Theater archives

Spirits Rising


Walk out onto the terrace that adjoins the gorgeous third-floor studios at Dance Theater Workshop’s new Doris Duke Performance Center. Look north. You can see a sliver of the original DTW building at 215 West 20th. In that cramped space where Jeff Duncan lived during the 1960s, good dances were produced, choreographers were born, and no one made any money. As my early-days DTW colleague Linda Tarnay reminded me, when, in the 1970s, the organization moved a block downtown into what had been Jerome Robbins’s American Theater Laboratory, “We thought we’d died and gone to heaven.” A studio and a theater, two bathrooms, floors that didn’t have nails you had to pound down before you could dance for a packed house of 50 or so.

When the late Duncan, Jack Moore, and Art Bauman turned DTW over to David White, they couldn’t have dreamed what his managerial vision and determination, a vigorous board, inspired fundraising, and gung ho contributors would achieve on the 19th Street site. Raise $11.5 million? Impossible. An Artist Resource and Media Lab? A what? How the founders would have marveled—as do we all—over architect Edgar Rawlings’s 192-seat theater with its 42-by-31-foot stage, eggplant velvet curtain, capacious light booth, and 12-person dressing rooms.

Ronald K. Brown/Evidence is the perfect group to inaugurate the space. All Brown’s pieces—whether for the Alvin Ailey company or his own—embody ideas about history and transformation and spiritual journeying. As an American man of African descent, he writes in the program, “I see my work as folklore and creative protest, offered by a simple sinner learning how to be a servant.” In Walking Out the Dark (begun in 2001 and now premiering as a three-part, 55-minute work), the stage becomes a kind of sacred ground where four people attempt to resolve their private and communal struggles.

It’s stunning how Brown—especially in Part I—uses rich, full-out dancing to express a complex array of feelings. The four (several different terrific casts perform the work during the three-week run, through October 20) hold down the corners of a square. Partners, isolated at first by Brenda Dolan’s fine lighting, meet to communicate at its center. Words that Brown speaks into the blackness before the piece begins come to vibrant life: “We must speak the truth to each other or else stay buried in the dark.” From the altogether astonishing Diedre Dawkins’s first volatile dancing at Brown and his response, Brown’s vocabulary—in part, an imaginative and personal take on West African styles—alludes to, stands for, what words might or cannot express. In those resilient, grounded, free-swinging moves and their sharper rhythmic accents or universal responses (a shudder, a collapse, a hand reaching), we can almost hear nuances of language. Body talk. The encounters between Dawkins and Brown and between Arcell Cabuag and Daryl Spiers change subtly—implying dissent, anger, sorrow, respect, admiration, affection. The voices and percussion in music by Philip Hamilton, Sweet Honey in the Rock, and Francisco Mora both bless and incite these ritualizations of personal experience. When the dancers re-enter for Part II, having exchanged their handsome white costumes (by Carolyn Meckha Cherry) for bright-colored clothes that suggest Africa, they ring the center with exuberant communal dancing. And, after a virtuosic drum solo by Mamadouba Mohamed Camara, they trace an equally energetic diagonal procession—now in red costumes against a red-lit backdrop. This spiritual journey that so engages Brown isn’t a priggishly virtuous one; it speaks of blood and flame and determined hearts.

Puppetry messes not just with our perception but with our ideas about agency. When the puppeteer is out of sight, as is the case with most marionettes, we slip between viewing the dolls as self-motivating creatures and marveling over what is conveyed to them by the human hands on their strings. The visible black-clad manipulators of Japanese bunraku are conjoined with their puppets, both physically and emotionally, while controlling their actions at a psychological distance.

Body puppets are perhaps the most perplexing of all. In some provocative works they seem to control their handler. The perplexed and homesick Colombian immigrant-hero of Federico Restrepo’s latest work, Nine Windows (at La MaMa through October 27), is a soft body puppet. His large, sad, jug-eared face is attached via black elastic straps to the puppet maker’s head; his hands are Restrepo’s, and his feet are fastened to Restrepo’s. Because the puppeteer is a dancer, the hapless figure effectively vaults onto his heavy steamer trunk and leaps and crouches as he is both beset and embraced by bodiless heads with extra-long, skinny arms and big hands (whose four clustered puppeteers perform their own intricate dance behind a scrim). We see Restrepo pushing the puppet ahead of him, but we also see the puppet leading, even straining to break free. Utterly thrilling are the moments in which Restrepo unfastens the puppet from his head and then, with the help of semi-visible hands, is peeled from his other self. Sweaty and disheveled, he seems at first smaller and weaker than his creation.

Richard Cordoba’s wild and apt music, played live by an ensemble of three, colors a nonlinear series of scenes suggesting dreams, memories, and violent encounters in New York (the dramaturgy is often cloudy). These include a video of the flesh-and-blood Restrepo opening and eating a mamey, a man dementedly and silently screaming into a cell phone, and a sword-wielding body-puppet conquistador on horseback. Galloping.

Related story:

Honey, I Blew Up the Theater: David White Secures Dance Theater Workshop’s Piece of the Rock, and Expands Its Programs” by Apollinaire Scherr