Who but Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar could combine elements of Mark Twain’s story The Mysterious Stranger with transcripts from auditions and create an enigmatic dance theater fable about faith, temptation, and transformation? Even when they work with a playwright, as they did with Mac Wellman in Girl Gone, or follow an existing plot (e.g., Flaubert’s A Simple Heart), they build imaginative layers that resonate together to produce new meanings.
An eccentric, toddling folk dance for four women segues into a movie audition. Molly Hickok, as an increasingly fast-talking director, holds essentially the same conversation with hopeful actors Lazar, David Neumann, and Tymberly Canale. As the scene repeats, with variations, it begins to seem stranger and stranger. Elements from Twain’s story, understood only in retrospect, filter in. Stacy Dawson (billed as an Angel) offers a necklace of coins when the word money crops up.
In Twain’s tale, a priest (Lazar) finds some money and is accused by the Astrologer (Neumann) of having stolen it. As in TV courtroom dramas, a discrepancy in dates eventually proves Father Peter innocent, but Satan, speaking through the priest’s niece (Canale), turns the happy outcome into a tragedy by telling the prisoner he was found guilty. Cynthia Hopkins, the Narrator, sings a last sad little song while Dawson pulls her in a wheeled chair whose mossy basket conceals a keyboard. And then Dawson recites Twain’s dark sentences, which go something like this: “There is no God, no mankind. . . . Nothing exists but you, and you are nothing but a thought . . . wandering alone among the empty eternities.”
The plot may sound simple and gloomy; the way Lazar, Parson, and the performers deliver it is anything but. Neumann regales Lazar with sex talk—hilarious in its coarseness—while shocked women costume them in robes. Some actions have a curious poetry: Canale pulls a glittering red ribbon from Dawson’s mouth.
In Parson and Lazar’s magic realism, surprising events seem normal, comedy and tragedy dance hand in hand, and the trivial assumes profundity. The unknown film for which an actor auditions becomes an emblem of the unfolding tale of life. Are we reading this line right? Should we perhaps pause here?
The first thing I note about Brazilian choreographer Deborah Colker’s Rota is how expensive it looks. Colker’s company is sponsored by PETROBRAS. If I were a big Brazilian oil company, Colker’s work is just the kind of dancing I’d want to invest in: spectacular and virtuosic in a with-it way (check out Colker’s washboard stomach muscles), smooth as an oil slick, and highly exportable.
I’m not surprised to learn that a visit to Disney World prompted the piece. No single style or theme shapes its two-act, three-scene structure. Rota can refer to navigational courses (vaguely suggested by the lines on Gringo Cardia’s backcloth for Act I) or to a wheel (a gigantic one sits center stage in the dance’s final section). The music—a Mozart serenade, a Schubert quintet mixed with singing whales, Aphex Twin, etc.—is consistent only in its eclecticism. Act I begins engagingly: scamp ballet with a tanztheater veneer. The first scene of Act II, “Gravity,” is a display of dreamy acrobatics—think Cirque de Soleil without contortionism. In the final “Wheel,” white- gloved performers explore ways to jump up, grab the wheel, and be spun upward—sometimes counterbalancing each other as if on a circular seesaw, sometimes curled up and spinning together to create the image of a Ferris wheel.
What you see is what you get: 15 splendid dancers and the entertaining spectacle they create. There’s no reason to look for purpose in the adroitly designed opening allegro. People move with slightly comic stiffness, mingling beats and leaps and high kicks with stylized everyday gestures like grabbing their bellies and cartoonish moves like walking bent over. The women’s jazz boots and short silk party dresses help create the image of a Bauschian community that has given up angst for Lent.
A few images recall Pilobolus: huddled bodies acting as big shoes for a walking man or as stabilizing pedestals for dancers cantilevered at an angle to the floor. Indeed, Colker’s brand of poeticism is somewhat like that of the original Pilobolites. The opening of “Gravity” recalls Anna Sokolow’s terrifying vision in Dreams, where a woman walks over a never-ending path of men’s shoulders. When Colker’s woman performs a similar walk, along the horizontal ladder of arms formed by two rows of dancers facing one another, it’s a controlled stunt—lovely and mesmerizing, but resonating with nothing.