Ole Ole Puppet and Dance Theater
at the Harold Washington Library Center, September 6-9
If the second act of Ole Ole Puppet and Dance Theater's Shifting Landscapes had been presented as act one and vice versa, the piece might have constituted a successful experiment with the flamenco tradition: stilling the frenetic feet to give the hands a chance to talk, providing rich stagecraft to a form most often seen on a bare stage in a tight spotlight. It might have blended a traditional art with modern sensibilities instead of looking like a rumble between puppet people and dancers.
Shifting Landscapes purports to be an exploration through music, dance, and puppetry of "water through all its manifestations and phase transitions." The first act, "Until Noon," portrays relatively still water--a glacier, waterfall, and stream--while the second act presents water in more violent forms, including hurricanes and high tides. Artistic director Wendy Clinard's concept may be a bit precious, but there's no reason it shouldn't work--though one can't help but notice that what does work has very little to do with this description.
For one thing, Shifting Landscapes is not "performance," if by that term one means unclassifiable or multimedia work. This is a dance concert, and sending a few people onstage wearing papier-mache glaciers doesn't change that. Moreover, it's a dance concert weakened by its performance pretensions: Clinard seems restricted rather than inspired by the idea of calm water, trapped into producing soporific dancing. Likewise, while flamenco's stamps and taps are indeed loud and stormy, only the program suggests that the accomplished dancing in act two has anything to do with water or with the pretentious, static tableaux of act one.
The dancers first arrive in a puff of dry ice, carrying and surrounded by a huge strip of white fabric. This is a time-honored device in theater and dance alike to evoke flowing water, used brilliantly by Mary Zimmerman in Metamorphoses and by Alvin Ailey in Revelations. Here, however, the performers are trapped by their prop: the three dancers denominated "ice" (Clinard, Karen Fisher Doyle, and Diane Rosario) poke their heads and torsos through the fabric, their legs invisible and virtually frozen. That's the point, of course, but it leaves them with little to do but highly articulated reaches and shoulder rolls of the dying-swan variety. Not until the second act does it become apparent that those reaches and rolls are what flamenco looks like above the waist--and even then, as my companion remarked, flamenco above the waist is a lot like sex above the waist. Clinard's choice to still the dancers' legs is a costly one. Stasis is a choreographer's enemy, not her medium.
Eventually the dancers are liberated from the fabric in a clever unwinding transformation that does credit to costume designer Amy Gabbert and master builder Susan Clinard. But then they change into blue-and-green ruffled skirts, tight in the hips and flared at the calves so that once again their legs are concealed and essentially incapacitated. Act two makes clear that these costumes are adapted from traditional flamenco garb, but at this point they just look like overliteral renditions of mermaid attire; in any case, the dancers are left reaching and posing as though the choreographer had something against legs. But be careful what you wish for: when the dancers are finally freed, they walk around posing pointlessly, with all the absurd self-seriousness of the Ave Maria section in Fantasia. The only interesting maneuver features the entire ensemble of 12 clustering center stage and waving their arms skyward--an arresting sea anemone image created by the Joffrey's Gerald Arpino for Light Rain in 1981.
The partnering is excellent throughout--critically important when the female dancers are so constrained. Joel Maisonet in particular makes clear how far Chicago has come in the quality of its male dancers: in the mid- and late 80s, the men were routinely and noticeably weaker than the women in every genre, and this is no longer true.
When act two arrives, so does live music by Carlo Basile and Doug Brush and their ensemble. So does exciting flamenco dancing. It doesn't have much to do with water or storms, Fisher Doyle's black gown embroidered with silver lightning notwithstanding. But who cares? Diane Rosario's solo is superb, and the subtlety of her footwork makes it possible to notice how evocative her arms are--the very point that the first act tried and failed to make. Fisher Doyle's solo succeeds less well. Though she choreographed it herself, the piece mostly demonstrates how alien this tradition is to her. She works too hard: her stamps are too loud, her rhythmic changes too obvious. She looks like a gringa trying to fit in; failing, she draws focus.
The second act's main solo, Hurricane, belongs to Edwin Aparicio, a spectacularly assured flamenco artist. But the piece he's choreographed for himself is a conventional, almost stereotypical self-loving male showcase that goes on way too long. Perhaps this is the fate of percussive dancing, to ultimately seem repetitious and wear thin, but Aparicio puts one in mind of Michael Flatley, Lord of the Dance.
Clinard probably hoped to combat flamenco's redundant tendencies by draping the form in concept--but the cure proves worse than the disease, resulting in an evening of crypto-flamenco that will satisfy neither aficionados nor newcomers. There's no point in presenting variations when the audience hasn't had a chance to learn the theme.