In Irving Berlin’s 1949 Broadway hit, Annie Get Your Gun, Ethel Merman as 1890s sharpshooter Annie Oakley wrangled with Frank Butler (Ray Middleton), the star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He mused that the girl he’d call his own “would wear satins and laces and smell of cologne.” She belted out. “Anything you can do, I can do better.” Seven years after the cowgirl wannabe heroine of Agnes de Mille’s ballet Rodeo had to exchange her trousers for petticoats to get the guys at the corral to see her, Berlin’s Annie discovered that “You can’t get a man with a gun.”
David Parker is a musical comedy buff, but he’s also a keen satirist. In ShowDown, presented for the second year in a row by DanceNow, he transforms Annie‘s songs into a small-scale riot of gender sabotage and polymorphous sexual goings-on, with an occasional reference to ballet classics (a glimpse of Petipa’s little swans—linked and capering—reinvented by men in jeans and checked shirts; a sly behind-the-back handshake by two conspiratorial buddies that alludes to Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free; a bravura, Russian-style, one-handed lift with Jeffrey Kazin as the “ballerina”).
The songs come to us via recordings made by Judy Garland and Howard Keel, before Garland pulled out of the 1950 movie of Annie and was replaced by Betty Hutton. Keel sounds brash and a bit humorless, but Garland is wonderfully spunky, without forfeiting her unique honey-gold warmth. Parker avoids Annie‘s plot, but his dances recreate the show’s atmosphere of challenge and competition through which love—ah, love!—swoonily emerges. A Bang Group woman may look momentarily taken aback to find the man she was just dancing with in the arms of another fellow, but she shrugs it off and either leaves or joins the fun. “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly” begins with Amber Sloan, Nic Petry, and Kazin joining their mouths in a three-way kiss. Megan Flynn, lying on Terry Duncan’s bent-over back, reaches out to stroke Kazin’s cheek.
Since one of the musical’s memorable songs is “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” Parker and his collaborators also take note of Broadway pizzazz via a few “ta-da!” endings, a tilting pinwheel formation, and so on. But he’s adroit at having performers enter through the eating, drinking audience to infiltrate a number or pop up from the lower depths behind Joe’s Pub’s tiny red stage. And while I could wish for more solo or duet moments, I appreciate the fact that the action rarely pauses. Gay encounters morph seamlessly into straight ones, and back. Parker’s adroit at making up steps too; the foot action is lively, and the entanglements ingenious (Kazin gets a hand for his spiral slide down the body of another man—maybe Bryan Campbell). The Wild West allusions—the faintly bow-legged saunter, the leg thrown over an invisible horse—take on a cheeky edge. When Marissa Palley, collapsed on the floor, suddenly bumps her hips up into a backbend position and a guy mounts her facing the rear and waving an imaginary hat or lariat, you get a very tricky image (this maneuver is something of a motif).
By way of a politically meaningful encore, Parker and Kazin sing (and tap dance) “Old-Fashioned Wedding,” a song added to the 1966 Lincoln Center revival of Annie. In this clever adaptation, the musical’s themes of rivalry assume a sweeter, friskier tone, with the men reversing their opposed wedding plans in the final contrapuntal burst.
Another bonus this time around: the shenanigans of “hosts” Monica Bill Barnes and Deborah Lohse. They don’t exactly make us feel at home, although Lohse eventually and grudgingly hauls out a “Welcome” sign. Wearing vests over droopy red long-johns, they’re gruff, silent partners—sorry, pardners—toddling stiffly around while Johnny Cash and family sing warm-hearted ole songs. Barnes—slitty-eyed and quick on the trigger—and Lohse, lanky and noodle-limbed with a rubbery, Carol Burnett face—make a hilarious duo, and, you know what? They dance purty durn well too. We’re glad to see them return for a coda in which they bully a spectator and then the whole cast.
We’ve been here before. The quiet babel of voices in several languages from people sitting at mikes around a table is familiar from Yoshiko Chuma’s 2002 n=3.14. The large metal-framework cubes that Ralph Lee designed for her appeared in her 2007 A Page Out of Order: M and in earlier pieces of hers (including one for the Irish company, Dagda, which she directed from 2002 to 2003). At Saint Mark’s, one of the films we see in her Not About Romanian Cinema: POONARC (Milchio Manchevski’s 1995 Before the Rain) was also shown during the 2007 work. In fact, this latest piece is part of an ongoing series featuring performances and installations that Chuma has been working on since 2001 and expects to continue with until 2011.
Chuma considers herself a citizen of the world, and she turns a penetrating and concerned eye on societies in turmoil and on the depredations of war. Some of her earlier pieces investigated the tensions between life in the U.S. and the postwar Japan she grew up in. She has developed pieces in Bosnia, Macedonia, and Transylvania, among other places, and presented them in various forms. For the last month, she and her performers have been traveling through Romania. In each place, she collaborates with new performers, filmmakers, and musicians. Dancing barely appears in some of these works, yet you watch them as if you’re peering into an untidy, unstable, volatile world of motion, where something can explode at any minute. The shreds of peace and understanding that Chuma looks for are so fragile that weaving them together might be dangerous. Like dancing on a volcano’s rim.
When the audience enters Saint Mark’s, seven performers are seated on two sides of the table—each with a microphone and personal lamps (lighting design by Rie Ono, scenic and costume design by Nick Vaughan). The program warns us that we will hear Romanian, Hungarian, English, and Japanese, all of which at some point will be spoken in English. Behind the seated cast, the cubes, pushed together to look like a folding screen and veiled, show a black-and-white film loop of John Cage and musicians at the 1966 E.A.T.—Nine Evenings of Dance and Engineering. In eerie light (might be infra-red) that turns them almost white in the darkness, the men putter about, twisting dials in a snakepit of wires. The performers’ often simultaneous speeches, each addressed to an individual silent colleague, deal, in part, with their travel adventures. Jake Margolin addresses his remarks in English to Theo Herghelegiu (an actress and playwright and, with Margolin, the author of this text). She, sitting diagonally opposite and at some distance, then responds in her language. Kristine Haruna Lee directs her animated English more or less to actor Sorin Calota. At one point, dancer-choreographer Andreea Ana Maria Duta appears to be translating Margolin’s words.
The sound design by Jacob Burkhardt and Soichiro Migita features often drastic aural effects, such as a train that might be six feet in front of you. The music—created by Sizzle Ohtaka, Koichi Makigami, Hiromu Motonaga, and Tcha Limberger—incorporates violin, mouth harp, music box, and vocals. Ohtaka, performing live, has an amazing voice. The excerpts from eight films compound the often dizzying atmosphere. References are made to the 1989 Romanian revolution. In a street scene, the cars seem to elongate, twist, and race uphill, as they pass across the angled screens. Three politicians fumble with papers at a table in an excerpt from what might be 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006, by Corneliu Porumboiu). They mention a situation that a fictitious caller to a radio station identified as happening in “our town,” but the town isn’t theirs, so they can’t deal with the problem. They leave their flat, black-and-white table, and the live performers rip the white papers they’ve been writing on and toss them in their air. They also dance feverishly in their chairs when a band plays.
Ultimately, they do become more mobile. Periodically people write rapidly on a blackboard suspended at the entry end on the space (later I find I can’t read any of the scribble, not even the words in English). Chuma dances within one cube with three sheeted sides amid projections of crumbling buildings; wary, alert, she juts her arms and legs half recklessly, half guarded—menaced by her own shadow. When sheets are removed from three of the cubes, films crawl up the wall of the church. Ursula Eagly twists and drapes the fabric around her until she’s bulky and turbaned. Performers tilt the bare cubes, walk them to new places, spin them on one corner. Like the clock faces that get tossed around the table at one point, these featureless changing structures remind us of impermanence, of time zones crossed and hotel rooms that look alike. Duta, Eagly, and István Téglás dance very beautifully and separately—blowing in who knows what wind. Eagly is a marvel of fluid, gangly legs and boneless-looking falls. When five of them move energetically at the same time, they could be doing either five separate dances or parts of a single one in inevitable, ragged counterpoint.
Sudden changes of light, beams glinting on the cubes, singing in the dark, train wheels both projected and heard, strangers’ faces in closeup (Hiroki Oiishi’s 2005 film Beach, Hand, Eye, Tears), the sound of seven hands desperately chalking on a blackboard words that may not be read. Chuma is an artist unlike any other—adventurous, crazy, wise.