Theater archives

Dancing on Unsteady Ground


When Ralph Lemon set out to make his proposed trilogy Geography, he was prepared to let go of his identity as a postmodern New York choreographer. His enthralling book, also called Geography and due from Wesleyan University Press this month, reveals that his 1997 process of collaborating on the first section with seven men, black like him—all but one recruited in Africa—wasn’t a simple cross-cultural venture; he felt at times as if he were dissolving inside his skin.

For the second part of Geography, Tree, which premiered last week at the BAM Harvey Theater, Lemon’s sources included Asian traditional forms. The magnificent performers of this astonishingly rich 90-minute piece have been as brave as he in stepping over the boundaries between what they cherish and the unknown. Bijaya Barik, master of the Odissi mardala drum from southern India, lies on the floor to become a boat on which Asako Takami reposes gracefully, like a lady in a Japanese print. Years ago Takami herself became an Odissi dancer, able to hold her own beside the wonderfully precise yet sensual virtuoso Manoranjan Pradhan. While the exquisite Taiwanese New Yorker Cheng-Chieh Yu translates, boisterous little Wen Hui, a choreographer from China, applies what she says is Chinese opera makeup to Wang Liliang, a farmer-musician-dancer from Yunnan province; when she stands aside, we see she’s turned him into a blackfaced minstrel. Djédjé Djédjé Gervais, from the Ivory Coast, gives a vivid physical catalog of African styles, but also joins Wang in the more contained hopping and squatting dances of the Yi people.

James Lo provides a sensitive sound score to surround the traditional live music, and Nari Ward’s splendid set embeds the transitional forms of wood pallets in a stained, translucent wall. The performers, wearing Anita Yavich’s fine pan-cultural costumes, bring on pallet benches and other objects and sit, visible in the wings, just out of range of Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting. You get a feeling of people voluntarily joining, riffing off once unfamiliar movements, learning one another. While Pradhan and Takami dance stunning excerpts from the Odissi Aravi Pallavi, Yu and Yeko Ladzekpo-Cole move behind and around them with subtly related, more free-flowing contemporary steps, and, to one side, Wen and David Thomson play a teasingly—sometimes combatively—erotic game that is, nonetheless, deeply tender.

Wit and humor enliven the piece, even as themes of destruction and regeneration bind it together. Fragmentary accounts of a terrible 1923 earthquake in Japan are echoed by a line of people (all smoking long cigarettes) trying to maintain equilibrium. When some of the men drop stones toward their feet, pulling back just in time, we laugh; it’s a game. When Lemon starts hurling stones, leaping and twisting in the air to dodge them, disaster looms.

I wondered how Lemon would end this marvel. He does it perfectly. An old blues record plays in the distance—the same one to which he’s done an amazing, disintegrating soft-shoe earlier—and musician Wang echoes, with beautiful intonation, those blurry, long-ago, sorrowing sounds from another country, another race.

Headlong Dance Theater is an apt name for the venture of David Brick, Andrew Simonet, and Amy Smith, who use plunging, plummeting, and somersaulting as a basic means of communication. Now the Philadelphia-based trio has nervily dived into Ulysses: Sly Uses of a Book by James Joyce—borrowing Joycean strategies such as the fostering of multiple interpretations and shifts in style and perspective. The piece is dedicated to the late Richard and Cynthia Jean Cohen Bull and, like those two, the five performers use improvisational elements wittily and with verve. The result, while hardly matching Joyce in power, is clever and charming—although a tactic occasionally gets ground down through overuse.

Themes of witnessing and recording run through Ulysses (at Dance Theater Workshop in October). As it starts, the performers sit at the edges of the space beneath bare lightbulbs. Some take notes, one types, others shoot photographs or record sounds. While Christy Lee rearranges herself fascinatingly on the huge white sheet that covers the floor, Simonet asks questions, like “What’s in her mouth?” which she answers (“Dirt”). Lee as a cuckolding wife, her florist husband (Brick), and her fireman lover (Simonet) are contemporary echoes of Joyce’s Molly Bloom, Leopold Bloom, and Blazes Boylan. Later Smith, with her Carol Burnett looks, gets unwound from her skirt by Simonet, and he reiterates the raunchy motif of hauling her in by sticking his foot between her thighs. Unlike a Joyce character, a Headlonger tends to talk while turning somebody else upside down or lugging that person around or removing another’s foot from around his or her neck.

Other little scenes slip in—hinting at confused desires and muddled relationships. The occasional vaudeville team of Nicole Canuso and Heather Murphy directs or manipulates the others, as well as stepping out in perky dances. To underscore the slipperiness of words, a dancer stands with a bucket over his or her head while another person improvises a dance and a third describes it into a tape recorder (sometimes very fancifully). The one under the bucket then interprets the taped description.

The evening’s last moments are the tenderest. Smith kneels by the slumbering Brick, walking her fingers over his body. In the end, they all frisk as the white sheet balloons around them like the sea.