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Issues of Trust


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Jeff Friedman

at Link's Hall, July 8 and 9

Trust begins with self-trust. Some people may think they trust themselves, but they really trust the thinking mind--stored information, theories and ideas of other people--not their intuitive wisdom. True self-trust has to include physical, emotional, mental and spiritual levels. --Dan Millman, The Life You Were Born to Live

Jeff Friedman seems to be an open, trusting man, and his dances seem to be nakedly emotional and filled with religious feeling and mysticism. But they fail to convey religious awe or much emotion. Friedman's dancing is liquid and expressive, but he doesn't trust his material, his audience, or even himself.

The evening's first dance demonstrates the problem. In this excerpt from Journeyman, the lights come up on Friedman sitting in a folding chair as he says, "Islands are born from the sea, erupting from the center, throwing up ash." Friedman's text tells the story of islands--how they evolve until they reach their mature state, like New Zealand with its shy, flightless kiwi birds. While sitting, Friedman makes large, abstract gestures with his hands and arms, in an honest moment presenting himself as a man alone, a mature island, a shy but complete person. At that moment, I looked forward to where these images would lead.

Friedman stands up and moves around the space a little in light, balletic steps. Then he stops moving, mimes paddling a canoe, and breathes in short, guttural grunts. When he resumes speaking, his character is a Polynesian native canoeing between islands. He begins interspersing phrases of what seems to be a Polynesian language with English and speaking more and more ecstatically. The dance ends so suddenly that, at the performance I attended, the confused audience didn't clap.

Friedman seems to try for a happy ending with his image of canoeing islanders, primitives who connect isolated men. But he doesn't develop the image enough for it to carry its freight of meaning, and his ecstatic tone is grindingly false. Perhaps he doesn't trust his audience to understand the island image, or fears they'll find it too downbeat. Perhaps Friedman himself finds the image too downbeat. Perhaps the image is simply too honest, and Friedman has to bury it. The nature of Friedman's mistrust is hard to pin down, but it seems to have ruined a promising dance.

Most of the other dances Friedman performed aren't well enough constructed to convey his intentions. Deborah Slater's Beneath the Thin Skin, about a rape victim, is a monologue with movement; Friedman performs the dance "to re-frame the complex and charged issues around rape and recovery," a program note says. But Slater's text is a mishmash of confessional ravings, and phrases like "the spiritual must make the physical" and "it is paranoia masquerading as vision" seem far from any specific issues surrounding rape. Slater's movement--twitching hands, rocking--only gives the piece a more hysterical tone. Friedman's Perestroika is three sketches in movement of Soviet citizens, but they're too short to communicate the "Soviet response to Gorbachev's . . . reforms" the program claims they do. Fred Strickler's Center Divider throws away a lovely opening moment--Friedman standing over an hourglass-shaped aqua patch of light on the floor--and turns into an uncentered, rambling piece.

Chicagoan Nana Shineflug's On Becoming Ptah is a better dance than the others Friedman performs; it features a few repeated movements that become lodged in memory, such as a lunge with an outstretched arm and two extended fingers, and a spiritually profound passage from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, read on tape by Jeff Abell. The dance almost works, but Friedman's emotive dancing is just silly in the presence of such calm, somber words.

But when Friedman dances to music alone, as he does in his Troika, set to three Shostakovich preludes, a different man emerges. Flashes of humor, inventive movement, and extroverted performance make these three dances as "pungent and succinct" as the program notes say the music is.

Friedman is a bit of a mystery. When the elements of his dances work together, they can be light and cheering or painfully honest. But they easily tip into black incoherence. Friedman seems to be working hard on deep issues of trust--rape's shredding of a woman's sense of trust, or the cosmic trust in life contained in the passage from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. For now, Friedman seems to be deep in his own labyrinth. I hope he's working the wisdom from the inside out.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steve Savage.

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