We sit in the dark, listening to twittering birds, muted music, and high chattering voices. As the lights fade up on Big Dance Theater’s splendid Shunkin (at the Kitchen through September 15), three women in lavish and idiosyncratic versions of Meiji-era kimonos stand in profile. Slowly, they lift their legs as if to take giant steps, and we see between each one’s toes an open fan.
This exquisite and faintly askew moment is typical of Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson’s creations. Unlike many who adventure in dance theater, they have a fine sense of how to make text, music, and dance loop and twine together, creating startling juxtapositions. They also have a highly imaginative sense of staging. The central figure, a blind diva, commands her servants to fan her, and one is hand-hoisted up on a harness to cool her from above.
In Shunkin, Lazar and Parson layer and feather aspects of the contemporary American pop music scene into their tale of love and power in ancient Japan. The story, based on A Portrait of Shunkin by modern Japanese writer Junichiro Tanazaki, tells of the hidden love affair between Shunkin and her disciple-servant Sasuke (Josh Stark). Parson and Lazar and their highly creative ensemble use this very slender story to investigate the nature of performance, the audience-performer relationship, master-servant roles, the creative artist’s dilemmas, colonialism, and maybe other issues I forgot to notice amid the droll and poetic goings-on.
Tymberly Canale, Cynthia Hopkins, and Molly Hickok assume dark glasses and autocratic manners to spell one another as Shunkin. Whoever’s not playing the singer—caning servants or being pampered with fans spread for her to walk upon and parasols shading her progress—joins Emily McDonnell and Tricia Brouk as girlish, chattering servants with opinions of their own. Why do they affect Cockney accents? (At some point, they wonder this, too.) The clue comes when Sasuke, now acting as band manager, attempts to sell Shunkin’s program to the High Sheriff’s Lady, who mishears and thinks they’re doing The Mikado, which she loves.
Michael Counts’s set, abetted by Andrew Hill’s lighting, Claudia Stephens’s costumes, and considerable smoke, creates surprising effects. The silvery trees can split horizontally, leaving the bottom halves a movable grove sprouting microphones, while the tops become swinging pointers. Openings in the backdrop create colored “windows.” As in classical Japanese theater, people scuttle about moving simple props. A bamboo shade becomes a mat, a little hut, and a screen behind which Sasuke adjusts Shunkin’s skirts so she can urinate or strips her and sits her on his knee to bathe her.
The maidservants’ dancing, to recorded music mostly by Glenn Branca, is full of rhythmically satisfying pauses and bold lunging moves. The choreographed passages sometimes evoke Kabuki rituals, a Greek chorus, or the gestures of backup singers. Hopkins wrote and performs the interestingly dark songs—full of words, their texture reminiscent of Kurt Weill—while her band, Gloria Deluxe, appears out of nowhere to accompany her (in this version of Shunkin, Sasuke is not only a Japanese disciple in the feudal sense; he’s a bass player). Hopkins turns the servants into a musical-saw ensemble. While Hickok as Shunkin performs assisted acrobatics on a suitcase, and Canale seems more glamorously spiritual (if no less imperious), Hopkins’s testy heroine is tough, cynical, and smart, belying her mistily sweet singing voice. She delivers a witty speech on the dubious nature of friendship, all the while quizzing nervous Canale (as servant), who has dared to rebuke Shunkin for hitting Sasuke, and suggests she won’t make friends that way. Shunkin accepts the isolation of an artist (“A tall tree is always envied by the wind”) and treats her entourage to a lecture on the superiority of art to nature.
Although the last second is stunning, Lazar and Parson stumble a little in the penultimate moments. Their wrap-up comes without warning, and their treatment of the star’s death and Shunkin’s end seems hasty, a little scrambled. But their production, illumined by superb performing, is rich and wise. It resonates in your mind long after it’s over.
The indomitable FringeNYC managed to stage upwards of 180 shows in a little over two weeks in August. The woman I met grabbing a bite in a far-downtown Mexican bar between performances found she was heading for the wrong theater and should have stayed where she’d just been. But, hey, she’d catch the nearby show instead. That’s sort of how it went.
A shared performance I saw at University Settlement offered Third Rail Dance in two events a little more rough-and-ready than Big Dance Theater’s piece: Tom Pearson’s work in progress, Uktena, and Zach Morris’s Spun. Both used devices of ritual to weave mythologies out of speech and movement.
Uktena deconstructs a Cherokee legend, one of those created to explain a custom: “And that is why we sit by the river to make corncakes.” In this tale of a powerful snake, an oracular grandmother, and a young girl’s dream, there are lovely moments. One by one, standing women react to unseen water, pouring its coolness over themselves. A woman undulates like a snake. The piece is still a little unformed, its transformations magical but also confusing.
The more polished Spun mixes cultures. The youngest of the Three Fates attempts to save her lover from the very life-and-death web she and her sisters spin by taking on the aspect of the trickster spider of African legend. The music by MMMedium has a punchy digital score plus live percussion and vocals, and some of the moves have an MTV edge. This tale also relies on a narrator (Leslie Jones), but the subtext of the story emerges most interestingly through the way Morris uses ropes and dance patterns to suggest weaving. The heroine (Suzanne Cerreta) and her lover (Jared Gradinger) are in various ways enmeshed in cords, and a human clump resembles not only a seductive web but shifting architecture. The duet includes some rather conventional moves, and the last dance peters out, but Morris seems on the right track.