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Looking for the Off Switch

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NEXT GENERATION PROJECT

at Link's Hall, February 5-7

Sometimes it's better to watch dance with the brain turned off--but it can be hard for a choreographer to find the off switch. If the dance is funny or physically wild, that helps; intentional noise, a kind of static, will sometimes do the trick too. The three young artists who presented work last weekend at Link's Hall as part of the Next Generation Project all seem to be looking for that switch, and two of them have found it.

Colleen Halloran's Six (Dancers), a work in progress, cancels itself as it goes along--the program even includes a scribbled-out title. After the dancers take their places and the music starts, they glance in horror at the tech booth, as if something were terribly wrong. They dance anyway, for a minute, until one gum-snapping dancer says that this is the wrong music. The tape is changed and they start over--to raucous rock that doesn't fit their lyrical movement at all. Soon one dancer stops them all in their tracks again by turning to the audience and saying, "Here's the deal": there was supposed to be a story about a blind boy, she says, but it didn't work out.

The little we hear of this story makes it sound about as silly and misguided as stories get. In fact the whole piece seems an abortion from beginning to end, as the disaffected dancers suffer accidents--a stepped-on finger--and bruised egos with no dignity whatsoever, interrupting the dance constantly to complain. Text, movement, and music all work at cross-purposes, until finally a dancer plants herself in front of the audience and starts a long, elaborate math and word problem, insisting that we focus on what she's saying; behind her the other five cavort and swing and sweep wildly. The split in attention this produces is nothing short of remarkable: the rational part of your mind is doing math while some other part of your brain pays attention to the dance--and feels the wildness of the movement better because it's on the periphery of vision.

That Colleen Halloran, she's smart. And funny. And she's drawn some wonderful work from her performers: Kathleen Aharoni, Laura Gould-Deutsch, Michelle Greaney, Carol MacLeod, Scott Putman, and herself. Halloran's other piece on this program, Thursday, is more serious in tone but also puts the text and movement at odds. A single dancer (Meredith Bristol) tries to break out of the boxy Link's Hall space--throwing herself against walls, swinging on a rope. These attempts are sporadic, however, and she often pauses as if exhausted to rub her neck or wipe sweat away. Meanwhile a man's voice on tape describes a woman whose room is like a little girl's, filled with dolls and crocheted blankets; he feels sorry for her because she no longer has anyone to take care of. His patronizing description of a traditional woman gives a context to the dancer's wild responses to her entrapment, but text and movement pull in opposite directions.

In Hot Dry Blue Christy Munch attempts to elicit a dreamy mood by repeating movements, as if to hypnotize us. But this dance for four (JulieAnn Graham, Carrie Hanson, Munch, and Heather Sultz) goes on much too long, and Munch can't find the off switch that might allow us to dream along with her. Although some of the movement is interesting (a t'ai chi-like handling of an invisible ball, for instance), other movement--particularly the repeated swinging of arms--is not. And the fit between movement and music is too perfect: Meredith Monk's strange singing is just as inward as the choreography. This dance doesn't have enough tension to stand up straight.

Ken Thompson, whose work is not so much dance as performance, uses a satiric wit to distract us while his gestural movement sinks into another part of our consciousness. Sync or Swim--which he made and performs with Ames Hall (the two call themselves Atlas/Axis)--cleverly conflates fish and bathing beauties, the ocean and man-made pools, patriotism and synchronized swimming. Their willingness to be silly and aversion to repeating themselves make this short piece, a work in progress, tremendously entertaining: it opens with Thompson and Hall on their bellies like beached whales, cheeks puffing like gills, hands flipping like fins, torsos wriggling with the desperate need to get somewhere and no way to do it. The point the work makes is not exactly new--young people were calling this country "Amerika" a generation ago--but getting there is lots of fun.

Again, in Thompson's You Can See Their Bodies Through Their Clothes the point is not new: modern living, especially corporate culture, disavows the body and thereby isolates people from each other. But Thompson couches the point in images and text that make it breathe. This is a quieter, sadder piece than Sync or Swim, though it has its humor. Thompson makes fun of our tendency to applaud anything that collapses onstage and lies there for a while, perhaps because it reminds us of the ultimate final curtain, death; the three performers here--Anita Chao, Tracy Hudak, and Thompson--applaud fallen briefcases, first politely, then enthusiastically, finally thunderously.

Most upsetting about Bodies is that the sexual expression we do see is infantile, adolescent, or truncated. Early on Chao stuffs her fist in her mouth and chews on it; later the other two insert the fingers of both hands into Chao's mouth for her. All three lie behind their briefcases, which they've opened and upended to form a kind of screen, and after removing their white dress shirts talk to each other about Marky Mark, about what each would like to do with him on a date. While talking they squirm with excitement, but the half-naked bodies lying next to them might as well be chopped liver. On a crowded el one commuter (Hudak) brushes the hair of another (Chao) away, then suddenly focuses on the other woman as an erotic object, stroking her hair and neck and massaging her shoulders. This episode ends as abruptly as it began: Hudak simply walks away, and Chao remains in a rhapsodic trance, listening to her Walkman with eyes closed.

All this foreplay interruptus haunts us in the work's final section, when the three stand close but separate on an elevator, touching themselves unconsciously: scratching an eyebrow, running the tongue over the teeth, grazing a nipple with the fingers. You might see these gestures any day anywhere and never notice them, but Thompson foregrounds them, revealing them for the signs of isolation they are--it's not so much that he switches off the brain as that he tunes it in to bodily experience in a new way. The important thing, it seems, is that he doesn't let the body and the brain run on the same old tracks.

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

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