Changing Landscapes

Brave Faces in Out-of-the-Way Places

In Williamsburg, the sky seems huge, and as I gaze toward Manhattan the altered view has an eerie emptiness. The feeling of unreality feeds into Troika Ranch's program at WAX, two days after the catastrophe. Troika's artistic directors—performer-choreographer Dawn Stoppiello and composer-media artist Mark Coniglio—typically traffic in fable or enmesh performers in interactive webs of sound and video that tinker with our perceptions.

For the new Reine Rien, Danielle Goldman, Lisa Herlinger Thompson, Michou Szabo, and Sandra Tillett wear MidiDancer devices created by Coniglio. Concealed, for the most part, by Katrin Schnabl's clever dresses with leggings, these sensors feed information from joint-action into a computer. The performers control their environment, but in a paradoxical state of innocence, never sure exactly what a soft flexion may trigger. Video trees yield to water. The sound of footsteps emerges through vaguely medieval music; flies suddenly buzz. In a fine male-female duet, when Szabo and Tillett stop their tangential curving movements and make small gestures, trees flicker away and voices die. Dancing makes virtual rain fall.

Suite Devo, a less finished piece, makes little technological jokes to Coniglio's interpretation of music by Devo with a strong rock beat. Conical sci-fi hats fly off the performers' heads on wires and a strobe effect fractures the flow of four taped dancers in white undies; we put on special specs to see Szabo and Tillett engulfed by 3-D images of distorted landscapes.

But the human spirit is not engulfed. In Devo's last section, the dancers (including Lisa Townsend) strip off Akiko Sato's costumes (demolished jackets, with linings dangling or transformed) and tear into very handsome, outflung movement. "We're through being cool," they tell one another. In Stoppiello's solo She is Not a Fictional Character, her taut, vigorous dancing remains the focus despite the little video monitor that swings back and forth bearing a skyscape. She tests her own reality, whacking the air with her forearm, pulling at her curious, rubbery dress (also by Sato) as if to rip pieces off and cast them to us. And the most telling audiovisual effect in The Flowing of Honey occurs when an onstage cassette player emits the music of the moment (is it the Kronos Quartet?), with a time lag. Its close, uneasy counterpoint echoes the up-and-down partnership of Stoppiello and Anthony Gongora. "I'm feeling afraid of the future," says she. And he, waking from slumber, "I'm feeling totally in control." After their eloquent manipulations, one of them asks, "Are you ready for the end?" They are, and they stop. On September 13, the words resonate in a world suddenly as disorienting as any technological dreamscape.

Also in Williamsburg is Galapagos, where Boo Froebel presents her funky Phat Tuesdays once a month (the next is October 16). Compared with the spacious bar, the theater's homely, with a small, battered stage floor and a grubby white brick wall. But hey, you can take your beer in with you. Froebel's smart shows typically involve four edgy dancers, performance artists, puppeteers, or theater people, plus a featured performer who appears between each of the "acts." You can't really lose.

One of the gems of September's show is Stacy Dawson. As she lip-synchs Spirit performing "Nature's Way (of Telling You Something's Wrong)" while reacting to the music, her expertise and eccentric yet right-on choices comment brilliantly not only on the music but on an emotional world. Entering through the audience in a print dress, she begins wanly—even grimly—by flapping her arms. Over the course of the short song, she moves through growly down-and-dirty pumping, dances vigorously, socks the wall, and unnervingly flickers her left eye.

Behind us is another little knockout act: Dirt, in which Chelsea Bacon perches on a double trapeze (a suspended rectangle). You don't often see an aerialist in lace-up leather leggings and a dress, nor one who uses the equipment as both haven and claustrophobic space. Bacon does a head-down drop and a sudden rapid series of rolls around the bar, but for all her virtuosity, the piece is an emotional whole. The space between bars becomes a roost to brood in or a window that she—legs hanging, weight on her hands—looks wonderingly out of.

David Neumann pits his notably musical, slippery-yet-incisive dancing against Donald Barthelme's story-length sentence—a preposterous unspooling of the ordinary via an orgy of dependent clauses. Music gradually overwhelms D.J. Mendel, who reads the text, but Neumann and accomplice Erin Wilson just keep parsing that dancing.

I can't parse The Sadness of Things by Rinne Groff of Elevator Repair Service. I'm moved by the sight of her in black undies, wearing a major back brace and a jaw wire. Standing numbly, she lip-synchs the country song "Love Hurts" with barely moving mouth. I'm amused by her subsequent, touchingly inept, this-is-my-big-chance hosting of a TV interview with Erma Bombeck. But the vignettes, including a furious dancing finale to Indian film music, don't fuse.

Featured performer Mike Daisey—a chubby, fair-haired, and apparently good-natured story-teller—comes on like an engaging stand-up comedian with slightly flabby punch lines. His stories are sweet or strange or a bit sad, with comic edging. Whether he's reliving an embarrassing onstage moment, dissecting a friendship, or pondering a haunting eighth-grade event, his delivery is that of a good actor, and his astute line readings deepen the flavor.

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