Theater archives

Social Studies


For reasons I won’t go into, I’m sworn not to reveal the locale of SX Street, Magnetic Laboratorium’s “interdisciplinary event.” Suffice it to say that I enter the inconspicuous door of a Lower East Side loft building and take a seat in front of a large second-story window along with the rest of the visitors. Magnetic’s 38 listed artists—who include many dancers from Merce Cunningham’s company, as well as actors, musicians, and visual artists—are no-where in sight. But wait, what’s that blue light shining on the building across the street?

Several moments into the event, conceived and directed by Magnetic’s founder, Marisela La Grave, I’m carried back to the 1960s, when, inspired mostly by John Cage, questions like, “Is it art, or is it life? And what’s the difference anyway?” were being considered in every medium. As we watch the street corner below, we play Spot the Performer(s), or Who’s a Performer Who’s Not? Some are definitely stars. A presumed street person hauls an industrial-strength wagon; sprawled on his black garbage bags is a sleeping beauty in a white-net ball gown. A man vaults into a tree, where a light picks out his glowing face. A woman doggedly limps across the street, her crutches gnarly homemade chairs. Jonah Bokaer, in a camouflage outfit with a “No War” sign on it, spreads a little blue mat right on the street’s centerline, and there, with intermittent traffic rolling by in both directions, does his yoga. And a huddle that crosses the street, umbrellas raised, is clearly a choral moment.

It takes a while, though, for us to realize that this would be an unlikely corner for a man bearing a flower (Cedric Andrieux) to await a date who fails to show up. There may be cross-dressers around here, but surely none as gorgeous as Shasta Cola (a/k/a Glen Rumsey). However, we have trouble deciding whether two men trying in vain to get a big box out of a car trunk are for real. Nor can we agree for sure about the man and woman who appear to stumble on the proceedings and stay to watch; their sham tango step across the street could be extroversion by contagion. The rest of the passersby, true New Yorkers, barely give the shenanigans a glance.

Mollie O’Brien makes intriguing dances—always, so far, for women. Her new Triptych incorporates a 2002 duet, “Faster Than Dark,” for Jennifer Dignan and Gina Jacobs. The love-hate rivalry hinted at there comes into full and rather horrifying bloom in “Crushed Raspberries” and “Summoning the Delicate.” Shawn Onsgard’s sound score and Severn Clay’s lighting enhance the underlying turmoil (although I found the changing squares at the bottom of Clay’s light-defined triptych distracting).

In the first section, the women’s intimate disharmony is suggested by Jacobs drifting into sleep, or something like it, while Dignan, standing beside her, gestures intently forward, or by the pushy, not-quite-unison dancing that feels like a race. In the next section, they indulge in a patient, initially gentler battle; again they’re side by side, both staring straight ahead, but one keeps taking the hand of the other, who removes her grasp. Repeated over and over, this becomes a worrisome game that explodes when they start shoving and using their legs like hooks to destabilize each other.

I enjoy watching these women get ideas —the sure-of-herself Dignan and the perhaps needier Jacobs. They’re side by side again. Jacobs starts nuzzling Dignan’s face, planting loud, seemingly derisive kisses on her. Dignan wins the ensuing unpleasant contest of affectionate gestures. Jacobs gets a new idea: She starts examining Dignan’s finger, her ear, her eye; Dignan remains aloof. They dance, thrashing and staggering around, alone together on stage. The ending comes as a surprise—more irresolute than mysterious.

For her new solo Swimming Lessons, O’Brien wears a wonderful outfit by Naoko Nagata—gray, filmy, layered—which helps open up the possibilities in the title. Yes, O’Brien does in a sense “swim”—lying on her side, kicking strangely, and gazing upward, or pouring imaginary water over herself. But the work could be about any kind of difficult learning that involves bravery and fear. The way O’Brien rears her long, shapely body back and rolls it forward increasingly fast suggests not just effort but a degree of aversion. Lashing her limbs, lunging, turning, she is both sinuous and unsettled. I liked the solo better and better as it went along; after a while, I stopped noticing steps and entered the “water” with her.

On its 30th anniversary, Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana honors the choreography of its co-founder, Roberto Lorca, who died in 1987. That’s as it should be. Lorca’s 1983 Zapateado drives the audience wild. Not only do five women wearing manly velvet jackets and loose trousers ride the stage with their heelwork, swinging their hats like bullfighters’ capes; three men top their virtuosity, striking the ends of long poles against the floor in tricky counter-rhythms to their feet. Antonio Hidalgo—credited with the restaging, and the third to take the spotlight—increases the speed dazzlingly without sacrificing his intense composure, then pulls everything down to a sotto voce flutter of taconeo, his heels and toes hardly seeming to move. The crisp sound amid quiet is welcome. The overmiking of this concert often made the excellent guitar playing by Calvin Hazen and Fernando de la Rua jangle, Terence Butler’s flute whine, and Yiyi’s percussion become too dominant. The voices of the fine cantaores—Curro Cueto and José Salinas—were less compromised.

The darkness at the heart of flamenco—the guitars, the wail of gypsy voices in cante jondo, the coiling wrists, the angry feet and curving backs—never fails to entrance an audience. In the second half of Lorca’s 1986 Luz y Sombra, the enchantress of Andalusian folklore, La Petenera, becomes Death. La Meira and Fermín Calvo de Mora are thrilling—she wielding her long rustling train, her shawl, her seductive wiles; he entranced, emboldened, then increasingly terrified. His heelwork speaks of panic, hers of remorseless stalking. After he has finally fallen, she drags her skirt slowly across his inert body.

Hidalgo’s new Bailes de Ida y Vuelta traces the influence of the diaspora of Spanish culture—with elements of Latin American, Caribbean, and African American jazz feeding back into flamenco music. There’s lots of byplay in this café cantante of culture on the move. Barrels, bags, and boxes rearranged become tables and chairs. Porch rockers appear, straw hats are donned, shirts get looser. It’s entertaining, if slightly confusing (the company’s printed program, in general, gives skimpy information, particularly on matters of casting). I was especially taken with a brief passage for the company’s four men (who include Zenón Ramos and Jairo Rodríguez), in which they turn their moderate-tempo foot rhythms into four-part counterpoint. Olé!