature.

On one of the Hawkins company's programs during its recent season at Playhouse 91, the 1961 Early Floating was followed by the 1988 Cantilever Two. For the first— lean and beautiful— the composer plays the "timbre piano," bowing its strings, altering their sound with objects. It's a delicious surprise when a wisp of a waltz floats from the keyboard and the dancers acknowledge it with their feet. In Cantilever Two, while the dancers leap like dolphins, Dlugoszewski plays the keyboard as if she were shaking down the universe.

In addition to showcasing dances by the late master and pieces sketched out at the time of his death and staged by Dlugoszewski, the season also marks Dlugoszewski's official debut as a choreographer, with two solos for the marvelous Pascal Benichou and a group work. The ensemble passages of her Radical Ardent were a bit smudgy at the first performance, and the musicians— bass trombonist David Taylor, "multiple percussionist" William Trigg, and the composer— looked slightly on edge. But the core of the dance, a series of male-female duets, is sound as a nut, and the music caresses them, deliciously undercutting sweetness with a slightly raucous or abrasive touch. In the small theater, your eye travels from the complicit bodies to a musician shaking a sheet of paper or tinkling little glass chimes.

The duets don't travel much; these people are more interested in exploring the terrain of each other's bodies and the spaces between them. Their eroticism is without violence or urgency. Lara Bujold hangs by her knees from Louis Kavouras's clasped arms, and while he swings her gently, she brushes the ground with her cheek. Although Beth Simon keeps diving onto Sean Russo for the sheer pleasure of it, the duets are notable for the partners' equality. Joy McEwen leaps onto Rod Rufo, but she also carries him. Every surface of the body seems to generate a mild charge. Rachel Margolis walks up Kavouras's prone body, pressing her feet into his calves, his thighs. Carrying Georgia Corner, Peter Kyle rakes his fingers down her leg as if he were combing it. Benichou places his hands on the floor, one by one, palms up, for Katherine Duke to step on. A composer makes a successful beginning as a choreographer. Amazing!

Among the dedicated performers, a few stand out: Bujold— warm, supple, and aware; Kyle with his bold reach through space; Benichou, intensely alive; and Kavouras, who performs Hawkins's solo in Early Floating with a fine blend of soft muscularity and sudden decision.

In the second half of the 19th century, science rubbed unwilling elbows with charlatanism. People frequented séances for both solace and thrills. Hypnotists staged public displays. It's this world that the husband-and-wife team of Danial Shapiro and Joanie Smith evokes— often brilliantly— in Notes From a Seance.

They focus on the theosophist Mme. Helena Blavatsky— not as a writer of mystical-intellectual tomes, but as the leader of a cult practicing sexual freedom as a key to self-knowledge. The opening brings to the Joyce stage the atmosphere of near hysteria and repression. Rapt onlookers in Victorian attire surround Mme. B. and her crystal ball. A chaise longue is backed by potted palms whose fronds filter the light (Matt Lefebvre designed the set, Joanne Trakinat the period clothes, and Sean Murphy the lighting). A chandelier rises and descends at odd moments. Tadeusz Majewski plays— marvelously— music by Chopin, Beethoven, et al., his live notes erupting from a taped score by Scott Killian that includes high, distant voices and other spooky sounds.

Paul Selig's text, read by Gayton Scott with the careful elocution of a British schoolgirl, takes the form of letters from a new devotee, who gradually sheds her prudishness to become, perhaps, the medium's successor. Susie Bracken plays this young woman, awed when Mme. B. (Smith) befuddles her with arcane card tricks, sensationally abandoned as she's flung about and entwined in many arms. Discarding their confining clothes for Lynn Steincamp's exotic silky lounge attire, the performers sling themselves into temporary embraces the way marathon runners grab cups of water from onlookers and dash on. The couch spins as if those lounging on it were dizzied by their own sensuality. Shapiro, as Mme. B.'s helper and paramour, rouses John Beasant III to mad-dog fury with his card play, but most of the time he handles the women, notably Kelly Drummond Cawthon. Running, shaking, tumbling into fits, sliding into candlelit orgies presided over by Mme. B., the performers— including Midori Satoh, Mathew Janczewski, and Wilson Mendieta— are spectacular.

Shapiro and Smith slightly overdo the loose-limbed wildness. Editing and direction might make Notes and its timely and subtle anticult message even more compelling as theater. I regretted that, once the Victorian clothes were off, they never appeared again, and the connection between public image and behind-closed-doors fanaticism was lost.

Belaboring good ideas is these gifted choreographers' Achilles' heel. Shapiro's new solo Shtick takes an agonized look at an unsuccessful borscht belt comedian. While he gestures, effusive yet doll stiff, we hear the overloud stutter of an electronically layered and fragmented voice (score by Scott Killian) apologizing endlessly in many different ways. You want to scream for someone to shut him up or turn down the volume. (Killian's score also includes, effectively, laughter, drumbeats to cue pratfalls, and Henny Youngman jokes.) Shapiro matches his dancing to the taped sounds. He's loud with his body; I wish he'd show us the private cringing, the still horror behind the brashness.

Koosil-Ja Hwang's press kit is held together by nuts and bolts and covered in bubble wrap. An apt metaphor for her imaginativeness and the combined fragility and toughness of her ideas, it doesn't provide many clues to her often stunning but inscrutable Memoryscan. But then, as a theme, "memory" is dandily permissive, able without apology to process fragments of personal and cultural history belonging to the choreographer and collaborating performers: Mary Spring, Margaret Hallisey, Kathryn Sanders, and Michael Portnoy. Live video (by Benton Bainbridge), prerecorded video (by Caspar Stracke), music (by Hwang), and lighting (by Carol Mullins) compound the hallucinatory fervor of images and words. Since these are memories, we don't have to bother wondering what it means when Portnoy lip-synchs Jerry Lewis on the loose in an executive suite (in the film Errand Boy), or becomes a cow for Hallisey to look at askance. We can enjoy the curiousness of Hallisey singing an Irish song in a high, windy voice, her face pressed to a pane of glass held by Spring and Sanders.

Screened images dance with live ones. When Spring sits and tilts her head or bends forward, the filmed autumn woodland behind her tips in sync with her altering perspective. Events combine weirdly. Sanders give what turns out to be a golf lesson while Hallisey wanders about punctuating it with little beeps. Portnoy delivers a whacked-out lecture on the avant-garde, referring to the "Pina Bausch Conservatory for Flower Arrangements," and vowing intensely, "I will not change the floor for the ceiling." Spring and Sanders as unruly kids (little outfits pinned to their fronts) act up at a family dinner; Dad (Portnoy) keels over, and Mom (Hallisey) returns pregnant and step-dances barefoot. A seemingly tender trio for the women becomes less so when you realize two are manipulating the third by her head.

Watching Memoryscan is like flipping through a family album of people's dreams. Not much binds them together, but what pictures!

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