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March 3-6

Rarely have I been more perplexed during a dance performance than I was watching Jim Self and Dancers at MoMing. These pieces, though visually innovative and interestingly unpredictable, seemed calculated to confuse rather than communicate: I felt as though Self and his dancers shared a private, aloof vision. This vision undoubtedly carried enormous weight and verity for them, as the dynamic, committed performances showed, but I felt excluded. Self's playfulness and willingness to poke fun at himself only occasionally relieved a bizarre and seemingly random collection of often unreadable images.

Look at Scraping Bottoms, for example, a solo choreographed and performed by Self and costumed by Frank Moore, Self's artistic partner. In this dance, Self was dressed in a highly stylized tuxedo, with the arms and legs somehow reinforced to look squared off, as if the dancer's limbs were jointed two-by-fours. He performed a collection of erratic, explosive, pointing gestures, alternately exhibiting the rigid control of a ballet dancer and the flaccid spinelessness of a rag doll. At times he interacted with objects on the floor--a scrub brush, a telephone book, and three squares of polystyrene foam. At other times he spoke disjointed texts. "Hand?" he asked, looking at his hand. "No," he answered. He asked similar questions about his head and his thigh, and gave the same answer. Then, while reaching upward, he asked, "Food? Shelter? Trust? Affection? Loyalty? Pride?" At which point he walked slowly away from the audience, turned to look at us, and quietly asked, "What was the question?"

The actual performance of these gestures did little to clarify things. Certainly Self is a mesmerizing performer who displays remarkable strength and precision onstage. And he exuded a disquieting androgynous energy, especially in Scraping Bottoms (in which he wore lipstick and blue eye shadow). But his commanding presence could not overcome the piece's confusions. Why had he chosen to juxtapose these very particular, pointedly mundane objects? Why a scrub brush (which he only used for about two seconds)? Why a telephone book on the floor, when all he did with it was shuffle it once across the stage? I am not asking for dance to be narrative, nor for it to have an easily accessible, literal "meaning." But I do expect it to display at least its own integrity and repleteness. An artist is accountable for every element of his work, even those that appear to be random, and Self seemed unwilling or unable to exploit these very sparse materials very briefly used.

Or look at Camellia. The excerpt shown here grotesquely caricatured two 19th-century lovers (Self and Chris Kaufman). Kaufman, who wore a ridiculously extended hoop skirt, looked as if her torso were emerging from a poor imitation of a Faberge egg. Self wore pink tights, a flowered vest, and a black velvet jacket; he looked as if he had forgotten his pants. Again, both dancers showed an impressive technical expertise as they pranced about, coyly flirting and joyously flinging one another about. But what on earth was this dance? Were they making fun of romantic schmaltz? Were they celebrating it? Were they updating it? The dance successfully eluded genre classification, which is fine, but it didn't seem to exhibit any internal consistency, especially during the second half, when most of the saccharine accoutrements of the lovers' costumes were discarded and they were erotically entwined.

Perhaps Camellia refers to a particular historical or cultural event of which I am unaware. But since the piece presented no clues to that larger context, if there was one, I was left more frustrated than beguiled.

To his credit, Self demonstrated a playfulness and an on-again, off-again goofiness that helped to endear his potentially esoteric material. For example, Between Lives (a solo in which Self was dressed as a 19th-century schoolboy) proved to be the most successful dance of the evening, as Self coyly, poutily paraded around the stage to the strains of Mozart. Here Self acknowledged a private vision, as this man-in-boy's-clothing impudently pranced about to Classical Music, even at times shaking an admonishing finger at the violin section. Possibly self-reflective, Between Lives was at once liberating and sad, celebrating the brash childishness of the central character and lamenting his inability to grow up.

Self's playfulness was also apparent in Beehive, a short film shown at the start of the program. Beehive, a collaboration between Self and Moore, depicted a cartoonish ballet world inside a hallucinatory beehive. Technically the film was masterful, with Moore's ultrafunky set, Man Parrish's ultrahip score, and Self's ultraquirky bee choreography. This wildly colorful film, which told the story of a drone bee who inadvertently turned a worker bee into a queen, informed the audience that the evening could be full of work that was potentially silly. It was refreshing to see a choreographer with enough confidence to make fun of himself.

Also included on the program was Marking Time, an interesting experiment in movement performed with occasionally remarkable, occasionally lacking precision by Self, Kaufman, and Daniel Peters. When the three moved together, the dance was impressive, especially since the piece was performed without music. (The dancers must have been counting like mad to keep to such a tight, complex rhythm.) Of the three, Peters seemed the least skilled, lacking the precise control of Self and Kaufman. Most successful about Marking Time was its use of counterpoint, as two dancers would perform in unison to a generally fast-paced rhythm while the third performed with much more languid gestures. Marking Time also did away with the contrivances that marred and confused Scraping Bottoms and Camellia, relying instead on the enigmatic magic of ambiguous gestures.

It is true that, as the evening progressed, some of my initial frustration disappeared, and I became more comfortable with the vocabulary that Self seemed to be trying to develop. His work is undeniably difficult, as he carefully constructs images with no apparent explanation. Perhaps it is the utter strangeness of Self's vocabulary that accounts for my reaction to a piece like Scraping Bottoms. Still, the foreign language Self speaks is ultimately not intriguing enough for me to wish to take the time to decipher it.

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

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