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Surface Noise

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Stomp

at the Shubert Theatre, through November 26

Stomp is truly an end-of-the-millennium phenom, a postapocalyptic vision of dust and dirt, urban signage, industrial detritus, garbage, and disaffected wage slaves. From the moment its performers wander onstage pushing their brooms to the final pandemonium of crashing trash cans, Stomp is ruled by the sense that we're little people scrabbling around at the bottom of the barrel. Since there's nowhere to go but up, the percussive ruckus raised by the performers is pure delight, a vicarious release of energy in the face of boredom, frustration, and stasis. Stomp has all the appeal of Road Warrior meets Beckett meets Crash Worship.

Even those who've grown roots into the couch over the past couple years probably know what Stomp is: the group on MTV and in commercials for Target, Heineken, and Coca-Cola who make music with found objects or by slapping their own bodies. Those who venture off the couch may have seen them here about a year ago, also at the Shubert Theatre. Created by Britishers Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas, Stomp evolved over ten years and debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 1991. It remains an eight-member ensemble, though almost all the performers have changed: the group on this tour are Americans recruited for the New York engagement that concluded last year's tour.

Stomp is understandably popular. It's fun, it's funny, and it's loud. Perfect for kids, it allows everyone in the audience to be a kid again--to revel in the energy and ingenuity that can overcome harsh circumstances. The sounds and visual images are wide-ranging and clever, from folks hopping along in wooden packing crates to the flipping of Zippo lighters and ghostly faces glowing briefly in the dark. Everything has a rhythm, visually and aurally, sometimes complicated and subtle, sometimes raucous and rough. Perhaps the most appealing of the evening's dozen or so bits is the newspaper section. It starts quietly, as many of the sections do, with the performers coming onstage one by one; seating themselves on overturned buckets, they proceed to read the paper. They're like morning el riders, irritated at just about everything: the person sitting next to them or crowding them in the aisle, the fact that they have to go to work. Isolated from one another yet as snug as eggs in a carton, they begin producing a rhythmic symphony of irritating sounds: rattling, snapping, and shaking their newspapers and sniffing, sneezing, coughing, and emitting barks of laughter.

If only the el were this amusing on a Monday morning. But it's not. And that's one of the things I found disappointing about Stomp: though the show is perfectly attuned to our downsized, underemployed, crowded, wasteful, and anxious culture, it has nothing to say about it. The newspaper bit is appealing because it's more intimate and human than the others: it has the potential to develop, not just musically but dramatically--and to say something about our culture. But it doesn't: it ends with a cute visual one-liner.

The newspaper section succeeds partly because we get to see more of the performers. But there's considerable calculation in how they come across. Attractive and talented, the troupe is carefully balanced racially and sexually: four black members, four white; four men, four women. They're not only musicians and dancers but actors, and they've clearly been directed to cultivate a cooler-than-thou attitude toward each other--there's a lot of one-upmanship and competition--as well as toward the audience. They respond to audience participation (clapping or snapping our fingers) with eye-rolling disgust or patronizing approval. Similarly, they don't smile. Ever.

OK, performers don't need to grin all the time. Funny stuff is often funnier delivered deadpan. But this attitude with a capital A goes beyond theatrical approach--it seems calculated to appeal to disaffected, hostile twentysomethings and older folks who'd like to be younger and recognize a youthful attitude when they see one. Stomp represents tribal music and dance for American youth. Many of its formal devices are even borrowed from ethnic dance and music, especially percussive African and flamenco: the circle formation, for example, with one performer at a time thrusting himself or being pulled into the center to show what he can do, and the way the lines between performing and observing, between dancing and making music, are blurred. But this is a made-up culture, cobbled together from such older forms as tap and the ham bone as well as from television, rock music, and our vision of ourselves as a dying junkyard world.

What makes Stomp so invigorating and popular, however, is not its pessimism but its upbeat message: let the world go to hell, human ingenuity remains. Whether the performers are banging on old metal sinks strapped around their necks with chains or crashing around on oil drums strapped to their feet like giant platform shoes, Stomp makes strange and wonderful use of our trashy culture. Still, the "human ingenuity" here belongs to Cresswell and McNicholas, men who used to write advertising jingles and now direct TV commercials, and to the Columbia Artists Management agents whose names are displayed as prominently on the program as those of the performers.

And who are the performers? According to a story in Variety last January, they're talented young people desperate for a real job: "What [the agents] weren't prepared for was how many recent drama school graduates with great circus and dance skills there were waiting tables in the East Village. Hundreds auditioned." Ironically, the corporate approach that has produced downsizing and underemployment--don't pay anyone a livable salary, hire multinational companies that employ minimum-wage "service workers" for everything from mail-room duties to xeroxing--also underlies this show. Stomp not only relies on the disaffection of underemployed young people for its box office but employs such young people--as wage slaves, not as artists. Because Stomp is big business. It's entertainment. It's not art.

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

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