Cori Olinghouse and Guests Shift Their Shapes and Wake Up the Past


This is the second year that Danspace Project has asked various dance artists to mastermind a series of performances in Saint Mark’s Church centered on a theme. Body Madness, the first of two groups composing Platform 2011, is curated by Danspace’s executive director, Judy Hussie Taylor, and focuses on “Absurdity and Wit.”

Cori Olinghouse put together the opening program, voix de ville, inviting choreographer Kota Yamazaki and two voguing masters from the International Legendary House of Ninja to share the evening with her new The Animal Suite: Experiments in Vaudeville and Shapeshifting.

And, yes, people do transform, and shapes do, omigod, shift.

Olinghouse performed with Trisha Brown for four years and, more recently, with Bill Irwin. If those two had a kid together, it might have thought like her (especially if it had begun to study voguing). The Animal Suite makes up the bulk of the program, and, although it feels a bit too long, it’s full of wonders. Olinghouse drew on vaudeville routines from the 1920s, even re-presenting the little straw-hat-and-cane number Buster Keaton dances with himself in The Playhouse (1921).

What Olinghouse has quite entrancingly deconstructed is the notion of calculated expertise, efficient timing, and showmanship. When tall, lanky Mina Nishimura enters, wearing a short-sleeved white shirt and trousers held up by suspenders, she’s a study in unsureness. To the sound of what could be a needle scraping a 78 rpm record, she stares at us for a long time, makes tiny, fluid adjustments of her body. What to do with the hat, cane, and jacket lying on the floor? She finally claps the hat awkwardly on her head, skids on the jacket, and falls to the floor tangled in it. When Kai Kleinbard enters in a tight black suit, she ignores him and practices slippery cane maneuvers minus the cane, does a few tap-dance shuffles, and peacocks around.

Everything that happens does so extremely oddly. Olinghouse and Eva Schmidt, attired like Nishimura, pick up three large branches that have been lying on the floor and set one across two upstanding ones to create a precariously balanced proscenium arch the width of two bathroom doors. Lo, a forest theater! In it, side by side and close together, they do a stiff, poker-faced little dance routine, their legs flying out crookedly and unexpectedly like Keaton’s. Meanwhile, Kleinbard and Neal Beasley run backward out the doors that frame the altar platform and enter again, repeating this several times—like a film clip being rewound and run again. The “proscenium” gets moved to frame—or not—new fragmentary acts. In Jake Meginsky’s sound design, scratchy tunes play, needles get stuck in grooves, turntables wind down. Roderick Murray provides pools of light and mysterious beams that disperse as peculiarly as the acts they illumine—or were meant to illumine. The show splinters before our eyes.

Beasley does a tight, jittery little marvel of a solo; his feet slip around underneath him but never undermine his erect carriage and confident composure. He and Kleinbard lurch up onto the altar platform as if it’s a new jungle to be explored (or a back alley to get drunk and lost in). Olinghouse’s feet slide on a suddenly unstable surface to the sound of ocean waves. Nishimura returns holding a bear head, and pretty soon, she and Kleinbard, both garbed in brown union suits and bear heads, crouch down and exchange looks when Schmidt stalks delicately into view in an amazing white bird suit that leaves her legs bare. When she pulls on two strings, the chest part puffs out (costumes by Andy Jordan). Night noises are heard. Beasley, who has half-sloughed off his bear suit, is clumsily exploring the risers at the back. Nishimura tries on a bird hat. Transformation can only be a partial success.

Yamazaki appears for his Itsuko san already transformed and in his butoh mode. He’s wearing a red dress, a red coat, red-toed shoes, an orange wig, and heavy eye makeup, with glitter sprinkled over his whitened skin. In this get-up, at first to electronic sounds by Alva Noto, he moves very slowly, suffering small, inner earthquakes. He walks slouched, with bent knees, always aware of us—a glamorous, faded enigma.

There’s nothing enigmatic about Javier Ninja in Elements of Vogue. But he certainly has converted himself into an aggressively decisive, uncannily limber, subtly androgynous performer. Slim and sleek in a tight-fitting black outfit with touches of silver, he plants himself in the light and turns his arms into snakes that coil around each other and slither uncannily far behind his head and down his back. His shoulder joints work as if ball bearings have been substituted for them while he slept. The music—first “Din Da Da” by George Krantz, then “Love Is the Message” by MFSB—bashes out the beats in one way or another. You can see why J. Ninja has been the House International Champion of the Year for three years running.

He’s a master at balancing ultra-flexible, rippling moves with poses hit and held, while rarely taking his fiercely steady gaze off the audience. The elegant precision of his runway struts and the mimed doing up of the hair draw yells of approval. His virtuosic freestyle display is interrupted by the entrance of Archie Burnett, the co-creator of the act. Burnett has been a force in our city’s underground clubs for 30 years. Some people may also remember him as the snake-hipped, insistently sexy guy courting David Parker (in drag) in Doug Elkins’s Fräulein Maria.

No fancy costume for Burnett. He walks in wearing jeans and a shirt. He’s a big man (J. Ninja looks like a kid beside him). With easy finesse, he whips out and dons shades, adjusts his muscles in fancy little ways, and slides to the floor in a one-leg, doubled-under split. The men strut together and form joint poses. When Burnett picks up a stool, inverts it, and places it on his head at a fetching slant, he becomes for a few seconds the most joyfully transformed lady at the Easter Parade and a model that could juice up any runway.

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