Theater archives

Warning: Dancing May Save Your Life


Fantasies might be a better name for Susan Stroman and John Weidman’s “dance play” than Contact, although there’s plenty of that in its three episodes—crotch to crotch, hip to thigh, mouth to glass. Scenarios include a master-servant role-exchange for sexual high jinks, the daydreams of a victimized wife, and the hallucinations of a successful ad man whose life has lost its meaning.

This insouciantly cliché-studded chamber work—canned music, small cast, minimal set—is also about desire channeled into disciplined motion. In the wordless “Swinging,” inspired by a Fragonard painting, the erotic maneuvers of a lady (the charming Stephanie Michels) and her supposed servant (Seán Martin Hingston, a terrifically versatile performer) occur on a swing. The frighteningly docile 1950s heroine of “Did You Move?” (Karen Ziemba), dining out with her brutal spouse (Jason Antoon), is wafted out of her chair by changes in lighting and clouds of Puccini, Grieg, and Bizet, into an imagined affair with the headwaiter (David MacGillivray) and loony interactions with the other restaurant patrons, to whom she becomes invisible.

Ziemba’s exhilaration is endearing, although her fantasies take the form of corny ballet. The dancing in the title episode is the dug-in, hip-grinding club swing Stroman’s so good at; the talented cast rockets around whenever a hot tune plays. The hero (sensitively acted by Boyd Gaines), having failed to kill himself, goes to a bar where he falls for an elusive habituée, a Girl in a Yellow Dress (Deborah Yates). All the guys slaver over her. The evening’s burning question: Will Gaines find the courage to dance with her?

Stroman builds “Swinging” skillfully, though the airborne lady shows her ruffled panties awfully early in the game. But in the other two episodes, comedy misfires. What’s funny about a brutalized wife? I can imagine laughing at Harpo Marx trying to hang himself with an improbably long curtain pull and failing, but not at the poor sap in “Contact.” Stroman and Weidman prepare us for drama and then expect us to lighten up.

**Ross Stretton’s Australian Ballet looks sleek andclassically hep. It opened with two pieces byAussies—Stanton Welch, resident choreographer, and Stephen Page, artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre (whose work is rooted in Aboriginal culture)—but the dancers look best in William Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhatelevated.

Page’s Rites begins with the dancers (augmented by members of Bangarra) in a faceless cluster on the floor, spread out like a skirt around the mountainous figure of Djakapurra Munyarryun, their shaman for a voyage through Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The piece is full of drama: clouds of smoke, apocalyptic lights, lizardy dancers peering into the darkness, and Munyarryun’s stunning presence. The Aboriginal influence shows only in cultural references; an amalgam of ballet, modern dance, and animal imagery delivers a collage of ritualistic acts.

Divergences (1994) displays the company’s technical facility and some witty choreographic moments as Welch articulates the mood changes (and sometimes every note) of Bizet’s L’Arlésienne. You start to feel he’s showing everything he knows how to do and—given designer Vanessa Leyonhjelm’s changing array of leather bustiers, long skirts, fluffily fringed bell-bottoms—that you’re trapped in a fashion show from hell.

But Forsythe wakes up your sensibilities. Explosions in Thom Willems’s score come when you least expect them. A duet—two dancers synchronized in off-balance, stiletto-legged extravagances—keeps repopulating itself, or surfaces elsewhere like a feisty echo. And we really notice the dancers, see red-haired Nicole Rhodes’s beguiling mix of steeliness and gaucheness, David McAllister’s compact vigor, tall Matthew Trent’s more softly elastic strength, and more.