Theater archives

Serving the Master


Who should cover Matthew Bourne’s Play Without Words? Debate may not rage in newsrooms, but the question has come up. I agree with Bourne, famed for his wildly theatrical Swan Lake with its all-male birds: Play is dance theater because only dancers could execute its maneuvers. Don’t ask an actor to twine around a partner in acrobatic sex while lying on a table—elbows, knees, and hips intersecting in unlikely ways, and legs shooting into the air like erections.

Play is loosely based on Joseph Losey’s 1963 film The Servant, starring James Fox and Dirk Bogarde. In an England where class distinctions are just beginning to erode, Bourne’s clever, malevolent manservant, Prentice, effects the debasement of his autocratic young master, Anthony, obliquely enticing Speight, a rough-mannered old mate of Anthony’s, to seduce Anthony’s fiancée, Glenda, and making his own mistress, Sheila (hired as a housemaid), seduce Anthony.

Bourne’s interest in movies shapes the work. In Lez Brotherston’s terrific London set, with its cockeyed buildings and neon signs that descend and rise, Anthony’s not-yet-furnished apartment is dominated by a contraption of stairways and inner pantries that turns to offer new perspectives. Like a film score, Terry Davies’s splendid music for the offstage jazz quartet goads the action with eruptive energy, provides club music to dance to, and strokes the foreplay with insinuating softness.

Ingeniously, Bourne allots three performers each to four principal roles, and two play Sheila. Occasionally, one actor-dancer takes over a role, as in Alan Vincent’s coarse, athletic outburst as Speight, At other times, all the Glendas, say, prowl identically, in counterpoint to all the Anthonys. The opening scene is an almost dizzying flow of dressed-alikes whisking around, making brief, telling connections as they go. By splitting a role, Bourne can set the equivalent of flashbacks, flash-forwards, and dreams onstage simultaneously, or fracture one moment. Speight smacks one Glenda’s butt while she’s frugging with Anthony; another Anthony nearby gives him a dirty look.

The sadomasochistic relationship between master and servant accumulates eroticism in part because the interchanges are so intricately choreographed, so perversely fluid. In one scene, Scott Ambler deftly dresses Richard Winsor, while Eddie Nixon undresses Sam Archer. The two Prentices, switching masters as they go, assume humiliating poses and debasing jobs. One gets down on all fours as a seat while removing his master’s shoes; another reaches under his boss’s dressing gown and peels off his dirty underpants. Later, Prentice completes the degradation of Anthony in a violent and complex dance for six, making him beg for a drink, tossing his dirty towel in his face, sniffing his armpit.

Sometimes Play seems to take a step backward for every two steps forward, and the overall dynamic level doesn’t vary much. But Bourne and his colleagues (kudos to the 14-plus performers) have created a brilliantly theatrical montage, enigmatic in its narrative, vivid in its details.

Before Yin Mei’s Nomad: The River begins, the choreographer’s taped voice recites entries from a diary she kept as a good little Maoist schoolgirl during China’s Cultural Revolution. (“To struggle is the only joy.”) Her soft words ebb and flow in volume like the river of her title. Although she endured the disconnect between high-minded slogans and a climate in which public humiliations and executions were common, Nomad is not a violent dance. Memories of violence are veiled, isolated from source or aftermath. At one point, Pedro Osorio hoists Gaye Atay and Sonja Kostich from the floor, where they’re sitting numbly, and carefully brushes broad strokes of red paint down the front of their calves; they turn obediently when he wants to color the backs too. Then he paints his own legs. What terrible act lurks behind this gentle echo?

Every action is dreamlike—real yet unreal, vivid yet somehow misted in beauty. The four performers swim out of sharp focus whenever they enter the horizontal avenues formed by Christopher Salter’s three rows of white fiberglass screens, where projections of trees become a mysterious layered forest. In Yin Mei’s journey, a search for peace involves acknowledging the past. She begins huddled on the floor, looking within herself yet hearing the crickets, soft singing, and lightly throbbing percussion in Salter’s sensitive sound score. As she uncurls—rocking, surging slowly into poses—she could be emerging from a chrysalis of ignorance. Osorio stands in the dimness at the back, saluting.

A flash of white light (design by Lea Xiao) seems inexplicably terrifying; dancers lying on the floor sit up and gasp. But they also shake metal sheets to make their own thunder. The visions dissolve before I can grasp them. What might a flower in the hand signify? What does the projected Chinese text say? The masks the performers suddenly appear in could signal disguise, ritual, punishment . . . As they cluster at the end, making small movements to sweet music, they throw their arms up; a greenish haze envelops them like fireless smoke. I later learn it is green tea.

The greatly gifted Yin Mei works from a deep place that she herself is perhaps still striving to comprehend. Nomad may not yet be fully formed. It brushes our minds with images whose poetry ensnares us, whose enigmas taunt us.

Legendary hoofer Jimmy Slyde made a smart move when he gave an aspiring young tapper the name Roxane Butterfly. Born in the South of France, steeped in the music of the jazz greats, largely self-taught until she arrived in New York, Butterfly moves as if the floor needed tickling, not thrashing. Getting down isn’t her style. Slender, usually erect, she’s light on her feet, yet solid—able to lay down a pattering fusillade of steps at astonishing speed with no loss of clarity. Sometimes her torso seems a little stiff, and she likes to keep her face front and smiling, but damn! what a subtle sense of rhythm.

Butterfly, who won a Bessie for Outstanding Creative Achievement in 1999, has absorbed elements of music and dance from North African immigrant communities in France, musicians in Burkina Faso, and New York hoofers during the six years she danced on city streets. Somehow she’s put it all together in her warm-cool style, speaking and moving as if tapping were the most glorious thing in the world—”a gasp for air,” she calls it.

At her 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Project concert, she talks both on tape and at a mic, honoring history and creating the block-party feeling that’s de rigueur at tap events. As a woman tapper—and a white one at that—she would have been a rarity when her heroes ruled the stage. She speaks intensely and poetically of women’s rights—and not just in dance—but mostly her words honor the art form’s greats, while the band (musical director, composer, and cornetist Graham Haynes; drummer Victor Jones; keyboard player Ted Cruz; and bassist Jennifer Vincent) keeps the beat moving under all the talk. Mansur Scott tells of his early denial of tap and his discovery of virtuosos like Baby Lawrence and Peg Leg Bates. Butterfly invokes Steve Condos, Chuck Green, and later masters like Gregory Hines and Tamango. On a little platform, Joseph Wiggan feeds some vintage steps into his sharp tap improv, and their faces flick across the screen in the film Be Artist by Butterfly and DeSales. This Hoofalogies Suite also includes a film by Melissa Semadeni in which, to Haynes’s music, tango dancer Pablo Veron performs Butterfly’s choreography.

There’s plenty of terrific performing—choreographed, improvised, and “imprographed.” Butterfly is joined by Wiggan, Yoshiko Hida, and Max Pollak, as well as two small guests: 10-year-old Hannah Lea Dunn, and 11-year-old Warren “Swingtime” Craft—self-possessed feet-masters both. Vienna-born Pollak is a looser-bodied, more dug-in dancer than Butterfly, and slapping and clapping add to his rhythms. His shifting focus and turning body as he travels through space in a superb solo make him look three-dimensional in every way. And there are dancer-to-dancer Q & A’s and dancer-musician challenges and tappers in the audience calling out approval for this international tribute to down-home art.