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David Parker’s bright new Hour Upon the Stage pokes amiable fun at what it means to be in the spotlight, but it also reminds us that events in everyday life can, at least in retrospect, be viewed as small, discrete dramas. The work’s title is followed by this slight obfuscation: “(formerly AstridPark).” Dutch artist Rens Lipsius’s videos of Astrid Park in Bruges were to have been
part of the performance, but, according to a program note, Parker and the intrepid members of his Bang Group “absorbed this inspiration so entirely” that they decided instead just to run the videos in DTW’s lobby.
In those silent videos, a few distant figures on a vast lawn engage in pastimes, meals, and altercations that you have to squint to discern. Cristina Aguirre, Kate Digby, Jeffrey Kazin, Marta Miller, Nic Petry, Amber Sloan, Emily Tschiffely, and Zack Winokur bring distillations of the mysterious activities up close and personal. Parker’s piece underlines the endearing performers’ individuality from the outset. One by one—wearing tee-shirts and jeans that Melanie Rozema has trimmed with strips of cream-colored fabric—they walk onto the stage and fall; at the second of hitting the floor, each acquires a personal pool of light. And it’s in those small arenas that they begin to stretch and pose. When all but Kazin rush away (there’s a lot of coming and going in Hour Upon the Stage), lighting designer Kathy Kaufmann takes away their spots and enlarges Kazin’s for his down-home hoofing.
Several strands intertwine over the hour the piece rums. One of these, rhythms produced by the dancers, is a Bang Group trademark. Parker molds stamping, clapping, and slapping into happy assertions, argumentative dialogues, competitions, and displays of prowess. Vocal noises like gasps and coughs also punctuate the silence, although I find these somewhat distracting (their inescapable connotations tend to render them whimsical). In one charming duet, Kazin and Petry use their mouths more meaningfully; while laying down a soft-shoe number, they whistle “Swanee River.” The scene also boasts one of Parker’s good jokes. Just prior to it, Kazin runs at Petry, launches himself into the air, and ends up athwart Petry’s chest; Petry, puzzled, doesn’t use his hands to help—just lets them hang down—and eventually Kazin slides off him. As they’re about to end their duet, Petry thinks he’ll jump onto Kazin in the same startling way. He crashes to the ground, not once but twice, before Kazin reminds him who’s the jumper in this relationship.
The duet is only one of many events that show these people to be a tribe. Even their most playful encounters hint at human truths. The imaginative choreography that they dance together and separately combines ballet steps with more everyday athletic ones in ways that make ballet look relaxed and convivial and more ordinary ones expressive in unusual ways. The air of camaraderie stems largely from the performers’ awareness of one another. While Kazin partners Winokur, Sloan and Petry stroll on and attentively copy some of their moves. Often someone will stare at another’s maneuvers as if to ask, “Are you crazy?” Tschiffely, dancing side by side with Sloan while “Oh Shenandoah” is played on a harmonica, casts a glance at her partner that says, “Why are we doing this?” Petry struggles into a developpé; Winokur walks onstage and in less than two seconds unfurls a beaut. Petry conveys what he feels about this with admirable subtlety.
Silence engages importantly with silence. Sloan —quiet, sensuous—crosses the front of the stage in a corridor of light. Digby dances a wonderful slow, spacious solo in which you can scarcely hear a footfall. But when all eight cast members set about performing rhythmic passages in unison, despite the heavy stamping that provides the beat, they make the body-as-instrument into a joyous and exacting affair.
Parker is recovering from an injury. So Kazin is standing in for him as well as being his own marvelously sly self. At the end, when “Moon River” is heard, and Kaufmann patterns ripples on the floor and makes a large moon traverse the sky in record time, Kazin walks up the aisle and out the door of the theater. The others wave goodbye. Maybe something like that happened in Astrid Park. It happens a lot in our lives.