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The Descent Beckons

Susan Marshall & Company

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, November 11-13

How can a dance be simultaneously cutting edge and sophomoric? How can it have both an eloquent structure that suggests great choreographic intelligence and a tastelessness that bespeaks artistic negligence? This disconnection is the mystery of New York choreographer Susan Marshall's dance-theater piece The Descent Beckons. Supposedly about orgiastic New Year's Eve rituals and inspired by the end of the millennium, it features 75 inflatable dolls, calling to mind sex catalogs--a hook more in keeping with the Annoyance Theatre or low-grade improv comedy than with the thought-provoking avant-garde work usually presented by the Dance Center of Columbia College.

Some sections are giddy and silly and just plain dumb. When the piece starts, the stage is littered with piles of blowup dolls. The dancers eventually do almost everything imaginable with them--cuddle them, kick them around like beach balls, use them as bats and javelins, layer them between people to create a human Viennese torte, use them as partners in a square dance, and make them into puppets in a puppet show. In one memorable image, the dancers puts the dolls between their thighs and walk toward the audience with a doll's leg sticking forward like a cartoon phallus. Marshall also uses the dolls as an abstract design element, as when the six dancers line up behind one another and swing the dolls overhead in slow, pretty spirals.

But generally the doll sections feature the broadest possible comedy: at these times the dancers mime humping one another, play crack the whip, and perform corny tricks. A dancer takes a flying tumble into a laundry cart, but soon afterward the master of ceremonies emerges from it. Later a dancer who starts to sing a sappy love song is chased into the cart and the lid is slammed down over his head; when the lid is opened, we see his head and torso at war with his legs as he seems to be torn in two by the other dancers--of course it's the old trick of having two people in the cart. An odd detail is that the inflatable dolls are differentiated by sex but don't have sexual organs; similarly, the hyperactive dancers are more childish than threatening. Despite the violent treatment they receive, the inflatable dolls don't create a sense of danger but a brightly colored cartoon world of manic, thoughtless, childlike beings who resemble people only in passing.

The cartoon sections alternate with pure dance sections that are carefully structured to reflect the downward spiral of the title: the partnering and relationships in these sections grow increasingly violent. By the end, one dancer takes another down hard in a flying tackle. This violence is not poignant or childlike but truly threatening. The cartoon sections too become so exaggerated and out of control that they imply that the violence in the dance sections can also fly out of control. The cartoons both soften us up and heighten our sense of violence onstage. Marshall's alternation of cartoon and danced sequences effectively gets past our defenses.

The piece is elegantly structured in other ways as well. The opening sections are reprised at the end in reverse order. And the music used for each section is also reprised in ever shorter and darker variations. For example, the music for one of the first sections is a slow acoustic blues; when the scene reappears, it's accompanied by the same blues played as thrash metal. Usually this kind of formal structure gives a dance a sense of closure, but here it adds to the piece's disorienting quality, as if a videotape were being rewound.

The dance has other elements whose purpose is less clear. Performance artist Lisa Kron, listed prominently in the program as a collaborator, plays a master of ceremonies who specializes in botching things up--in a corny introduction to the evening, badly told jokes, stupid pop songs poorly performed, weepy song introductions, an abortive tap dance, and an incomplete striptease. Her character is clearly intended to irritate and does so effectively, though we don't know why.

There's also some portentous symbolism concerning time. An LED clock straight from a football scoreboard registers second by second the time that's elapsed since we entered the theater, though it doesn't seem to time the performance or serve any other function. At certain points in the show we hear the stage manager's voice counting down, but again the countdowns don't seem to initiate anything or respond to anything. In a postshow discussion, Marshall defended their use as a sort of memento mori.

What ties these disparate elements together? My guess is that the show revolves around an attack on narrative, a sequence of actions over time whose connections we can describe in words. But The Descent Beckons makes time and countdowns of various kinds seem irrelevant--they never lead to anything. And the master of ceremonies specializes in disrupting the story, disrupting what we expect to happen next. Of course such attacks on linear narrative are typical of performance art.

The real story in The Descent Beckons is a geometric figure, the downward spiral that increasingly disassociates action and feeling. A tape playing backward is another expression of this figure. Since choreographers are often deeply visual people, I can imagine Marshall thinking about how pornography devalues women and destroys lives and becoming fascinated with the spiral.

Yet even if we grant Marshall the right to attack linear narrative, the dance fails. Essentially a moral exhortation, it tries to show sinners how their path will lead to eternal damnation, to a permanent split between affection and desire. And like a revivalist preacher, Marshall paints hell vividly and broadly--but she goes so far overboard that her picture becomes laughable. Still, her fundamental seriousness keeps us from laughing out loud. All we can do is become increasingly irritated: moral persuasion this exaggerated just sounds shrill.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John-Francis Bourke.

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