Theater archives

Pared Down


Do that again and I’ll scream,” says the mother. Hooked on repetition, the child is startled. Faced with extreme repetitiveness in music or dance, audiences tend to swing between these two extremes, either drawn in or driven nuts. The reiterated patterns in dances by two new-wave Europeans, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s duet Fase and Maguy Marin’s Ramdam, rouse more complex responses. In the rigorous Fase, the subtlest variations become momentous, gripping, while the gestures’ everyday look and the growing fatigue of the performers add emotional color. In Ramdam, repetition stands for obsession, for the conditioned response, for the mechanization of life. Accented rhythms power these pieces. (Interestingly, both women acknowledge the influence of Fernand Schirren, who taught percussion and rhythmic analysis at Mudra, Maurice Béjart’s onetime Brussels school where they both studied.)

Enjoying a level of state and civic funding unknown here, with theaters at their disposal full-time, these gifted women have become involved with spectacles or large-scale productions (e.g., Marin’s postmodern Coppelia for the Lyon Opera Ballet and De Keersmaeker’s Woud).Ramdam and Fase represent a return to roots. De Keersmaeker, whose company, Rosas, is based in Brussels, premiered Fase in 1982 when she was 22; the Kitchen season marked her farewell performances in it. Marin, now resident with her dancers in the town of Rillieux-la-Pape near Lyon, explores in the 1995 Ramdam the darkly comic social currents that shaped early works such as her Beckettian May B.

Put Fase, please, on the list of postmodern greats. This is thrilling work: rigorous and pure, the dancing burns like dry ice. And like the splendid early Steve Reich compositions it’s set to, its minimal elements stir up rich cross-currents. The production is elegant in its austerity. Projected white titles announce each section. For ”Piano Phase,” Luc Galle lights De Keersmaeker and Michèle Anne De Mey so that they dance in front of their own shadows–one for each and a central composite that emphasizes their every divagation from unison.

You watch, hypnotized, as they settle into gentle, firm half turns in place, reaching one arm to the side; gradually De Keersmaeker increases her speed, slipping more and more out of phase with De Mey, complicating their relationship. This is Reich’s process too. Sound and movements slide past one another disquietingly. You can predict resolution but seldom conclusion.

The work teems with such beauties. The vocal loop that figures in Reich’s ”Come Out” was drawn from the account of a police suspect. De Keersmaeker and De Mey sit on stools, under lamps, and you read into their abrupt gestures the music’s subliminal message of increasing frustration. The choreographer solos in ”Violin Phase.” Dancing in a circle, playing out a finely chosen array of springing and turning movements, she looks impulsive, almost frisky. ”Clapping Music” builds on a 12-count phrase. As the women gradually inch backward along horizontal paths of light, their feet repeat it over and over, with a rise onto the toes of their sneakers for punctuation, but their arms have another dance that’s out of sync with the steps, so the picture keeps altering. More than 16 years after its creation, Fase and the women who dance it create a stunning image of daring within order and turbulence within calm. Probably few people have spent sleepless hours yearning for the return of ’70s minimalism in dance, but when you see such a sterling example, it sweeps your mind clean of all the dance theater excesses. Remember when beauty of form could practically bring you to tears?

Marin’s Ramdam is minimalism with a dye job. In the first half, the dancers–regular joes in suits and dresses–march back and forth across a stage lit now glaringly white, now red. Occasionally women are swung into the air and plopped down again. There are hints of mechanized ballroom dance; a conga line seems about to develop. But there’s a message. It’s about the breakdown of meaty communication in the age of media. From the moment a man emerges from a mumbling crowd and starts yelling ”Bah-tou-duh, bah-tou-duh, bah-tou-duh,” the talented crowd counterpoints its crisp steps with vocal rhythms. When someone actually speaks, it’s to report trivia or trivialize deeper stuff, and the words function primarily as a quiet moment in the ear-bashing atmosphere. We focus more on how each of them in turn articulates bonjour (there are several of these repetition games reminiscent of Pina Bausch) than on what they mean to convey with the greeting. Words quite literally fail them. Charming Ulises Alvarez has to supplement a story he’s telling us with snorts, whistles, and whoofs of breath, his groping hands unable to pluck the words he needs out of the air.

In the second section, we get fonder of the dancers. Their movement is fuller, less two-dimensional, and more like a dysfunctional urban folk dance; women hoist men if the shifting patterns bring such a pairing to pass; a fine, dour chorus line grows richer as it accumulates more and more people. The performers vocalize less, and drop out of the dancing to become musicians–thrashing the gong and kettledrum, hammering on a wired bass, tapping out harsh little modules on organ or keyboard to produce a dire rhythmic texture. When tall, limber Thierry Partaud and Preciosa Gil connect in a duet, there actually seems to be hope for these folks. Marin’s economy and her skillful juxtaposition of purposefulness and futility give the deplorable world she pictures a chilling vitality.

MAYBE THE HEYDAY of gay life in San Francisco’s Castro district never really resembled Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, but the population of the TV series–not-quite-out gays, drag queens, supportive neighbors, worried relatives, and homophobes to be won over–modeled familiar attitudes. Deeply There (stories of a neighborhood) by San Francisco director-choreographer Joe Goode drags that kind of community into the era of AIDS, torquing sitcom banality into a personal statement about loss. Gone are the days when a neighbor would fete a couple of new lovers with breakfast in bed. Clustered around this bed–which represents the dying ”Ben”–are Ben’s lover Frank (Goode), a dogmatically helpful neighbor (Marc Morozumi), a single lesbian mom (Jennifer Wright Cook) and her eight-year-old son (Willis Bigelow), the transvestite Imelda (Vong Phrommala), Ben’s introverted son (Felipe Barrueto Cabello), his stridently homophobic sister Joyce (Liz Burritt), and his dog (Marit Brook-Kothlow).

Death strains their connections–makes Frank morose, makes Joyce launch diatribes against the gay lifestyle, makes Imelda exhort Ben to get up and live; makes almost everyone snap at everyone else. Goode, composer Robin Holcomb, and the marvelous performers have created a musical play that’s sometimes very moving, a little drawn out (false endings abound), and finest when it shoves predictability askew. Goode takes the line ”Don’t worry. I will be fine” and chants it as if trying it on for size, turning it into a morbid mantra. He dances with the little boy, a Contact Improv whiz kid; the glum, stolid man and the child he sails through the air are a metaphor for trust and daring. The wise woman-dog sings her puzzlement about the changed atmosphere. After Ben’s death, Frank and Joyce get drunk together, tumbling smoothly over a sofa, wielding glass and bottle in a beautifully timed, funny-terrible sharing of fluid.

Often, however, the actions, feelings, text, and sweet soft-pop songs reinforce one another too directly. An actor feels something, says it, sings it, and emphasizes it in gesture. I yearn for some displacement, a little less literalness–some sandpaper that would rub up other possibilities, other subtexts to stir the mind.