Theater archives

Beyond Normal


Bebe Miller’s Going to the Wall lasts almost an hour. And I can imagine an edited version. Yet, like life, this dance has to work itself out. Intersections between the splendid dancers embody the merging of dialects spoken within any community—male and female, black and white, straight and gay. In the mingling sweat of rehearsals, these dancers, as Miller’s taped voice muses, “bypass local politics and head straight for the bone.”

Frances Craig, Steven Edwards, Sarah Gamblin, Ted Johnson, Darrell Jones, Anthony Phillips, Melissa Wynn, Cheng-Chieh Yu—by the end of the work we know them. We’ve admired their clothes (by Liz Prince), watched them talking and laughing together, understood how their fluid groupings branch out and re-form in new ways. Tiny modules—Craig, for example, caught yelling between three men—recur as they do in rehearsals and life; but they’re different each time, altered by context and perspective.

The score by Don Byron, with contributions by the Fugees and Nonchalant, offers raps on some of the same issues of identity and self-definition that Miller is pondering. Michael Mazzola’s lighting changes strikingly ac cording to mood. In the heated, probing dancing, the gestures are sometimes extravagant, melting; at other times they fit sharp designs into keyholes of air. The range is rich, as full of differences as the dancers. The twining of partners reminds us that loving and fighting are close relatives and that worming out of an embrace is worming into it backward.

Miller tests the boundaries between audience and performer. In her stunning new solo, Rhythm Studies, she pits her rhythmic stamping and her thrashing of a big drum with self-
deprecating vocal asides to us. Even her punctuating “hey!”s have a wittily ironic ring—both weary and valiant. Rhythm here has a bigger meaning than the music by the group Harriet Tubman and the sounds Miller is making (a body mike transmits the rustling of her garments as she lies on the floor talking softly: “It’s not that I’m not okay…”). Her thoughts are deep. She tells us, perhaps with regret, “I used to be dangerous.” Now she admits to being more often scared. But Miller’s greatness as a soloist lies in her aura of vulnerability and bold ness; dancing her powerful, earthborn steps, she can also look like a scrappy child picking a fight with life’s inconsistencies.

Donna Uchizono’s works, formal though they are, evoke illogical worlds—or worlds that bend what we like to call logic. On a white floor at Dance Theater Workshop, prefaced by Stan Pressner’s blast of white light, her new State of Heads presents us with a man (Levi Gonzalez) in a white suit standing tautly, his back to us, while Uchizono and Shannon McCord, wearing ruffly white dresses, toddle in from opposite sides and worry their feet into something approximating first position. The way they cock their heads at ratchety sounds in James Lo’s music, the way McCord vaguely echoes Uchizono’s itchy little gestures, the way they jitter and freeze and look away from each other, gives them the air of aging eccentrics, or chickens.

This is just the beginning. I haven’t told you how the three eventually shuck their outer garments or dance shaking their fists. I have no idea what this dance is about, and I like it that way. Uchizono puts odd ideas together with such skill that I’m gripped by them. Toward the end of her 1991 The Wayne Brothers (offered in tribute to its late composer, Tom Cora), I imagine I’m seeing Thelma and Louise abstracted to the bone (the entrancing McCord and Maki Morinue start skittering faster and faster on bent legs like kids playing at driving). The dynamic contrasts in both music and dancing are bold. Cora often leaves the women in silence. One minute the two explode into fine, spunky dancing; the next they’re standing side by side gazing at one corner, each swinging one leg while aeons pass.

By this time, it doesn’t seem odd when a prepared fan starts clicking on the sidelines or Uchizono switches it off to improvise a solo to Cora’s music. The dance is called Fan. Given the peculiar clarity of Uchizono’s performing, that’s logic enough for me.

John Jasperse’s Madison as I imagine it creates an even stranger world at DTW. It’s as if asymmetry, irregularity, and futility alone govern existence. Yet Jasperse’s stylistic precision allows not even a hint of chaos; Miguel Gutierrez, Parker Lutz, Juliette Mapp, and Jasperse calmly perform curious tasks, that’s all. Eat peas off a knife in the shower for years and you get good at it.

Everything’s askew, including Hahn Rowe’s score and Scott Pask’s set de sign: three walls lean, two tables have legs of various lengths, four dancers form crooked shapes. Lying down, they present their butts to the audience with every laborious rollover or back somersault. In tender moments, they look like a heap of puppies, fit ting elbows, heads, and knees wherever they can. Never have I been so aware of joints—their outer angles, their inner soft places.

All four wear plain, fairly tight-
fitting skirts and red fingernails. The unresolved tasks they attempt can be beautiful and/or absurd. In immaculate unison, Mapp and Lutz each swing a bucket on a rope. Lying side by side, Jasperse and Gutierrez be come a Rube Goldberg machine de signed to drop pennies into a pail. These people take care of one another. Mapp blindfolds Jasperse with a rope and snips some hair from his leg. He makes her a foil skirt. She clamps pliers to the back of his shirt. He slips a yellow rubber glove onto her foot. When Gutierrez and Lutz reenter, they’re accoutred like the first two and line up beside them, crooked and tense. Maybe this is what everyone in this wacky imagined community does on Saturday night. The dysfunctional find ways to function, and life staggers on.

You know those convex mirrors that warn you of suspicious strangers round the bend of the corridor? Neil Greenberg had them positioned in two corners of P.S.122 for his This Is What Happened. Like the snatches of dramatic music from Bernard Herrmann’s movie scores, the long silences, and the often bleak lighting by Michael Stiller, the mirrors hint at danger, even though all they reflect are Greenberg, Justine Lynch, and Paige Martin—tiny, skewed, and seen in reverse.

Compared with the wonderful trilogy that began with Greenberg’s Not-About-AIDS-Dance, the new piece is austere. There are only three performers. Just a few projected announcements appear on the back wall. But everything conspires to produce the semblance of a story we are not to know. Watching the leggy, attenuated, sometimes brusque or splatty dancing that springs from and de ranges a classical base (imagine Merce Cunningham’s style put on a diet of beef and red wine), we sense mysteries even in such formal events as a shift from two people dancing in unison to three all doing different things. When Martin performs an assertive solo, we’re advised, “Don’t believe her. She’s lying.” The sentence not only ignites narrative, it raises questions about how we perceive meaning in dance. And when we read, during Lynch’s later solo, “Something is happening to her,” it only confirms a feeling induced by her long pauses and hurled movement.

But, of course, what’s “happening” to all three, separately or together but never touching, is dancing. Dancing in all its ability to evoke states of feeling through suddenly flung-up arms, a gaze toward the corner, the pulling down of a shoulder strap. The formality of Greenberg’s construction inter sects ironically with life, or with the Hitchcockian filmic abstractions sup ported by the music. “Flashback” refers simply to a phrase of movement seen earlier and now repeated. But can we know for sure what that phrase does, or does not, mean?