Throw That Ball!

A choreographers plays games with games

Say you’re a choreographer born to a theatrical family, with a funky dance background and a thing for sports. How do you feed all that into a work? If you’re David Neumann, very slantily. For example, you have a couple of voluble sports commentators give a blow-by-blow description of an ice skating competition, while the performers provide the dance equivalent of a football scrimmage. You have one of the “announcers” (Neal Medlyn) ask for call-ins, in order to try and pin down what makes dancer Taryn Griggs special, and then have the onstage “caller” (Lily Baldwin, munching chips) describe in detail an opera she dreamed.

Everything about Neumann’s brain-tweaking feedforward involves displacement and skewing. The various sizes of taped rectangles on the floor refer to no known game, although a green-draped table used by various commentators turns out to fit perfectly into one of the designated areas (décor by Keith Noguiera, Shaun Fogarty, and Neumann). Some of the signs at the back indicating numbered lanes are missing. Andrew Dinwiddie, wearing black biker shorts and a gold bomber jacket, hovers like a referee but makes no recognizable calls; at one point, blank-faced and staring at us, he shakes his hips minimally, like a shy go-go dancer afraid of injuring his back. The equivalents of crowd noise and other sounds are wittily buried in Eve Beglarian’s score involving four onstage trombones (a great idea).

Neumann doesn’t perform in feedforward himself (a disappointment). His cast consists of three expert women (Baldwin, Griggs, and Kennis Hawkins), two men with dance chops (Kyle Pleasant and Will Rawls) and four men (Matt Citron, Dinwiddie, Medlyn, and Chris Yon) whose awkwardness contrasts charmingly with the image of professional athletes. Three additional female dancers in deep pink jumpsuits (Johanna Kirk, Mauriah Kraker, and Jo Morris), like those ball retrievers at tennis matches, function as helpers and cleaner-uppers; they also intervene in fights.

The opening sets up the tone and our expectations. Griggs struts on, clad in a black-and-silver-trimmed white outfit (costumes by Kara Feely). Strutting, however, is offered as a shadow of itself. Calm, expressionless, repeatedly standing on one leg with the other stuck out in front of her, Griggs lifts her arms, as if to acknowledge the cheers of a crowd. She might as well be a Barbie doll someone has arranged into that position. She does, however, begin to move more swiftly and with a more competitive edge, as the musicians bleat softly, and Citron noncommittally introduces her, while blathering on about what a beautiful day it is.

Neumann presents a doubles tennis match in which Griggs and Baldwin, Yon and Citron perform nearly identical gestures (like swipes at a ball) facing us and in near unison (Griggs emitting isolated grunts and yowls). Double entendres crop up, like “I’d rather shag a sheep.” Yon and Griggs execute a brief duet involving facial expressions that call to mind caught-in-action photos of a butted player howling. Rawls and Hawkins do a bit of cool dancing. Medlyn and Citron cat-fight and then kiss. Yon, downed in a scrimmage, delivers an absurd account to do with “boxy lettuce” into a mike held to his lips by Medlyn. Pleasant makes an appearance as a surprisingly well-endowed squirrel mascot.

So much in feedforward is engaging that I’m surprised I didn’t love it. The night I attended, one portion of the audience laughed loudly much of the time, while others simply smiled. Or not. The piece is a tapestry of sports allusions, some of them pointed—even obvious—some of them wacky. Neumann plays such smart overlapping games with opposites, subtexts, and the like that I kept expecting that meaningful connections to our daily lives might emerge, and, for me, they never did. This was especially disappointing in the final scene. Medlyn enacts a pitcher having a fit of nerves on the mound, while a matter-of-fact voice-over (his?) articulates his fears of failure. The inner struggle is one that’s easy to imagine when watching a real game, so, in a sense, Medlyn’s hesitations and delays, excruciatingly drawn out, tell us nothing new. I want to scream, “Throw the fucking ball!” (maybe Neumann’s intention?). And however dramatic David Moodey’s lighting, the sports cliché doesn’t fully deliver a statement that touches on the human condition.

 
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