Time Trip with Douglas Dunn & Dancers

The 70s are over; long may they live

There was a time, as I remember, when Dunn was investigating ideas that stemmed in part from the embarrassment often involved in public performing; the task was not to fulfill any gestures or facial expressions. Suddenly, the black screen behind which he’s been making costume changes falls silently (a magical moment), and he walks forward, his face contorting with fleeting half-images of pleasure, pride, shyness, discomfort, and myriad others. Behind him, seated on chairs, or standing, Filbrun, Freebury, Singh, and Williams begin Four for Nothing (1974), a group version of his uneasy solo, with uncompleted or indecisive movements. As he explains, their task in one passage where they stand bent-kneed, their forearms resting on their thighs is to decide how to maintain the position (i.e. keep their arms from slipping off). Do they make the necessary adjustments with their backs or with their arms?

Coquina is set to a score by Robert Ashley that’s structured for quiet keyboard and his own voice reading an enigmatic text three times—softly, louder, and then somewhat flippantly. I think it’s about population and the environment, but I couldn’t swear to that (I scribble sentences like “The idea of feeding the people is something we have to live with” and “A porous bank is no bank at all” and “It is the flow, not the water.”). In the meantime, the five vividly clad dancers perform three bouts of wonderful dancing in Charles Atlas’s lighting (based on Patrick O’Rourke’s 1979 design). They retire to take off articles of clothing during the interludes when serene photos of the ocean refresh our eyes.

Coquina means ground-up shells. Although Dunn didn’t know this when he titled the piece, it fits perfectly. He mentioned that constructing the work involved collecting 152 pages of pictures (mostly of athletes or fashion models) and fashioning the captured poses into dancing. That accounts for the sexy odalisque images and similar ones that occasionally rise from the energetic, variegated patterns. The performers make the most complicated and difficult movements look like interesting tasks they’re striving to master rather than showpieces.

Douglas Dunn and Beau Hancock
photo: Steven Schreiber
Douglas Dunn and Beau Hancock

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Douglas Dunn & Dancers
Dance New Amsterdam
November 8 through 11

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On the way into the theater and out of it, people can pause to watch a dual-screen video work that Atlas made of Dunn dancing in the early 80s. Lean and nimble, dressed in red against a red background, he exhibits a provocative blend of the articulate legwork that made him such a valuable Cunningham dancer and the askew wildness that often presents him (like Cunningham himself) as the wise madman, the holy fool.

Atlas, Dunn, and I reminisced in front of a changing array of randomly ordered slides—many of them showing works by still-famous artists like Steve Paxton and Yvonne Rainer, and others of works by people whose names are less well known to the present generation, or who have fallen away from dance or life. Remember Kei Takei, William Dunas, Kenneth King, Viola Farber, Laura Dean, and all those who helped shaped the present?

Here’s something Dunn wrote in 1997: “Dancing I have no idea keep going something happens headline leg-horns arms-deals eye-cons don’t fall back on steps you know go stub stutter flow stay inspired quit the past quote the moment. . . .” The 70s are over, but let’s not forget what that generation of dancemakers taught us about venturesome imagination, artistic integrity and the willpower to avoid compromises.

This week, Deborah Jowitt celebrates 40 years of writing for theVoice.

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