Friday, November 27, 2009

Invertigo Dance Theatre’s Reeling: Lookin’ for Love in All the Wrong Places

If you’ve ever had a bad night at a bar, you’d appreciate Invertigo Dance Theatre’s Reeling, a show that busts open a night of meeting, drinking, dancing and karaoke to reveal desperate desires for connection. While eight lonely hearts mingle at the onstage bar (complete with musicians who show up late and a counter that too many people turn into a stage) their longings are thwarted by fears, jealousies, violence and insecurities sometimes amplified, sometimes masked, by the ever-growing influence of alcohol. Invertigo director Laura Karlin tosses in just enough accurately ridiculous elements of the party scene – a drunk guy who threatens to jump from the scaffolding, another who does frantic pushups to win back his flirt of a girlfriend, a cell phone conversation that obnoxiously interrupts the tender opening duet set to Najeeb Sabour’s gorgeous cello – to make us laugh at these not-so-exaggerated portraits of ourselves all the while.

From that rudely intrusive initial phone call, planted in the audience and so convincing that the people in front of me start to mutter obscenities, develops a disembodied dance of cell phone users. With awesome skill, and without breaking contact with their tiny silver appendages or missing a beat in their animated conversations, eight men and women climb over and around each other, making sudden, clinging shifts in orientation before moving on to the next human obstacle. They receive driving directions, plan to meet later in the evening, give those awful play-by-play accounts of their whereabouts, and even text with their invisible partners, whilst engaging acrobatically but mechanically with the people they encounter along the way. Everyone finally arrives at the bar, and the gymnastic agility they display in technologically mediated conversation disappears when faced with direct human contact.

Although cell phones mostly drop out of sight for the remainder of the night, mental, emotional and physical absence continues to threaten relationships. Bahareh Ebrahimzadeh is too busy hitting on, and developing strategies for hitting on, a cute girl in the front row to perform her duet with Nick Factoran, so he continues on his own and comically tries to fill the physical holes with explanation: “This is me lifting you.” Scooping with his arms and looking up at the space where Ebrahimzadeh is supposed to be, he scoots sideways ridiculously alone. SaraAnne Fahey (the flirt) cozies up to Jermaine Johnson while obviously eyeing Factoran across the room. When couples pair off for slow dances every now and then, a few bar hoppers peer over their partners’ shoulders and scan the crowd for their true objects of desire – almost always elsewhere. And after daydream sequences of bold, heartfelt action, like Courtney Ozovek’s karaoke fantasy with Ebrahimzadeh, we feel even more acutely the absence of such action from reality; Ozovek retreats in embarrassment from the countertop stage without singing a note.

Invertigo company members flesh out endearing, compelling and unique characters over the course of the evening, but their individual stories grow perhaps most poignant when they fall into traps and tendencies we all recognize and dread. A recorded voice narrates the predictable form of a first conversation while Factoran and his crush, bartender Chelsea Asman, physicalize their exchange. Standing rather awkwardly side-by-side, he initiates the interaction with a gesture toward her, and the unseen commentator labels it “statement.” She responds with a guarded nod toward him in “agreement.” Encouraged, he waves his arms grandly in an “overly confident statement” and she takes a step back in “disagreement.” They progress through “awkward silence,” “panicked bullshit explanation,” and “relieved laughter” until, with regal flying tour jeté, he makes a “grossly exaggerated statement” and she follows up with an “accidental double entendre” that lands her between his legs. Finally, the interchange devolves into a barrage of “insults” as the two hurl themselves into diving rolls finally halted by her definitive “insult complete with literary allusion and long-term scatological implications.”

Although we get to know barkeep Asman through spoken and physical interactions like the ones above, Karlin further develops the Reeling characters through full-bodied, abstract movement. Asman, because she’s the boss, has to display all of the restraint and decisiveness that the others lack, and when dancers together break into tight upright turns, quick drops to their haunches and extreme arches, her power, attack and control separate her, as always, from the group. Likewise, Jessica LeCheminant retains her shy, gentle approach and loose giddiness when she joins the others, protesting, giggling, “I don’t really dance,” and catching on to the steps with tentative, awkward delight. Consistency of character blends the performers’ pedestrian activity into their dancing, and when Ebrahimzadeh flirts with Elena of the front row and Asman serves drinks to lucky of-age viewers sitting house left, boundaries between dance and life grow even fainter. With this confusion, Karlin leads us to associate dance interactions – who’s touching whom and how – with all the meaning and significance we attach to real-world physical situations.

Such blurring happens more and more as the booze continues to flow, order breaks down, desperation and frustration build, and reality fades into dream sequences – like the one LeCheminant initiates by humming a few bars of “Don’t You Want Me Baby” as she sidles up next to Jeremy Hahn. A dance of attraction and curiosity quickly morphs into violence as Hahn pushes LeCheminant down again and again, and her breathing grows loud and labored. She retaliates when she can, and he reveals familiar abusive tendencies by switching suddenly to gentle caresses and back to rough shoves until we finally return to reality. But this time the violence bleeds into the group, and it’s impossible to forget where we’ve been or to return to the place we were before. A mixed-up, slowed down, weightless new world emerges – where musician Toby Karlin coaxes ethereal music out of wineglasses, and arms, legs and torsos swim in a high shaft of light, reaching for something that will satisfy.

Reeling’s two week run at the Odyssey Theatre has ended, but check out Invertigo’s website for future events.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Everybody Dance at the Stone House

This past Wednesday I witnessed 45 remarkable minutes of dance…and 60 of the performers didn’t know the steps when they showed up at noon for the 12:35 show. Louise Reichlin’s LA Choreographers & Dancers have been partnering with groups of local students to create Dance at the Stone House at the Sun Valley Youth Arts Center for three years now, and each performance is truly a miraculous achievement in communication, mathematics, spatial organization, time management, community building, education, and most certainly, dance.

Inspired by the architecture, artwork and history of the SV Youth Arts Center or “Stone House,” built in 1925 and classified as a City Cultural Historical Monument, the dance comes with some assembly required. It all happens in a 45 minute whirlwind of meticulously choreographed activity that culminates in a performance involving five company dancers (Danielle Catone, Samantha Hoe, Steven Nielsen, Sung-Yun Park and Katya Sussman) and, at the noon show on Wednesday, 60 fourth and sixth graders from Rockdale Elementary School.

Students emerge from the buses already grouped in eights or tens – the lumberjacks, the logs, the stonecutters, the swimmers, the animals, the musicians – and team spirit blossoms almost immediately. Musicians arrive at the seating area jamming on their air guitars, drums and keyboards and, in true cool musician style, kick it in the back row. A swimmer sits by me with the rest of his aquatic friends and, after inspecting some ocean-themed tiles made by young artists here at the center, yells out his decision: “a killer whale!”

During the next half hour of controlled chaos, the groups disperse to gather inspiration for their movement inside the Stone House and to work with company dancers onstage in carefully staggered five minute intervals. I get to be an honorary log, and while exploring the house we discover lots of ways that we logs secretly support and form the framework for the stone masonry. Stepping back outside, I catch sight of lumberjacks stomping after Nielsen across the outdoor performing space, taking a few menacing whacks mid-air, and shouting “TIM-BER” in surprising unison. Unfazed by this threatening display, the other logs boldly follow Sussman into the stage area to learn their movement. Dropping down into low lunges, they become floorboards, and when they reach heads and arms into gently sloping curves they recall the wooden window arches.

I love how much Reichlin and her dancers expect of their young collaborators. In five to ten minutes of rehearsal, each group learns where to “pre-set” before the dance begins, a cue for entering, and several eight-counts of movement that travels in a specified spatial pathway. (Don’t ask me how the grown-up dancers keep track of these discrete parts while teaching them out of order and context. It’s still a mystery.) But because there’s so much to be done in so little time, the kids have to call upon their best problem solving skills – negotiating space with their neighbors and finding ways to do the movement, like a tricky kick and roll up off the floor, that work for them.

During the practice “mark through” we first glimpse the dance as a whole and begin to believe that all these parts could, possibly, fit together. When students see how their movement weaves through the company dancers’ cartwheels, jumps, complex floor patterns and fancy footwork, their focus intensifies in preparation for the final performance. And they do it! The music starts, Reichlin’s dancers tread several quick passes through the space, and lumberjacks move into position for their big entrance. Swaggering onstage, their nervous grins widen as their chops, felling only imaginary trees during rehearsal, now cause Park to tip backward and topple to the floor. Later on, when logs bow their heads to form arches, stonecutters haul their heavy burdens down an assembly line and then slather, slather, slather the rocks to the wooden frame with cement. Swimmers swish and animals crawl curving paths through the space, and musicians join in for a Mardi Gras-style parade – inspired by a painting inside the Stone House – before everyone takes a bow.

I’m sure all involved would offer their thanks to Los Angeles Cultural Affairs and the LA County Arts Commission for making this amazing program financially feasible in such tough economic times. And of course, thank you to Louise Reichlin and LA Choreographers & Dancers for modeling the tremendous collaboration that’s possible when professional and budding artists come together for even three quarters of an hour.

Photo of previous Dance at the Stone House performance by Steve Fobalvarro

Used with permission of:

© Louise Reichlin, Los Angeles Choreographers & Dancers

© Department of Cultural Affairs, Sun Valley Youth Arts Center

All rights reserved.

Friday, November 20, 2009

In the Flesh: Halprin’s Parades and Changes Replayed at REDCAT

I wasn’t around for the original Parades and Changes, the one that met with police raids for public nudity at its New York premiere by Anna Halprin and company in 1967. And until this past Saturday evening, my impressions of the seminal work were gleaned only from lectures and books and articles, and from one grainy film of Procession (1964) at UCLA – later incorporated as one of the seven or eight sections of Parades. From these secondary sources, I know that the work broke with dance and theater tradition by presenting dancers as themselves, without the conventions and artifice that customarily distance performers comfortably from their actions, bodies and audience. By eliminating the separating spaces, Parades and Changes questioned and muddied the boundaries between dance and everyday movement and between performers and audience members, making it possible for a dancer to walk like a regular person instead of royalty and for regular people to dance.

I know that Parades and Changes lives in the choices available to us in contemporary dance, but I wasn’t there for the shock and outrage at Hunter College in ’67, and even though I’ve heard much about the world Parades emerged from and collided with (it was, after all, my parents’ world), it still seems foreign. Because we boomers’ babies communicate with reserve and skepticism and irony (and hold all we encounter to these universal standards of sophistication), glimpses of the earnestness and tacit trust that characterized many performances of the 60s often leave us flustered and confused, amused or contemptuous. When political performance ensemble The Living Theatre revived the celebrated Vietnam-era Mysteries and Smaller Places in 1994, it flopped because of this very disconnect in communication styles (1), and I admit that I feared Anna Halprin and Anne Collod’s Parades and Changes, Replays might do the same Saturday night at REDCAT. It did not.

They stare out at us with eerie neutrality as they slowly, deliberately unbutton shirts, bend to unzip boots, pull down briefs, and we are the ones exposed – sitting under much-too-bright house lights with our discomfort and embarrassment. Janice Ross writes that, in 1967, dancers performed this task “with the same matter-of-factness they would exhibit if undressing at home” (2), and the honesty and reality of the activity shocked audiences. Balanced on her bare right leg, the woman with the short dark hair stoops forward and slides off her left boot. Without breaking her forward gaze, she draws the left foot back and down into a lunge and deposits the boot silently at her side. Never a scratch, wobble or stubborn button, and always the direct, penetrating, blank stare. Mixed signals shift the action from everyday task to confrontational or seductive performance and back again, and I am confused, disturbed, stripped of my viewing savvy.

Later on when the house lights, thankfully, have dimmed, paired dancers undress in perfect, mirrored unison, and stage technician (Frédéric Fleischer?) stalks between the strangely synchronized duets to unroll the famous brown paper. The improvisational score – a loose choreographic structure Halprin developed in the years leading up to Parades – builds back in just enough theatrical convention (audience in the dark, dancers’ focus on each other, movement ordered) to contrast with Fleischer’s entrance, and I remember that such visibility of production elements and technical collaborators is now a valid directorial choice in part because of this piece. Actions conjure their enormous historical implications throughout the evening and remind us how much the 1967 work has shaped the way we’re watching the 2009 replay. It’s a lovely, mixed-up, celebratory soup we swim through, and our appreciation is amplified by the sad knowledge that Lawrence Halprin – Anna Halprin’s husband and collaborator of nearly 70 years – died just a few weeks ago.

I recognize the brown paper roll, but what follows this set-up is not at all what I expected. Before tonight, when I pictured dancers completing the task of tearing paper into strips, the flat affect and functionality of Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A came to mind. I never imagined the beautifully sculptural, sensually delightful, playful and sometimes ironic dance that folds and unfolds between people and paper. This part of Parades seems most obviously a product of the 60s: naked people in sustained slow motion, their bodies glowing honey brown like the paper, enjoying the physical sensations of ripping and crumpling and wrapping as they circle around, rise and fall together. But particularly theatrical lighting and unexpected musical accompaniment by Petula Clark’s “Downtown” for the first minutes of shredding suggest that the dancers’ nudity combined with their concentration on this simple job might be funny.

Although the paper-tearing section runs perhaps the greatest risk of losing me and my callous contemporaries, because it begins with this ironic self-awareness we gladly come along for and luxuriate in the ride that follows. When the paper lies in shreds, the task shifts; dancers gather to the center and toss the strips in flames that flicker and fall in a constant, dazzling fire of activity. This glorious abundance, and the boundless sense of time and pleasure that we relish while the paper’s on stage feel distinctly foreign, and I’m pretty sure this is a taste of the 60s.

The performers set up lines of umbrellas, furry clogs, buckets, hip boots, bonnets and other flea market fare for the Procession section, and what I never noticed in the black and white 1964 video I delight to discover and trace here. As dancers in separate tracks interpret the direction “keep moving forward, and take the environment with you” by adding items to their person with every slow lap through the space, we notice additional tasks they set for themselves and each other along the way. One woman starts with a silvery beekeeper’s head covering, next picks up a metallic Mylar balloon, and then – noting the shiny theme just in time – her neighbor hands off a springy, swinging tube of silver ductwork as they pass. Watching each new rule develop, we enjoy the real-time problem solving, and once again we’re grateful for Anna Halprin.

Finally, the focus narrows to just two dancers. Others scurry to dress them in layer after layer, and the new challenge emerges. Draping cloths over heads, hanging buckets on arms, fastening umbrellas into belts, the costumers gradually clear the stage by attaching all items to these two now-hardly-human accumulations. When the last unruly objects have been miraculously added, the procession changes direction. Somehow, the castaway conglomerations make their teetering way on pumps and furry clogs up the theater stairs, through the lobby and out onto the corner of West 2nd and South Hope, where live camera tracks their interaction with the Los Angeles of 2009. When the lights come up and the artists come out we stand for Parades and Changes, for all it has accomplished and for the ways it continues to reach into our world.

1 Callaghan, David. “Still Signaling Through the Flames: The Living Theatre’s Use of Audience Participation in the 1990’s.” Audience Participation: Essays on Inclusion in Performance. Ed. Susan Kattwinkel. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003. 23-36.
2 Ross, Janice. “Anna Halprin and the 1960s: Acting in the Gap between the Personal, the Public, and the Political.” Reinventing Dance in the 1960s: Everything Was Possible. Ed. Sally Banes. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin P, 2003. 24-50.