Theater archives

What Is It Anyway?


I’m usually laid-back about what’s dance and what isn’t. But I’m pretty sure Yoshiko Chuma’s π = 3.14 . . . (at La MaMa through March 31) isn’t. It is, in good part, about certain difficulties entailed in presenting a dance, her Footprints of War, in ravaged Sarajevo. We see that piece for a while, in a projected video of its 1999 Joyce Theater performance. Part of the spoken text (by Chuma, Bonnie Sue Stein, and the ensemble) consists of endless e-mails between Chuma, the Mess Festival where she and her School of Hard Knocks performed in 1999, and various agencies. It seemed as if they mightn’t be able to get the set there in time for the performance. Then they almost didn’t get it back in time for the Joyce season. As for getting paid, forget it. (One excuse: “You know why she didn’t pay you? She was pregnant.”) Pi is a mysterious number that extends forever past its decimal point.

Chuma has another unending sequence in mind: that of displacement and the clashing cultural identities that beget not just bureaucratic misunderstandings but wars. Her performers themselves are displaced. It’s not always Chuma who says Chuma’s lines. Different people speak for the Bosnian Muslim twins Nihad and Sead Kresevljakovic, the company’s interpreters in Sarajevo, who appeared in Cargo (an earlier version of π performed at Dixon Place). Tom Lee’s elegant set and Chuma’s use of it promote a hectic yet precise rhythm and motion. As rapidly as they shift identities, the performers move the desk-like tables and chairs within a small yellow “room” and out onto ramps on either side of La MaMa’s intimate Club. Now we see a radio station, now a conference room, now an office.

Chuma has her fine performers—versatile Ivan Talijancic, Jim DiBiasio, Maggie McBrien, and the arresting actress-singer Tea Alagic, plus filmmaker Wazhmah Osman and playwright Jenny Smith—sit and quiz one another about cultural identity. “What do you know about Bosnia?” (not much). “Are you Bosnian?” (long, long pause) and “Are you American?” The performers answer as themselves or as others, and some of them lie, I think. The rhythms of these dialogues dance.

The piece has powerfully resonant moments. A tourist in Sarajevo can buy a huge spent shell case to use as an umbrella stand. Chuma has tried to do a lot—perhaps too much—infusing the Bosnian experience with brief references to other 20th-century wars and acts of oppression. The Super-8 footage that Osman’s aunt took of pre-Soviet-era Kabul is moving, but hard for Chuma to integrate. π = 3.14 . . . hovers somewhere between theatricalized personal experiences and political theater.

I think back with nostalgia to Laura Dean’s work of the late 1970s. At programs of those patterned, repetitive dances, people often either walked out protesting or fell into trance. Murray Spalding has spoken of her admiration for Dean and for Lucinda Childs, but Mandalas, which she has been adding to since 1997, has neither the aerobic drive of Childs’s elaborate designs nor the escalating fervor of Dean’s rhythms. Spalding’s work, subtitled Eight dance meditations, falls—as she has said—between performance and prayer. The pace throughout is unhurried, meditative—the movement deliberately simple, the dancers’ demeanor serene.

Mandalas are sacred circles that enclose more complex symmetrical shapes. At Danspace St. Mark’s, we get in the mood by contemplating an array of them—projections on the wall of finished shapes or ones being drawn via computer animation. Groups of women—now three, now five, now four—step into their formations, young contemporary priestesses in handsome, long, sleeveless red tunics by Susan Soetaert. Primarily they walk their patterns, but now and then they walk faster, spin, or execute tiny jumps that create gentle hiccups in the pattern. Their arms, often angled, sometimes press down the air in front of them; sometimes one elbow leads them. Nothing splashy. Nice.

Although the circles and spokes are clear, the whole pattern isn’t always drawn at once, or drawn symmetrically. The women may trace little loops in one corner of the invisible web they’re weaving, involving the audience in practices of memory and prediction. In my favorite (I think it’s Mandala I), there are sudden, quick chaining turns and daredevil near-collisions. In the evening’s tranquil texture, the least variation seems gigantic. I become intrigued by the way the three women of Mandala II turn their heads sideways while they move, as if to listen. A fine solo for Tricia Brouk, the new Mandala VIII, shows the most contrast in terms of dynamics, rhythms, and steps. She lunges, for instance, while in groups the women almost never interrupt their stepping.

Evren Celimli’s music is sometimes perfectly apt, but it can sound too sweet, self-consciously spiritual. Although some of Spalding’s brief dances are weaker than others, the evening as a whole has a cleansing clarity. However calm, these women are engaged in rigorous work.

Ellen Cornfield, for years one of Merce Cunningham’s liveliest dancers, has developed an international career as a teacher and choreographer. Her body thinks like a Cunningham person’s. When she strides into her Foreshadowed Seeing, raising her legs high, the movement doesn’t register as showy, but as a probing of space. This duet with Jeffrey Bauer premiered in 2000 at a festival in Bytom, Poland. It is perhaps not accidental that Cornfield, whose movement tends to look erect, pulled-up, almost on tiptoe, here creates images of earthiness, even faint traces of folk steps, especially for the strongly built Bauer. Carol Mullins’s elegant lighting casts the shadows of a stand of red grasses on the back wall of the Cunningham Studio. Cornfield treats Iannis Xenakis’s fascinating 1975 N’shima as a landscape too—dancing across its silences, pausing amid car horns and excited voices. For a long time, she and Bauer (she wearing Karen Young’s sheer black dress over her white leotard, he a black skirt over his) travel independently; after she has sat watching his vigorous moves, liking what she sees, she hurries to be lifted. They finish, kneeling, their arms making complementary curves, as if he were pouring something sweet for her.

A New York premiere, Velcro Road, has a similar feeling of space, of figures going about interesting and demanding errands. This time, the evocative music is by New York composer Nathaniel Drake, and the back wall is visited by shadows and video—a collaboration between EYEALA (Cristina Ottolini), Marisela La Grave, and Sandy Chase that subtly alters real urban vistas so you only half know what you are seeing. The dancers assemble gradually: first Cara Regan, alone and quiet, then Andrea Weber entering with a jumping phrase, then Jon Guymon, Kerry Stichweh, and Bauer. As in some Cunningham dances, they come and go, move separately and together, less by intent than by instinct—the way birds feeding alone will suddenly flock and fly up at a change in the wind. Their forays are rich and full of variety—from wild allegro to serenity in the blink of an eye.