Theater archives

Living Dolls


We’re used to the sight of virtual bodies hurtling through desperate video games. Cathy Weis works at the other end of the technology spectrum. Since the early 1990s, she’s been playing around with low-tech theater pieces that have the charm of the homemade. In the introduction to her latest show at Dance Theater Workshop, her image appears as an infuriated talking head, crammed sideways into a monitor hitherto concealed in a miniature grove of glittering palm trees. Turned upright by her agitated handler (set designer Jonathan Berger), the video box becomes the head of a dummy. Berger holds his hand over virtual-Weis’s mouth while the flesh-and-blood Weis urges us to turn off cell phones and not to start up any chain saws.

You get the picture. Weis’s new Electric Haiku is an anthology of interactive video pieces—some beautiful, some goofy. Bare-breasted Ksenia Vidyaykina dances slowly in one spot, while a camera projects a dual image of her on the backdrop; her black-and-white selves merge, even seem to embrace, but, like conjoined twins, never fully separate. For wacky, take Scott Heron in an improbable white outfit that includes a Marie Antoinette wig and a lace curtain protruding from his shoulders—rod and all, as in Carol Burnett’s unforgettable send-up of Gone With the Wind. Annoyed by a buzzing red dot of light (released by 12-year-old Zane Frazer from a laptop on a glittery cart), he swats it; pretty soon a swarm of dots assails him.

The episodes are not exactly haiku. Heron’s insect number is one of the few with a punchline, and several are not brief. In the most elaborately equipped, Heron bounces on bedsprings atop a gleaming, mic’d scaffold while Weis videos him from below. On a sheet of white paper that rolls down to hide her, we see the lively springs projected, and hear the clanking metal amplified in Steve Hamilton’s sound design. If the event occurred in a gallery, you could relish walking around it for a while and then move on. Sitting in a theater, with no new developments, a captive audience is in danger of zoning out.

In An Abondanza in the Air, which Weis and Lisa Nelson first showed in 1990, Jay Ryan’s skillful lighting rarely displays the women. We intuit their presence as they manipulate two cordless video monitors that glow like cats’ eyes in the darkness. Reality becomes invisible and dreams light up. At first, the images seem connected: Shoes walk across a wooden floor as the camera “walks” too; a woodpecker attacks a tree; a logging truck rolls along a highway. But overall, the aesthetic issues are more beguiling than the piece itself, which has the air of a private journey through visions whose meaning to a couple of old friends we can only guess at.

DD Dorvillier labels her company “human future dance corps.” Her view of the future has little virtual about it, unless you count the low mic that appears to be set crackling by Sam Kim’s pliés. Nor do Dorvillier’s dancers act like superpeople. In Dressed for Floating, at St. Mark’s Church, Ermira Goro, Heather Kravas, Judith Sanchez Ruiz, and Kim begin sprawled in a square arena marked off by Mylar strips and Carol Mullins’s lighting (the audience sits on four sides). Bits of limbs stick out from brown blankets zipped together. If this is a camping trip, these are not exactly girl scouts. They sometimes tote jackets on their backs or stick sleeves over their heads. This fascinatingly eccentric community shifts between human interactions to behavior that suggest animals or forces of nature.

The four stand on one leg like storks, howl systematically. Katrin Schnabl’s wonderfully odd costumes make you think of skins peeling off, and David Kean’s primal sound score is occasionally permeated by the civilized tones of harpsichord or piano. The four do a lot of strong, original, well-made dancing, but they’re always watchful—and interesting to watch. A paper cup brought in by Kravas assumes mysterious importance. At one point, they sit on the floor, yellow dresses hiked up, legs spread, knees bent, and scrutinize one another. Ruiz begins to rearrange her legs, squidging along the floor, revolving. Her moves lure the others into a unison seated dance that escalates into something stranger and messier. Oddity is never illogical. Repetition has a distancing effect, as in a later passage when the women—first in pairs, then all together—pull one another around by their hair. This looks painful, but the fact that it isn’t performed vengefully also evokes coded behavior, even ritual.

A kind of sadness clings to this work; I’m not sure why. The women seem to be coping with an unsettling world. It’s not surprising when they end by walking their boundaries, mouths left open in a frozen utterance.

Going to the Construction Company studio brings back the old Dance Theater Workshop of the 1960s. The elevator only holds five people, and there’s one slow-filling toilet, but the small, plain space with its pipes showing brings out ingenuity in those who show work there. On a shared program last week, two ex-Cunningham dancers, Cathy Kerr and Ellen Cornfield, boldly took on large numbers of performers—10 in Kerr’s What Now, a different 10 in Cornfield’s Low Budget Love Songs.

Kerr begins alone, pointing her famously arched feet and indulging in housewifely gestures, tidying the air. Her crew, all women and mostly students at the Cunningham studio, spend some time off-center surveying her or engaging in simple actions in place, the bright reds, blues, and golds of their clothes picking up the colors of her dotted blouse and flowered skirt (all made more vivid by Mahdi Shah’s cool-bright lighting). Kerr’s choreography capitalizes on the three tapes that join sections of the floor. The outsider joins the crowd, and they venture along the tapes, leaping and darting from one to another to form new configurations. At the end of this pleasant exercise, the women, in various languages, debate what they see in the sky: “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s . . . ” and scatter about doing formal and genteel renditions of the three appropriate modes of locomotion.

Cornfield’s cast is mixed in gender, and while Kerr used Gershwin music, Cornfield’s composer, Nathaniel Drake, has written some marvelously wacky, sweetly discordant pieces, in which voices mutter such clichés of love as “There’s a place in my heart reserved for you,” while the dancers occasionally echo the sentiments by waltzing in pairs. Kerr’s women stick around. Cornfield’s people give the space a different look by rushing in and out in twos and threes. Now the room’s a crowd of flashing limbs, now an enjoyable display of counterpoint, now an emptiness framing two tall women.

Cornfield, a highly expressive dancer, also offered a solo, Prayer (to more fine music by Drake). She was always wonderful to watch in her richly three-dimensional scalloping movements, although I pondered, not for the first time, why it is that solos that begin with engrossing work on the floor seem to become less inventive once the dancer stands up.