The title of Tamar Rogoff’s solo dance for Claire Danes, Christina Olson: American Model, is cannily ironic. Olson was no Christy Turlington, but her picture has appeared on America’s walls, calendars, postcards, and refrigerator magnets ever since 1948, when Andrew Wyeth painted her from behind, crouched in a field of grass, leaning toward a house on the distant horizon. Wyeth’s model was a neighbor with a progressive muscular disorder that paralyzed her legs and weakened her arms. The success of Wyeth’s painting derives as much from its mystery as from its photorealist clarity. You feel an impossible distance between the young woman and the house she’s straining toward—no dream palace, just an isolated, weather-beaten farmhouse with outbuildings. Christina, who scorned a wheelchair, is crawling home.
Any mystery as to why a movie actress as prominent as Danes would decide to perform a work by Tamar Rogoff, a downtown choreographer, in a funky space like P.S.122 unravels fairly easily. Danes was a New York kid; like many, including my son and Ro-goff’s daughter, she went to P.S. 3 and took Ellen Robbins’s dance classes for children at Dance Theater Workshop. We followed her career from her debut as a luminous teenager on the unforgettable TV show My So-Called Life, rejoicing in her stellar film performances and wincing at some of the turkeys she graced. Her wish to venture back into dance, then, isn’t completely startling. And given New Yorkers’ business-as-usual attitudes, it’s no surprise that, for a video incorporated into the performance, Danes, wearing a stretchy black dress, crawled across 9th Street, up the steps to P.S.122, into the building, and up the stairs without anyone giving her a second glance.
Rogoff’s choice of subject isn’t surprising at all, once you look at Danes’s spine. Like Christina Olson, she has a long, flexible back. Inching along the floor in a belted rust-colored dress by Liz Prince, she resembles her model uncannily. Danes’s hair is currently blond, but wisps fly out around her face as they do around Christina’s.
Obviously, crawling isn’t the only means of locomotion in the hour-long solo. Anyone making a dance about a cripple inevitably has to focus on the character’s inner, more mobile life. So Danes, legs striking out, races around the room, now forward, now backward. She runs up some steps and a ramp to a mic’d platform in front of a large screen that captures occasional projections: grass, a gray clapboard house, a man (Wyeth?) watching from an upstairs window.
But Danes does crawl and roll a lot, and all her movements—even jumping and stamping—hint at a body at war with itself. As she walks calmly backward, her feet suddenly toe in for a few seconds. Standing, she twists her torso to the side while her feet stay pointing straight ahead and slowly curls and uncurls her fingers. When she falls, her body arches like a bow. And in an extraordinary sequence near the end, she turns wildly in the space, her head and torso making independent off-kilter circles. One moment, she seems heroically strong; the next, she’s a broken doll.
Often Danes explores her own body—touching her breasts; feeling the sensuous way her torso can undulate; snaking her long, slim arms; digging at her solar plexus with a fist. Rogoff’s choreography suggests both the progression of Olson’s disease and her maturing, but not in any linear way. Blackouts of David Ferri’s splendid lighting create jumps in time; phrases of movement recur; the lush, haunted music by Christian Frederickson and Rachel’s often just stops, as Danes drops one activity and moves to the next—taking off her dress and dancing in her bright blue slip, putting the dress back on. Christina’s life seems to inch along, derailed by struggle. Curiously, the piece feels both long and compelling. Rogoff, I think, wants us to sense the ordeal of Olson’s daily life in our own bodies.
Danes’s gift for honesty illuminates the material, as it usually does in her performances. She speaks several times, reading in an understated way from books about Wyeth and Olson and reciting detailed notes about the movement. Make no mistake: She’s a dancer. Those touching, dirty bare feet belong to a wise and sensitive body.