Theater archives

Writ in Water


If you thought you’d missed Basil Twist’s Symphonie Fantastique, you’d be wrong; its run has been extended until the end of the year (maybe into the next millennium, jokes the euphoric press agent). If, on the other hand, you thought that watching luminous objects swim around in a 500-gallon tank to Hector Berlioz’s fevered orchestral fantasy would be akin to staring at a lava lamp for an hour, you’d be wrong there too. This innovative display of underwater puppetry–what Twist describes as “a spectacle of abstract form, materials, and movement”–has its occasional longueurs, its sticky moments, but it’s a lovely, magical show.

The Symbolist poets of fin de siècle Paris who flocked to see Loie Fuller manipulate her outsized silk costumes into visions of flames and budding flowers would have adored Twist’s work. He and his three colleagues are invisible: lights, mirrors, and motion create a little world in flux (picture a 30-by-40-inch, 3-D television screen framed in black curtains). There’s no trace of Berlioz’s echt-Romantic 1830 scenario about an artist in quest of beauty who finds corruption lurking behind appearances. All that remains is its stormy musical profile translated for the eyes (although I did find myself thinking of one recurring piece of white cloth as the “hero”–rushing through, whirl-ing in currents of confusion, lolling in ecstatic reverie). No sooner do we ascribe meaning to a floating shape than other possibilities proliferate. A swirl of red silk seems on the verge of coalescing into a Georgia O’Keeffe poppy, but darts away or drifts down to browse. During the section Berlioz titled “March to the Scaffold,” vertical tubes process shoulder to shoulder across the “stage”; four white ones in front match their rhythms to hiss staccato notes. This “army”–never as literal as even the least obvious images in Disney’s Fantasia–can also be seen simply as a sensitive visualization of the composer’s rhythms, tonal progression, and mood. And some of Twist’s most inspired creations–a school of fabric minnows with tiny lights for heads appears when bright notes dart above the “Dies Irae”‘s somber death call–make you see more deeply into the music.

When Fuller wielded her enormous skirts, when Oskar Schlemmer transformed his Bauhaus dancers of the ’20s into perambulating architecture, when performers in Alwin Nikolais’s pieces manipulated scrolls or screens, the audience was always aware of the human element. Part of our delight in watching puppetry comes from sensing–sometimes seeing–the tension between the puppeteers and the creatures they control. During Twist’s show, I rarely thought of those backstage hands, possibly because the water has such a powerful influence on how the “puppets” move, and complex, precisely controlled articulations are rare. Water draws out motion the way the composer drew out his legato phrases. Because the moving shapes are so closely wedded to the music’s liquid tumult, it’s a shock when the human handlers emerge, large and damp, to take a bow.

Mention ritual, and we think of repetition and potent little events stretching over a lot of time. Bring up the subject of traditional dances, and we may envision sacred grounds, village squares, or town halls, with spectators crowding around. In such settings, participants focus on the form of the dancing and what it feels like, instead of what it looks like to an outsider. Entrepreneurs wishing to bring folkloric and/or ritual material into a theater immediately, and perhaps with good reason, imagine wholesale dozing among the audience. One of the great experiences of my life was watching a Deer Dance repeated over the course of an afternoon in a small New Mexico pueblo. But even could such a ceremony be transplanted to a stage, it would instantly become something else–not only less true, but less interesting.

So Hanay Geiogamah, director of the American Indian Dance Theatre, and Barbara Schwei, its producer, followed the model of such companies as Les Ballets Africains. They create a virtual village onstage, fictionalizing certain rituals such as a shaman preparing a warrior for battle, abridging traditional dances and orienting them toward an audience, employing dramatic lighting techniques and dry-ice smoke. I’ve admired this company’s work and the intelligent way Geiogamah treads the fine line between authenticity and adventurousness. He has made spectators all over the world feel the beauty of those insistent rhythms–the drums beating in unison, the voices yipping and calling out counterrhythms above them, the dancers’ feet beating and rebounding from the ground. The movement vocabulary is not enormous, but you can come to comprehend it as beautiful and compelling. And, well, there are those masses of feathers, that stunning beadwork.

Now 10 years old, AIDT has ventured in a new direction, for the first time inviting a non­Native American to make a contribution to the repertory. Geiogamah made a smart choice: Laura Dean, queen of minimalism. A choreographer for whom repetition is a way of life, she began to excite audiences during the ’70s with pristine rhythmic patterns that looked like the folk dances you’d be expected to learn in a pared-down Utopia. Her finest pieces mesmerize and exalt an audience the way a whacking good ritual does. And in works made for the New York City Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet, et al., she has shown that she can adapt any movement vocabulary to her lean structures.

AIDT, however, restricted Dean by commissioning a very short work that has to function within a vaguely programmatic evening-long suite called Kotuwokan! (Algonquin for “come celebrate the dance”). The scenario follows a young man (Rod Atcheynum), who goes off to the big city in search of stimulation, good fortune, an Armani suit, whatever. Once there, selling necklaces on the street, he has fleeting visions of ceremonial dances. Where does he belong? Home again, he offers his people “a new dance expression”–the expanded traditional style known as “fancy dancing” framed in unison and contrapuntal designs. In other words, this traveler is pretending to be Laura Dean, and vice versa.

Dean’s work is a quartet for Lisa Odjig-Fisher, Dawn Russell, Dmitri Seth, and Eddie Swimmer in black, modern-traditional garb shaking beribboned rattles, but Swimmer (the company’s splendid hoop dance soloist) was called away suddenly on a family emergency, so I didn’t really see the dance as the choreographer intended it. Atcheynum filled in for Swimmer in some of the unison passages, but his different costume affected our perception of the patterns.The piece is hardly major Dean (and there’s surprisingly little repetition), but she makes elegant use of intricate, twisty footwork and aerobic stamp-and-rebound–pitting soloists against a quietly stepping background chorus or sending the dancers off to salute the corners of the stage. The crispness of her designs in space ritualizes the display.

Dean’s dance is presented as a high point, but not as the evening’s finale. The format of Kotuwokan! justifies a spread of traditional and fancy dances, from opening visions to ending celebration. Unfortunately, in the interests of plot, some of the numbers–especially in the first half–are reduced to brief, not-very-telling samples; six women, walking with blue canes to suggest front legs, barely register as deer dancers before buffalo men replace them. The city-streets scene is a well-managed cliché: Wall Street types checking their watches, joggers, muggers. Are we supposed to believe this superficial episode fuels the hero’s desire to blend modern and traditional once he’s returned home? It’d be enough to make me put on all the feathered regalia I could find, and, like Jason Daniels in one fine solo, honor the birds, the animals, and whatever voices of nature we can still hear.