The Feistiness of Form


Rasputin, the “mad monk” who mesmerized Nicholas II of Russia and his wife and indirectly helped precipitate the Russian Revolution, was almost impossible to kill. A new and bitterly funny text written by Todd Alcott of Spunky Productions posits Rasputin as a guy with no couth who lived to drink, eat, and fuck himself blind, and whose main goal was to get out of Siberia. He became a holy man because it seemed like a good deal; when asked about the Bible, he played the faux-naïf mystic peasant and dribbled gravy on his tunic.

I, Rasputin is a monologue for actor Steven Ratazzi, underlined and expanded by relevant historical slides and very smart projected cartoons by R. Sikoryak, who occasionally appears as a costumed servant and, with hilarious speed, draws the political forces as fast as Ratazzi describes them. Kriota Willberg of Dura Mater—last seen deconstructing Swan Lake—fleshes out the monk’s escapades with dances.

Compared to the Rasputin seen in the projected photos, with blazing eyes and major facial hair, Ratazzi—a small, solid, fairly nimble man—plays a shrewd and salty dealer whose honesty is his best feature. Alcott has the character viewing himself from the outside, only slightly awed by his own audacity. If his touch appears to stop the hemophiliac tsarevitch from bleeding, and the tsar and tsarina follow his advice about political matters (of which he knows nothing), what can he do?

Willberg has at least three terrific choreographic ideas (it does seem a little forced to insert a nutty gypsy dance on the pretext that Rasputin likes them almost as much as feasting and fucking and falling asleep when important folks address him). As ladies of the Russian court, Jessica Ames, Emily Bunning, Beth Simons, and Willberg swish about, eyeing one another suspiciously, cleverly making cat’s cradles and snares out of their long strings of pearls. When Rasputin visits an orgy by members of the Khlyst sect, the women, in gorgeous peasant outfits by Carol Brys, gather and twist the red lining of their split skirts to equip themselves with penises. In the end, for a farcical rampage of poisonings, stabbings, and shootings, all don Rasputin beards and outfits—hinting that Rasputin’s own excesses did him in. The music by the Wharton Tiers Ensemble, which sometimes sounds like an army of miked guitars strumming two alternating chords, drives the dancing at a pace as headlong as Rasputin’s rise to power. Miraculously, amid the chuckles, the piece generates chills. This story, as Alcott reminds us, ended with the royal family shot in a basement.

John Jasperse attacks hot subjects with the formal precision of a classical artist. His pieces always seem to be about what people do to one another. In them, tenderness and violence are depicted as matter-of-factly as fixing breakfast. In his justly acclaimed 1995 Excessories, five men and three women unsheath breasts and genitals and wield them in an elegant contrapuntal dance. His works evoke strong feelings partly through subtleties of design and rhythm.

Jasperse’s new Fort Blossom—like its name, both severe and tender—juxtaposes genders on a half black, half cream floor. Stan Pressner creates bleak sun with golden lights. Michael Floyd’s sound mix is sometimes almost subliminal. Parker Lutz and Juliette Mapp wear tight red dresses and carry—or wear like backpacks—big inflatable cushions in translucent pink. As they dance in unison to create the clear, jutting shapes Jasperse favors, awkwardness becomes refined (they make me think of camels placing one leg, then another, turning their heads, bending their necks). During the female duet, Jasperse, naked, travels from white floor to black like an inchworm. When he reaches Miguel Gutierrez, also naked and lying facedown on a transparent pillow, Gutierrez and the pillow roll to lie on top of him. As the men continue pumping their hips (like sex, yet not quite), the pillow deflates until they are touching. Then the women rest, and the men dance close to the floor. As in many of Jasperse’s duets, every move engenders a responding one. In this slow, careful dialogue, each performer keeps placing his buttocks against his partner—on his cheek, his head, the sole of his foot. Butts subtly nuzzle each other. Gutierrez “sits” on Jasperse’s braced arm and slowly, wriggling slightly, slides down it. The hanging balls and cock, the crack between the cheeks become both eroticized and aestheticized—useful and lovely parts of the equipment.

Later, the men and women dance together. In a few wonderful minutes, the women spin, holding out their pillows, inadvertently (or not) smacking the men with them. The contrasts in Fort Blossom are dazzling: black and white, color and neutral tones, men and women, nakedness and body coverings, intimacy in bloom and tough, blocky structures. Fort Blossom is more austere than Excessories, but no less brave, no less exquisite.

Mimi Garrard celebrates her company’s 35th anniversary with two programs. The one opening tonight at the Kitchen differs slightly from the earlier one shown uptown. I’m partial to some of Garrard’s recent small pieces, like Night Traffic (1998). In this, two tall women (Laurie Bulman and Erin Dudley) in long black culottes and platform shoes stalk about, infecting and being infected by two pajamaed dreamers (David M. Sharp and terrific little Steffany George). The piece is mysterious in a way the new, big Mythos is not, despite a finely designed opening solo for Anne Marie Crisanto. To music by Dawn Buckholz—partly on tape, partly played live by the composer on bass—six other women come and go, forming identical pairs, breaking symmetry into asymmetry and unison into difference. Everything about this ritual is well-made, clear, as if painted on the space, but I don’t feel any urgency.

A visually stunning early work, Phosphones, shows the influence of Alwin Nikolais (Garrard danced in his company and Murray Louis’s), but its seductive effects result from technical innovations created in 1970 by Garrard, James Seawright, and Emmanuel Ghent. Ghent’s music and lighting design are computer-coordinated. A figure undulates in flickers of blue light; women form a silhouetted chain against an emerald green sky. At the climax, each woman dances in a colored beam of light—eight women, eight colors. Hues and performers flash in and out of the landscape. Phosphones, with little emphasis on dancing per se, has more kinetic and rhythmic vigor than Garrard’s 1999 Joplin Suite, in which the smooth moves and the games with hats are bright, but almost all the movement is slow, even constricted. The recorded pianist’s fingers fibrillate the keys. When tall beauties Bulman and Dudley dance, it’s as if they’re sitting on the porch while a river rushes by.