New Storytelling


Downtown performance has jolted the musician’s image from both tuxedoed orchestral stability and the sweaty prancings of rock. In Yoshiko Chuma’s Crash Orchestra, instruments attack their players and vice versa. Dan Froot has memorably danced naked while blowing his sax. Now we have Squeezeplay, a delicious new collaborative show conceived by accordionist Guy Klucevsek, whose compositions and playing have brightened many choreographers’ works. In a lovely, witty video by Victoria Marks, he wields his instrument, while above his head, on a screen shaped to look like the balloon for a cartoon character’s thoughts, he dances his way across a giant musical staff, revisits his past, and dreams of glory.

In a duet, Claire Porter is awkward and needy without him. But when he sets down his squeezebox (which continues to play on tape) and takes her in his arms for a lumbering dance, her rhythm improves along with her state of mind. David Dorfman and Dan Froot rush in as two hilariously loudmouthed, gaudily dressed saxophonists auditioning accordion players. Klucevsek, a wonderful performer on all fronts, collapses from the stress of high-speed fingering and has to be revived. And all the while the trio is playing his terrific music, sometimes rambunctiously fingering one another’s keys.

On the serious side, an intricate composition by Mary Ellen Childs allows the audience to focus on Klucevsek’s subtle virtuosity, and Dan Hurlin’s brilliant The Heart of the Andes makes him a wanderer through the history of American art. Klucevsek, as a blind musician, sits and plays, while puppets of him in varying sizes enter scenes that transpire behind little doors or on miniature stages. These scenes represent paintings by Frederic Church, Winslow Homer, Richard Diebenkorn, and a slew of others. Hurlin, manipulating it all, offers lectures and diagrams on perception and the artist’s eye, in ironic contrast to his sightless protagonist. I’ve only told you the half of it. You’ll have to see for yourself.

What with the International Center of Photography establishing training programs at the Point, an enterprising community development center also sponsoring a variety of classes and workshops, culture in the South Bronx is looking up. The Point is a cosponsor of Arthur Aviles’s Super Maéva de Oz at the Bronx Academy of Arts & Dance—a funky loft space in the American Banknote Building. The bronze statue of two dancers, the wire sculptures, and the yin-yang symbol turn out not to be part of the show. You can buy postcards as well as wine.

The show’s funky, too—a gender-somersaulting take on The Wizard of Oz that both celebrates the movie (occasionally referred to in flashes on five video monitors) as gay icon and turns the voyage to Oz into a lesbian coming-out party and a vision of a brighter, shinier, liberated Hunts Point. (The cardboard closet that mistress and dog hide in gives coming out a meaning Frank Baum never dreamed of.) Some scenes are wild and funny, smartly conceived; some are clumsily or confusingly designed. Aviles in a Liz Prince-designed dog suit is Arturoto; Rhina Valentín, a diva in gingham flounces, is Maéva/Maévacita (a/k/a Dorothy). (In the final, perilous journey to the Emerald City, she’s Toto-ina, and he’s Dorothur.) She’s got a scarecrow arm, a tin woodsman’s arm, and a lion’s tail, plus a seriously split personality. Now naive, now witchy, she delivers rapid-fire speeches in a charmingly hectic mix of Spanish and English—difficult to understand because the room’s acoustics sometimes swallow her consonants (or she does). When the two emerge from the “closet” in sparklier versions of their original clothes, she also acquires careful, ladylike diction.

The hardworking chorus members—now Japanese stagehands, now Mexican peasants—perform a sharp ritual dance while the very clever pianist, Chris Parker, keeps silent, and skip along singing “Follow the Cross-Bronx Expressway.” The piece is full of gusto and imagination; a pity there’s no dramaturge or director to fine-tune it into coherence.

Let me get this off my chest. I love Keely Garfield’s dances, but they feel long. Garfield’s an adroit dance architect, replaying themes, echoing previous elements; she simply adds on too many modules or repeats. My delight in her three new works, which opened the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Project’s spring season, never vanished, but it did diminish a bit through overload.

Garfield must be a black belt in domestic tussle. A dancer nestles into an embrace and gets an arm tightened around her throat. If she links elbows with a pal, she may end up getting poked in the ribs. To wear her hair in pigtails is to risk her life. Garfield is a Brit. Maybe that’s why her dances seem like postmodern music hall numbers, shiny with wit but stoked with rage. Rub Me the Wrong Way suggests the four lovers from Midsummer Nights Dream minus decorum. Tom O’Connor sucks Rachel Lynch-John’s thumb, while Karl Anderson attacks her nose. She’s the desired one. Lisa Townsend’s red pants fall down in the fray.

Like Rub Me, the two-part Past Caring is carried along by Philip Johnstons score for sax, accordion, bass, and drums (played live). Its many short sections reinforce the acid, carnival ambience. Lynch-John and O’Connor might be at a tea dance for the dysfunctional. The wonderful Lynch-John remains calm if baffled as he drags her in a split, and butts him in the belly as if this were just part of your usual tango. The second pair of partners faces different problems. Dance’s favorite fat man, Lawrence Goldhuber, seems to have put on weight, and Garfield is very pregnant. During a polite pavane, each does a rueful personal belly check. She looks as if she feels the kid in her womb is about Goldhuber’s size. As they waddle companionably about, hard-boiled eggs fall from under her dress and pop from between her breasts.

My Sister Was a Refugee, a work in progress and the third piece Garfield has made about her family, is marvelously performed by the beleaguered Lynch-John and the much smaller and fiercer Townsend. An old song presents the smarmy ideal: two brothers, unselfish as little chaps, heroic in battle. The women’s side-by-side unison, however, is marred by irritable twitches; and from then on, through Patsy Cline wailing “I love you so much it hurts me” and other ditties of awful love, the two endure sisterhood’s teetery alliances and acts of terrorism. Even though drawn out, My Sister is the most wonderful piece on the program—tender and terrible.

For Koosil-ja Hwang, whose program followed Garfield’s into Playhouse 91, the stage is an unpredictably altering terrain, against which she dissects identity and relationships so thoroughly that an audience entranced by her images and confident she knows what she’s doing may defer, perhaps forever, certainty about “meaning.”

The dizzying shifts in her to-be-expanded Anatomy of Happiness are reinforced and sometimes carried into nightmare by Yoshihide Otomo’s score, Carol Mullins’s lighting, and Caspar Stracke’s sensational video collage. Stracke backs a dance by Hwang, Margaret Hallisey, and Mary Helene Spring with a hair-raising split-screen drive through a nearly deserted tunnel (a motif). A bizarre performance scene of wild-haired women unwrapping another’s mummy bands shares the backdrop with a man slowly driving a donkey cart. Cary Grant races toward a camera, followed by Hollywood Indians on horses. Occasionally video and live action move in the same orbit; emphatic dancing works to stitch mysteries together.

The one man in the piece, the remarkable Michael Portnoy, assumes various identities. He is the soft-voiced Arab embarking on romance with a German woman many years his senior (Hwang). Avoiding each other’s eyes, they circle, a long rod holding them apart. Portnoy and Hallisey are paired as robots, analyzing, with bafflement, human courtship rituals. At the end, as their batteries run down, they’re reaching for each other, and Portnoy is struggling to complete the word “love.” He and Spring, assuming Southern accents, evoke a more enigmatic social picture—perhaps of a bygone era (Portnoy also does a brief “Yes, Massa” bit).

It’s futile to wonder why the three women cast their eyes skyward, throw their arms out, and say “Rain!” in high, hyperenthusiastic voices. Or why a white monkey sits, almost catatonic, in a hot spring, while the robots creak into immobility. Hwang, who spends intermission running in an exhausted circle around Portnoy, attached to him by a rope around her waist, is an artist who prods forgotten areas of the brain.

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