Theater archives

Spring Guide: Choreographer Faye Driscoll Turns Dance Theater Workshop into a Mad House


Faye Driscoll’s 2008 dance-theater production 837 Venice Blvd. began with Will Oldham’s song “I Am a Cinematographer.” Quickly, though, Oldham’s lyrics gave way to Driscoll’s, which pushed the songwriter’s flickeringly obscure melancholy into a zone more extreme, absurd, and wound-baring. At one point, Driscoll’s narrator sang about a secret—a disgusting, nasty secret that she ate and threw up, and when she looked into the puke and saw herself, “There was truth.” This is self-descriptive of Driscoll’s approach to art-making. Fixating on the gross—or at least on the disconcerting—she holds her audience’s face in it. She believes it is truth.

The audience tends to laugh, which is one measure of accuracy. Despite a single case of simulated defecation, Driscoll’s effluvia have been mostly metaphorical and emotional—insecurity, awkwardness, unseemly needs and desires. People laugh to keep from cringing. At the beginning of her choreographic career, that response bothered Driscoll; she was serious. But it didn’t take her long to embrace the comedy. It has helped gain her a steadily growing following, and it’s part of what has caused critics to mark the 34-year-old choreographer as a rising talent.

That talent goes beyond uncomfortable humor. What was most impressive about 837 Venice Blvd. wasn’t its guiding conceit—staging childhood identity formation as a clubhouse session of make-believe—or its unabashed exposure of seething emotion. It was its success in expressing the emotion through the conceit. The nasty or tender way the kids treated each other as ventriloquist’s dummies. How a girl’s excoriation of her friends morphed into a confession of her worst fears about herself. The point wasn’t especially subtle, but the transitions could be. If the message wasn’t original, some of the manner was. The originality wasn’t in the movement, per se. Rather than dancing in the traditional sense, the people in Driscoll’s shows act out. The bits that look like “choreography” have quotes around them, suggesting aerobics or drill-team routines kept amateur the better to convey character. Driscoll is a dramatist.

Her new work, There is so much mad in me, plays March 31 through April 3 at the Dance Theater Workshop, her largest venue to date. Where 837 Venice Blvd. was an intimate trio, Mad in me triples those numbers, taking the first piece’s mode of one person trying on successive identities and multiplying it into a labile mob mentality. It shouldn’t be surprising that Driscoll is captivated by extreme states—religious ecstasy, sexual ecstasy, the ecstasy of violence. She’s interested in the similarities between them, and how easily one might become another. These shifts she stages adroitly, cross-fading so that a sports victory becomes an orgy becomes a riot becomes a revival. Getting Busy is not so different from Getting Happy. Sex can turn into violence and back. The group makes these transitions together, though, as in 837 Venice Blvd., there are moments when someone goes too far and ends up the odd man out, exposing the boundaries no one knew were there by exceeding them or by missing the communal cue to stop.

In person, Driscoll is soft-spoken and thoughtful. You would not think there was so much mad in her. “I’ve felt in my own life,” she says, “how quick shifts are now required of human beings. We have to manage that speed. Why? I don’t feel like I know. I don’t have a pure moral stance. I’m living in the question and asking people to live in the question.”

The other question that Mad in me poses is, in her words, “What is our compulsion to watch each other in extremity?” Driscoll has reality and entertainment and voyeurism on her mind, too. These interests occasion segments of the piece in talk-show format, which, in late February rehearsals, were far less convincing than the nonverbal sections. (The effect of young performers acting younger, so appropriate for 837 Venice Blvd., here threatens to turn into a college improv exercise.) Driscoll’s impulse, it seems, is always to push too far, to linger too long. “What is it like,” she asks and keeps asking, “to sit with something longer than you’re comfortable?” Viewers of Mad in me will be living in that question, laughing uncomfortably, but they will likely also feel the signs of a genuine talent trying to stretch. The dance starts with a scream and ends with a whisper.

‘There Is so much Mad in Me,’ March 31 to April 3, Dance Theater Workshop, 219 West 19th Street,

Misnomer Dance Theater

April 2–10

Chris Elam, the Gumby-limbed New Media Man, has been producing dances unlike anyone else’s for long enough to have earned the right to an artistic back-twist. His Symphony Space program revisits the work that gave his peculiar tribe its name, plus the shape-shifting solo Tin Man and the absurdly touching Maggie and George, a goofy American Gothic. A premiere entitled Cellophane promises to extend the Misnomer mode of odd creatures who sometimes resemble humans. Drinks, which are available, might aid interspecies comprehension. Broadway at 95th Street,

Trisha Brown Dance Company

April 7–11

A fog machine is usually a bad sign. But the cloud-making apparatus that Fujiko Nakaya contributed to Brown’s 1980 Opal Loop is not your average smoke-spitter. Nor is the dance, unseen since 1996, your average dance. It’s hyper-clear, in Brown’s fluid “unstable molecular structure” mode. She pairs it with her face-averting solo If You Couldn’t See Me, alternately danced by Leah Morrison and Dai Jian. On May 1, the company repeats Opal up at Dia:Beacon and, weather permitting, floats Brown’s 1974 Raft Piece onto the Hudson. Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 West 37th Street,

Soundcheck/Roxane Butterfly

April 14–18

The middle of April sees some unseasonable activity in the tap scene. At DTW, the American Tap Dance Foundation continues its attempt to break out of the summer festival format, admirable even if a rehearsal hall concept turns out to be a sneaky retreat to variety show. That same weekend at Symphony Space, Roxane Butterfly pays tribute to her late mentor, Jimmy Slyde, screening rare footage of the master at work and laying down grooves with Tamango and other disciples. Dance Theater Workshop, 219 West 19th Street,; Symphony Space, Broadway at 95th Street,

Maria Hassabi/Robert Steijn

April 15–17

The January and February installments of Ralph Lemon’s stint as guest curator for Danspace Project were revelatory. Now he’s responsible for the unlikely pairing of Maria Hassabi, whose installation-like work is made of solos even when multiple people are involved, and Robert Steijn, an Amsterdam-based critic turned performer fond of staging his own death. The subject of their duet is love. Don’t expect a pas de deux. 131 East 10th Street,

Stephen Petronio Company

April 27–May 2

Petronio has always had an ear for what’s fashionable but not merely so. Take the score for his new Ghostown. It’s “Popcorn Superhet Receiver” by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, an exceedingly rare example of a rock star working convincingly in a mode derived from Messiaen and Penderecki. What fractured visions the choreographer can summon out of the wailing strings and massed chords, portions of which haunted the film There Will Be Blood, remain to be seen. Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue,

Luciana Achugar

April 29–May 2

Invariably described as raw, primal, or unmediated, the recent dances of the Uruguayan-born choreographer, each outfitting its female cast in identical worker’s uniforms, each repeating simple movements, haven’t shied away from leftist political implications. Puro Deseo, the title of her latest creation, plays on the twin senses of “pure desire” and “nothing more than desire,” questioning the connections between artistic process and the commodification of art. The Kitchen, 512 West 19th Street,

New York City Ballet

May 2–June 27

May brings a cache of high-profile premieres. Alexei Ratmansky, who reliably delivers enchantment as his colleagues fumble, tackles Édouard Lalo’s 1882 Casanova-inspired Namouna. Wayne McGregor, the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer and ballet outsider, makes his first ballet for NYCB, to Thomas Adès’s Concentric Paths. And Christopher Wheeldon, who recently parted ways with his company Morphoses, exhumes Alberto Ginastera’s Estancia, a lively score that Lincoln Kirstein commissioned for Ballet Caravan before that company folded. David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center,

Pam Tanowitz Dance

May 20–22

Long admired for her manner of pulling apart ballet and Cunningham technique to put it back together, Tanowitz has lately discovered a new ease. Her compositions, always woven with care, now breathe more freely; the details read as more generous than studied. For The Wanderer Fantasy, she draws on Schubert’s Fantasie in C major, played live by the pianist Alan Feinberg. Danspace Project, 131 East 10th Street,