Struggle for Beauty

Mastery Has Many Faces

All of us who daily define beauty and ugliness do so capriciously—admiring, say, an ancient tree with oddly angled limbs and deeply corrugated bark, but rarely considering a person with a wrinkled face or a twisted body lovely. The Japanese artist Min Tanaka, whose Tokason Butoh Troupe performed at P.S. 122 last week, undermines this cultural anomaly.

Tanaka's Caprice: Guests From the Dark is the latest in a series of works inspired by Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos. As in those etchings, elegance and grotesquerie, fantasy and reality, beauty and horror mate in a world of black shadows and fierce light. Strange figures appear through the gaps in shoulder-high walls of gauze and dark fabric. Dana Iovacchini, her face frozen in a Kabuki actor's grimace, creeps like a beetle—legs bowed, back hunched—peering crookedly toward the light. In one appearance, Hidekazu Natsu's hands seem helpless; in another, he strikes the bold, bent-legged stance of a dancing warrior. Squinting, Yasunari Tamai gropes toward us, then retreats, looking back over his shoulder aghast. Shiho Ishihara, dressed in lacy white like a demented bride, sits and laughs.

These people leave and re-enter in different clothing. They wait, listing to one side, as if attacked by wind, but sometimes their crookedness miraculously drains away, and they stand simple and erect for a few seconds. Tanaka himself, a master performer, executes a strange, blissful dance, his limbs moving slowly; perhaps a mad puppeteer can't untangle his strings. One focal point is a black noose, where several times he flirts with death. The rope hangs high, and he stands on tiptoe with his neck caught, swaying eerily. The parade of hobbled figures yields only fragments of such stories.

Luddite: Eddie Taketa in Doug Varone's Ballet Mécanique
photo: Ellen Crane
Luddite: Eddie Taketa in Doug Varone's Ballet Mécanique

The potent atmosphere created by Keishi Suzuki's set and Ami Tanaka's splendid lighting design is augmented by T Yakuya Takahashi's score. Bits of tango and other music drift in and out of thunder and heavy rain; train wheels rumble into high speed, metal clangs as it's dropped. And after Tanaka's fastidious dissection of terror and strangeness, we leave saying to each other, "How beautiful!"


In Doug Varone's duet Care (1989, revised this year), one man (Larry Hahn) supports and soothes another (Varone) who is mired in autism or mental illness. They stand, sit, walk, run, and convey their feelings via a lexicon of small everyday gestures. Your heart breaks. Such motions underlie even Varone's lushest and most "dancey" works, like Approaching Something Higher, which premiered at the Joyce last week. The nine profoundly expressive performers swirl through Brahms's Piano Trio in B Major, op. 8, their formations coalescing and dissolving in an almost constant flow of twining and springing, falling and rebounding. Even if you didn't know that the company began work on this piece on September 10, you'd feel how fraught it is. Big trajectories are blocked or defused by little evasions, shrugs, staggers, and dodges. In Care, Varone is besieged by inner demons; when these people achieve unison, it's as if an outer force has blown them into consensus and may as easily blast them apart or draw them from one another's grasp.

Varone is musical in ways both conventional and subtle. Daniel Charon suddenly windmills his arms as Brahms breaks into a fierce passage, and the rightness of the pairing strikes with a visceral force. It's not obvious that a trio for Hahn, Eddie Taketa, and Natalie Desch was inspired by the slippery relationship between Brahms, Robert Schumann, and Clara Schumann; the dancers just interweave softly in Jane Cox's pool of light, one always watching two.

This rich dance hymns hope and love and tenderness. Ballet Mécanique, premiered at Jacob's Pillow last summer, both queries and trumpets the industrial world that George Antheil depicted in his eponymous 1924 musical landmark, in which crashing noises, sirens, and telephone bells attack thunderous piano playing. Antheil composed the music to accompany a film by Fernand Léger, and Varone's dancers are dwarfed or veiled by Wendall K. Harrington's traveling black-and-white projections of wheels, girders, signs, and formulas. In Liz Prince's blue factory-worker outfits, illuminated by David Ferri, they fight their cogs-in-a-wheel status.

The bold, perfect synchrony with which Adriane Fang and Charon begin keeps cropping up, but other duets—Faye Driscoll and John Beasant III, Ashley Gilbert and Taketa—evoke the push and pull of levers and interlocking parts. Varone has become masterful at tilting the stage picture out of equilibrium and back again, at varying how we perceive these people's apparent attempts to balance order and chaos. At the end, Fang and Charon reprise their duet, then suddenly belly-flop into darkness. In the optimistic '20s, did Antheil guess the perils of industrialization that Varone understands so well?


Judith Jamison's new piece, Here . . . Now, for the Ailey (at City Center through December 31) celebrates the spirit of the late great Olympic runner Florence Griffith Joyner. Not surprisingly, the most imaginative passages occur when Jamison really plumbs the themes of endurance, skill, and challenge shared by dance and sports. Sometimes she approaches these issues almost literally: The six dancers stretch informally, shake out cramps, or toil up Al Crawford III's boomerang-shaped ramp. At other times, her vision is more oblique. In one scene, to a bluesy section of Wynton Marsalis's vibrant score, Crawford's lights isolate now three men, now three women. The members of each trio tangle in slow, pressured ways that wonderfully—almost iconically—convey ordeal and teamwork. A duet subtitled "Pain" suggests much more, in part because throughout the difficult supported maneuvers, Jamison and the superb performers (I saw Asha Thomas and Anthony Burrell) keep their focus—and ours—on some imagined goal located in real space. The ending is both subtle and powerful: The dancers—having shed Emilio Sosa's bright, sleek warm-up outfits for beige leotards appliquéd with Olympic rings—stand tall, while Linda Celeste Sims, embodying the champion athlete, simply walks across the stage like the queen Flo Jo was.

One crucial choreographic decision baffles and disappoints me. When I ponder the Olympic games, behind-the-scenes shagging does not instantly come to mind. Given that the essence of sports—besides the glory and glamour of winning—is individual achievement and team spirit, why does Jamison emphasize male-female pairings? "Style" is conveyed by a smartass, flirty movement dialogue that could have come out of many other dances in the repertory (Dwana Adiaha Smallwood and Benoit-Swan Pouffer go to town with it), and "Heaven," danced by Sims and Jeffrey Gerodias, could easily be mistaken for an elated after-practice romance.

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