In today’s mixed-up world, you need regular doses of thoughtful absurdity. I don’t mean dada nihilism that queries establishment art. No pissing onstage for the sake of pissing. I’m thinking of provocative layers of wily-as-a-fox craziness. In two successive weeks Dance Theater Workshop hosted a reprise of Adrienne Truscott’s genesis, no! and Walter Dundervill’s new You Wrote the Book, plus Heather Olson’s also new duet Curious awake not possible. After seeing these pieces, you leave the theater smiling, scratching your head, and giving imaginary prizes for audacity.
I hadn’t envisioned a bespectacled man—lean but slack-belled, executing silly walks or bursting into song, clad only in a sort of diaper made by tucking toilet paper into jockey shorts (the beguiling Neal Medlyn in genesis). Another guy—impeded by the ultra long white pants and trailing blue-ribbon necktie tie of his bastard-Pierrot outfit, and semi-blinded by his white head-covering—drags onstage a linked chain of three supine performers in all-white ancien régime attire (Dundervill in You Wrote). Ever seen that before? I bet not.
Medlyn is (sort of) the Adam in Truscott’s garden, and the choreographer herself, in a puffy, papery bikini is (sort of) his Eve. But actually, we seem to be in a wacky museum of natural history. Natalie Agee’s gold-framed video portrait hangs on a side wall—a minimally blinking founder-donor-goddess. Onstage, stuffed specimens, characters in dioramas, artifacts, and curators (maybe) mingle in ways that query history and how we view the relics and debris of our past and that of the world. They also mingle—and bounce around together—with ridiculous and imaginative vigor. Medlyn, Truscott, and Carmine Covelli (like Medlyn, not a trained dancer) prowl or hop or run around together on rhythmically coherent journeys, or stand shoulder to shoulder, wince, and make curious gestures. Agee appears in a shiny outfit, sporting an improbably long, improbably blond mane. With Barbie-doll insouciance, she trips across the other three as they lie supine, using their bellies as stepping stones, and clambers over the audience as if on an evolutionary ladder or a stairway to heaven. We first see Neumann as an illuminated display—a waxwork, pseudo-primitive hunter with a thoroughly contemporary hat. Later he opens one of the doors in the drab, fake-wall set and stumbles into closet whose cleaning equipment he manages, hilariously, to dislodge into a crashing disorder. Later still, however, after examining a kettle as if it were an unfamiliar artifact, he carefully brings tea in nice china cups to Medlyn and Truscott, who sprawl, exhausted, against the wall.
Medlyn also becomes an exhibit. Truscott opens a curtain to reveal his naked butt and a stuffed peacock, then quickly closes it. Covelli seems awed by whole experience. He erects a small tepee, crawls in, and after a long time emerges from it in different attire. I don’t know why it seems so funny when Agee breezes down the aisle and dumps a small pile of bones at the feet of the others, who stare sadly at it for a while. Dust unto dust. At the end, three panels descend to form a small gallery room with a painting of horses. To the sound of galloping, people in the audience (previously instructed), including a very small girl (Io Ilex Flower Perl Strahan), come up to peer respectfully at it.
Dundervill’s You Wrote the Book is also concerned with the past. Two British voices (from what film?) discuss writing a book. When the strange figure mentioned earlier drags the people in, he places them in a small parlor with suspended fabric walls and floor, trimmed with blue ribbons. Once there, these weird simulacra of Marie Antoinette’s courtiers (Jennifer Kjos, Penelope Margolis, and Benjamin Asriel) perch wanly on foil-covered chairs, sit on one another’s laps, or form vaguely lewd pileups. Meanwhile, Athena Malloy and Sarah Perron, wearing crisp, white contemporary dresses (the terrific costumes are by Dundervill), do a lot of striding and strutting around the perimeter (I’m not quite sure who they are; they make me think of nurses). The bewigged women in their little room haplessly try to imitate their bold, lunging steps. Vive la Révolution! Dundervill bumbles around officiously, tripping on his pants, and Asriel exits and returns dressed just like him (they look like the kind of dummy you might once have seen hanging from a lamppost with a sign around its neck).
In fact, the Revolution does come, sartorially speaking. On foil-wrapped ladders, Malloy and Perron detach the room’s side walls and let them fall, and Kjos and Margolis re-enter, now ringleted and in looser dresses, and lounge prettily on the chairs like Mme. Récamier and friend posing for Ingres. Dundervill plays horsey with Asriel.
Moving on. Dundervill and Asriel (now partially undressed) literally wrap up the past. Taking down the rear fabric wall, they fold Kjos and Margolis up in the cloth, drag the resultant bundle to one side and lay foil over it (to soak up sun?). Let the heavy metal ring out! Malloy and Perron step side to side and lash their heads around. By the time the other two women emerge from the seething pile of cloth, they’re clad in silver tunics that tend to bare their breasts. In the end, everyone’s in silver—the men bare-assed under gleaming aprons. As they prance and run in patterns and jump up and down, it occurs to me that the remnants of Asriel’s hair powder, flying up, have traveled to us from the 18th-century in under an hour.
Justin Luchter’s nicely gauged music and the excellent lighting design by Joe Levasseur and John Jasperse anchor Dundervill’s bewitching, puzzling, dislocated world where these shards of dream, memory, and history sift together.
Levasseur’s lighting also enhances the different sort of puzzles Heather Olson lays out in her spare, elegant, eccentric Curious awake not possible. From the beginning, she and Emily Tschiffely establish an atmosphere in which everything not known is suspect and must be tested. At first all we see are their heads, as, one at a time, they crane out from behind little black curtains at either side of the stage to examine the space and us. They’re prone to sudden decisions, after which they sometimes look uncertain as to what they’ve done. Sitting briefly on two stools, wearing identical black turtlenecks and black shorts, exchanging whispers, they look like sisters. They move in perfect synchrony across the white floor, but they’re perpetually uneasy. As they step forward, their hands locked behind their heads, Tschiffely gazes upward past the audience, as if she expected disapproval from on high.
Although the two aren’t rigid, neither are they fluid. Every deliberate step, tilt of the torso, or stretch of the arms looks like part of a routine they’re trying out, determined to get it right. A few times they intersect—demarcating with stiff, at-odds hands some design on the floor or facing off to exchange a few enigmatic words, like “Let me tell you something.” The music, drawn from Oneida albums, ranges from hint-of-baroque to minimalist industrial.
There’s a fairly long section in which the women (wonderful performers both) either try to find comfortable positions on a large black mat so they can sleep, or try to stay awake; it’s not quite clear which. At the very end, Olson watches Tschiffely, who’s crumpled on the mat in some kind of mechanical fit, patting herself on the back over and over. Finally Olson reaches out and touches her gently. Tschiffely stops, and the lights go out.
All these pieces remind me what a pleasure it is to live in New York, where you can encounter people who are both serious about dancemaking and watching dance—delighted to see it climb out on a limb, drop down on limber feet, and mess with our heads.