Thursday, January 24, 2013

Merce Cunningham at Dancing Around the Bride: Marriage Made in Heaven

Cunningham Events at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Dancing Around the Bride exhibit. Photo by Constance Mensh.

Dancing Around the Bride at the Philadelphia Museum of Art masterfully highlights the influence of Marcel Duchamp on American visual artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, composer John Cage, and choreographer Merce Cunningham. This precocious French artist created works that bridged the absurd, Fountain (the infamous urinal that operated as a symbol of the Dada movement) to the revelatory, Nude Descending a Staircase (a rhythmical exploration that both validated and rejected Cubism) before abandoning art for chess. Working in the early 20th century, Duchamp anticipated popular mid-century preoccupations such as chance methods and experimentalism.

The exhibit—brimming with assemblages from Johns, paintings by Rauschenberg including a luminous White Painting, and hallmarks from Duchamp's oeuvre—stimulate your eye as an aural background by John Cage chirps and buzzes. As instructive and engrossing as these works are, the big draw proves to be the Cunningham Events.

Former members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Brandon Collwes, Emma Desjardins, John Hinrichs, Marcie Munnerlyn, Krista Nelson, Banu Ogan, and Andrea Weber—attired in long-sleeved unitards drawn from the concentrated shades of a Crayola crayon box—perform a loose program knitting together solos, duets, and group pieces. Before entering and exiting the space, the performers casually sit beside the white platform and stretch like cats, adding a breezy dynamic to the event’s flow.

Crisp sculptural positions swept clean of artifice and emotion deliberately zig and zag with an ever-changing frontal orientation. Spines tilt on the diagonal while limbs forge geometric configurations resembling a wooden artist's model come to life. The dancers, absorbed but never astringent, display pristine attention to line. Heels neatly snap in perfect 180 degree first positions, and jumps—many commencing from a place of little momentum—hover in the air, feet exquisitely arched, before alighting in a one-legged balance.

Stillness, as powerful as movement, pervades; body positions, their edges firmly etched, freeze for endless seconds. In one instance reminiscent of Cage’s 4’33”, a septet forms an elegant tableau before carving a new montage at the command of a fellow dancer's grunt. The ruminative pacing and purely abstract movement cast a meditative spell. Your blood pressure drops by several points.

Elements that made Merce Cunningham so exciting in his heyday can seem distractedly annoying. When a cast member reads aloud an unrelated text, his relentless droning diverts your attention unpleasantly. Cunningham often choreographed without music to a stopwatch; the company heard the music for the first time during the performance. The dancing and music exist as two separate experiences that fight, rather than form, a unified whole. The dissonant soundscape for this show —burbles, static, recorded text, and discordant jumbles—violates the cool clarity of Cunningham's choreography.

More than anything, Dancing Around the Bride acts as a snapshot of a particular artistic time and sensibility anticipated by Duchamp. Cunningham, Cage, Rauschenberg, and Johns traded in novelty; experimenting so fruitfully that today it seems there is little left to explore.  This is not true, but you pine for the days of freewheeling curiosity that weren't clouded by contemporary concerns.

This review refers to the performance seen on Sunday, January 20th at 3PM.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Mathilde Monnier and La Ribot's Gustavia: Lost in Translation

La Ribot and Mathilde Monnier in Gustavia. Photo by Marc Coudrais.

Sometimes, the cultural divide feels exceptionally wide. What is droll and pithy here, is broad and meaningless there. What makes an astute and pointed observation there, registers as trivial and passé here. Gustavia, created and performed by Mathilde Monnier and La Ribot as part of FI:AF’s French Highlights program, attempts to bridge this chasm by trolling in a milieu easily grasped by all—physical humor. Monnier and La Ribot, through half a dozen vignettes, traffic in well-trod territory, sticking to listless critiques of women through slapstick antics.   
Entering the stage, which has been strewn with crumpled black cloths and one round-backed office chair, Monnier and La Ribot, enviably lithe and long-legged in their fifties, crowd around a microphone and commence to weep, dabbing at their eyes with a large handkerchief. Their melodramatic and relentless sobbing increases in intensity, turning into clamorous whimpering as each tries to out-cry the other. Keening like abused puppies, they trip about the stage in their high-heeled Mary Janes and mutter some text. When La Ribot clownishly knocks Monnier off the chair, it acts as an unnecessary asterisk pinned to the premise: women compete even in times of distress.

In another scenario, La Ribot, wielding a black board, indiscreetly smacks Monnier, causing her to tumble to the ground. The improvisational nature of their work becomes apparent as La Ribot occasionally moves too quickly for the plank to make contact with Monnier. Other times, La Ribot whacks Monnier so emphatically that her falls look excruciating. The humor—it is supposed to be funny—loses its allure.  The punch line, Monnier grabs hold of the board’s end and the two sashay offstage, arrives long after you’ve been slapped silly by the images of women carelessly hurting, and allowing themselves to be hurt, by other women.

Using burlesque as a jumping off point for the piece's best vignette, La Ribot and Monnier explore society’s desire to fetishize the female body. Attired in black slacks and slim fitting tops, they mechanically pull up and down a pants leg, showing off their knees. Standing, sitting, lunging, and falling, their rhythmical striptease never abates. It's a sharp critique on women’s reflexive need to have their physical charms validated.

In France, Gustavia may be lauded as a precocious hoot. Seeing it in New York, you just feel very American. You want it to be faster, funnier, cleverer. Even Monnier and La Ribot’s fervid performances—truly, their tenacity is laudatory—can’t transform this satirical buffoonery into something stirring. There’s nothing here that you haven’t seen the Real Housewives do countless times before.  

This review refers to the show seen on Thursday, January 10th at Florence Gould Theater.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Brian Brooks Moving Company and Camille A. Brown & Dancers at The Joyce: Let Them Entertain You

FOCUS Dance, at The Joyce through this weekend, features a veritable buffet of American dance companies and choreographers. Handpicked by this year’s curator—Jodee Nimerichter of the American Dance Festival—Brian Brooks Moving Company and Camille A. Brown & Dancers are two of the companies performing from this stimulating line up.

Showcasing a solo, duet, and group piece, Brown and Brooks seem an unlikely pairing at first glance. Brown works within a framework of high theatricality and athleticism partnered with a conspicuous animation. Brooks favors a formalist approach; he turns his eye toward crafting arresting images through carefully developed physical motifs.  It’s a good fit though, alternating between Brown's freewheeling transparencies in the first half of the program and Brooks' tidy articulations in the second. Both Brooks and Brown seem energized by the fundamental concept of choreography—moving bodies through space to music—so energized in fact, they perform in much of their own work, stamping their pieces with a personal autograph.

Camille A. Brown and Juel D. Lane perform Been There, Done That as part of FOCUS Dance, presented by Gotham Arts Exchange and The Joyce.  Photo by Christopher Duggan.

Brown finds much to plumb in stripping away the artifices of performance. The opening number, Been There, Done That, features she and partner Juel D. Lane jiving their way through a vaudevillian swing number. Bantering vocally, they perform tricky Charleston foot maneuvers interspersed with partnered moves from the Jitterbug. For as smooth as their moves look, Brown and Lane's bickering reveals the undercurrent—sometimes archly hilarious, sometimes overly candid—of push and pull that characterizes every dance partnership.

Things take a darker turn in The Real Cool, a solo performed by Brown to an instrumental version of “What a Wonderful World” by Bob Theil and George D. Weiss. Wearing a drab colored suit with white gloves, she begins center stage, legs planted wide. Gesticulating with a disjointed, puppet-like dynamic, Brown lays bare the psyche of a performer. Self-flagellation, pandering grins, and in one instance—the miming of climbing up a rope—highlight the sometimes soul selling price a performer pays to be in the spotlight.   

Brian Brooks in I’m Going to Explode.  Photo by Christopher Duggan.

Brian Brooks gives a master class to budding choreographers everywhere on developing a theme successfully. Like a lapidary, he takes a gem of an idea, examines it from multiple perspectives, and then crafts a compelling movement thesis. His choreography is sticky, shapes—simple, but striking— lodge themselves in your memory. He uses repetition, but only to reinforce salient ideas, never because he doesn’t know what to do next.

In I’m Going to Explode to music by LCD Soundsystem, Brooks—clad in a businessman’s gray suit, dress shirt, and tie—sits in a chair and carefully takes off his shoes and jacket before methodically traipsing to the other side of the stage. Arms held like stiff pokers, he begins to pump them back and forth metrically, at first slowly, then with increased rhythm. He then adds rotations of the torso, before evolving into more complex turns and drops to the floor achieved by rolling over his metatarsal. The actions are staccato, but Brooks traces smooth arcs across the floor, giving the piece an appearance of controlled convulsions. Premiering in 2007, I’m Going to Explode was choreographed before the Great Recession, yet you may feel that Brooks has tapped into the frustrations of businessmen everywhere.

Brooks' choreography, while firmly in the arena of dance, is never dance-y.  Even Wendy Whelan, performing with Brooks in Fall Falls,  looks rather like a gifted mover, not the world famous ballerina she is.  Brooks instigates a flurry of swirling turns and whirling rotations by briefly touching and manipulating Whelan’s elbows, wrists, and shoulders. Crystalline moments of photographic beauty—a pench
ée (an action in which the body and one upraised leg tip forward like a see-saw) or a pitched dip—pepper this tidal wave of mellifluous commotion.  

Also on the program is Brown's City of Rain and Brooks' Descent. 
City of Rain, a piece for seven dancers clad in unfortunate chocolate and baby blue colored costumes with armpit cut outs,  checks  the boxes of every modern dance cliche in the book. The movement—punchy and athletic with legs hooked in attitude turns, bowing arms, and body ripples— is entertaining enough, but the dancers, who have no discernible relationship to each other or any reason for being there, often stop to gaze meaningfully into the distance before picking up again, unexplained angst etched across their face. Brooks' Descent brims with intriguing vignettes—in the best one, dancers perambulate across the stage, keeping a rectangle of diaphanous chiffon aloft by waving a slab of dark cardboard. Descent's  drawback is Adam Crystal’s lifeless score. Its tinkly piano music with percussive accents registers as too thin to support Brooks' robust vision.

This review refers to the performance seen on Wednesday, January 9th at The Joyce.