Walter Dundervill and Jody Oberfelder Probe the Past


A little over a week ago, I wrote about the thrills and perils of deconstruction and the popular dance of fragmentation. Now comes Walter Dundervill with Dear Emissary, in which time travel becomes the vehicle for picking apart and layering enigmatic events. In an interview with Gia Kourlas that appeared in Time Out New York, Dundervill (a gifted performer and multi-talented theater artist) revealed that the cast of this new piece of his plays members of a 1970s troupe, who are in turn looking back at the late 1920s. Key films made in the ’20s (such as G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box)—or with subject matter from that decade—figured as source material (along with a lot of other stuff).

Whew! I don’t know whether the spectators who trekked out to the Chocolate Factory knew all that. Dundervill evidently felt they didn’t need to; he didn’t put the information in the program. This is an evening rife with mystery and laden with questions; luckily it’s also full of striking theatrical effects. If you arrive before 8 p.m., or even some minutes afterward, you descend the short flight of steps to the Chocolate Factory’s shabby, low-ceilinged basement to confront a series of tableaux vivants. Arranged at one end of the long, narrow space are racks of costumes and an arrangement of low platforms and chairs on which are posed seven members of the cast wearing 1920s attire. From time to time they change positions, as if an invisible photographer were doing publicity shots.

We sit on chairs (not enough for everyone) at the side or wander around staring. Which is how we discover what they could be gazing at beside a non-existent lens. Opposite them, in a recess the size of an elevator, two figures wrap around each other in every way they can. In this slow struggle, they could be mating or wrestling or striving to find warmth and comfort in a space smaller than the one they actually inhabit. It’s hard to tell because they’re wearing bulky, rough-cut suits of unbleached muslin, and their heads are covered by mesh bags, tied on at the neck with long, black ribbons.

When they stand up and emerge, it’s to entertain us with slow, repetitive stepping patterns. The others have left and gone up to the main performing area, and the intermittent thuds we hear are made by the costumes that they’re throwing down through a shaft into the recess.

We trudge up and take our seats along one long side of the theater. In the ribbon of space in front of us, several women in vintage high-heels and short, wraparound muslin dresses are lying or standing with paper drums (or hatboxes) on their heads. Things begin to sort themselves out. The women turn out to be Patricia Beaman, Biba Bell, Megan Byrne, and Jennifer Kjos. They’re most active as a kind of chorus, swaying dreamily, framing the rest of the action, and making fierce forays up and down the room, strutting and kicking their legs high with every step. Once, as they go, they sing, “Yes and lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, lover come back to me,” along with Leonard Cohen (the sound score put together by Justin Luchter also contains songs by the Rolling Stones and Lioness). Ben Boatright, Janet Dunson, and Kevin Lovelady are costumed in more or less regular attire, and it is they who gather around a small table to talk, or stand in a series of locations indicated by sketchy scenes painted on cardboard that Dundervill and Benjamin Asriel periodically rush in and hold up behind them.

These two, the former denizens of the recess, function as stage managers, arranging thin door-sized slabs along the wall so that their white sides show, later reversing them to reveal their brown backs. Carrie Woods’s lighting sometimes turns the whole space blue or red or as multicolored as a disco.

In the repeating, shifting conversations, the performers use their real names, and once, a deep, gradually slowing voice gives stage directions. Boatright, Dunson, and Lovelady deliver their lines with a certain mechanical precision, which occasionally gives way to high emotion. The dialogue is succinct: “I’m leaving.” “Why? Because he doesn’t love you?” There’s a scene in a hospital; Boatright (sometimes Lovelady) lies on the floor and the other two hover. Each time the conversation is repeated, its meaning shifts. Sometimes the visitors hope the patient will die. Sometimes they appear grief-stricken. Sometimes they tell him to get up. “He’s gone” can have two meanings.

The four high-stepping women take off their white tunics to reveal silver ones. Over black tights, Asriel and Dundervill don coats made of the basic unbleached cotton; intriguingly cut, these suggest early modernist constructions (Dundervill designed the costumes and scenic elements). These two and Kjos step out in some of the evening’s most exhilarating dancing, expanding all the steps we’ve seen, covering space as they kick and turn, leaping. They soothe the hapless Boatright (who’s never answered the question he’s been asked several times about when he’ll get back to writing poetry) and dress him in new attire. The women reappear—a time-traveling, bleached-out costume parade. Beaman has the bulky panniers of an 18th-century woman, Bell’s gray wig suggests Marie Antoinette, while Byrne and Dunson wear post-Revolution garb. One at a time, all the performers except Asriel and Dundervill lie down on the white panels that have now been laid on the floor. The two men pace amid the entombed past.

The references to process anchor Dear Emissary in 2010. The music and lighting evoke the 1970s, and a number of the costumes allude to the 1920s. How Dundervill sees these decades relating, beyond his interest in them, is one of the evening’s provocative mysteries.

Jody Oberfelder is a survivor, celebrating her company’s 20 years of existence and, by extension, her own longer career performing, teaching dance, making films of it, and choreographing for opera and theater. Pondering her relative longevity on the scene, you might posit that this small, wiry, onetime gymnast has upended herself in headstands and flips so many times that her blood circulates more efficiently than most people’s. But I tend to think that something more than her fast-twitch muscles and brain keeps her going: her evident love of dance and her enthusiasm for every aspect of it.

Oberfelder isn’t into mystery. She makes bright, clear, gutsy, often very funny pieces. She’s not afraid to be corny. In planning her 20th anniversary season at the Abrons Arts Center, she winnowed out bits from some of her best works, re-vamped them, and wove them into a fast-moving show, prefaced by Nic Petry’s elegant montage of film clips. You can follow through the evening how milestones in Oberfelder’s life and career affected her work. Here she is in “Tabula Rasa/Midlight” from her 2006 LineAge (the piece in which she announced her age by chalking five groups of five lines plus 2 on the floor), treading a lifeline chalked on the floor, erasing as she goes. In “Id on a Grid” from the same piece, she’s joined by original cast members Elise Knudson, Rebekah Morin, and Carlton Ward, along with Aditi Dhruv and Jake Szczypek, in a repeating group of images that involve a fallen person, with another rushing in to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and yell, “Call 911!” People are lifted and dropped. Maybe that’s what you get if you walk on your hands and head a lot. But when the four hold hands and walk upstage, one of them just happens to be upside down.

Luke Gutsgell and Brandin Steffensen reprise a lusty, acrobatic duet from the 2008 Heavy Light. Brynne Billingsley and Szczypek recreate Hansel and Gretel’s plight from Oberfelder’s The Story Thus Far, inspired by the stories by the Brothers Grimm (2004), their lifting and clinging to each other the product of fear. Knudson and Ward perform a fine duet from The Title Comes Last (2006). However, some of the evening’s most charming passages focus on women. In a revival of the 1994 Wanted X Cheerleaders, Lynn Neuman, Cydney Pullman, Jule Ramirez, and the choreographer twitch their red-skirted butts and shake their boobs. They also have to remind one another that they can no longer identify themselves proudly as being over 40; that number has gone up by ten. They mock college cheerleaders (“virgin sluts”) and their flirty, rah-rah routines, while chanting their championship of lusty age and reminding us of real female workouts (Oberfelder, lifted by her friends, grimaces and groans in mock childbirth).

In the early 1990s, Oberfelder made a film (with Ben Ben Speth) of her pregnant naked self dancing, and followed that, in 1996, with Expectant Tango for six extremely pregnant women. We see them on film in red gowns; then with a bit of theatrical slight-of-hand, they’re replaced in a dim glow (Kathy Kaufman designed the masterful lighting) by six figures in green, their backs to us. When they turn, they reveal teen-aged kids in front of them. Some of these parents are the women in the film, although they’ve been joined by others, including a father, Lynn Brown. The parent-child duetting is loving, but tough, with the occasional child (Cate Hurlin, for instance) already showing dancerly chops. Then to the continuing taped song Rock Me Mama (lyrics written and sung by Tine Kindermann and Oberfelder, guitar by Steve Houseplan), five dancer-mothers perform holding their infants. Simple movement, yes, but very skillfully choreographed, and the babies are downright professional; one front and center wins hearts by clapping its tiny palms together and flashing numerous smiles.

In recent years, Oberfelder has branched out into choreographing and directing opera. Based on the excerpt she showed at the Abrons from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (staged in 2008 for the Orchestra of St. Luke’s), I wish I’d been able to see the whole work. As in The Story Thus Far excerpts, the musicians are onstage (in the Hansel and Gretel episode, Kindermann, singing the role of the Fairy Godmother, interacts with the two dancers). Kamala Sankaram sings Dido’s part in the Purcell opera, and the superbly expressive bass-baritone Andrew Nolen plays Aeneas. Melody Fader handles the keyboard, and the remarkable Malina Rauschenfels switches back and forth between cello and violin, while also voicing the Sorceress. The most imaginative scene features Ward on stilts as the Sorceress. When he swings his subordinate witches (Billingsley, Dhruv, and Szczypek) into the air and drops them, they look like munchkins.

By the time the evening is over, the final event, Crash Helmet Brigade (a re-mix of Oberfelder’s 1986 solo) has brought a horde of dancers and musicians onstage. No wonder Alice Teirstein looks as if she’s been caught in the middle of a traffic onslaught while crossing the street. Wearing helmets and bright-colored jerseys, scrimmaging to music by X, Le Tigre, and the Slits, the performers have at the air, the floor, and one another’s skulls. It’s kind of a mess (under-rehearsed maybe), but it captures the zest for headlong, endearingly human dancing in an upside-down world that Oberfelder has cultivated for 20 years.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 22, 2010

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