Monday, March 21, 2011

Weekend reviews: 'Jack Goes Boating,' Northwest Dance Project, Linda Austin at Disjecta

By Barry Johnson

This was one of those weeks when the events of the outside world -- the drama with nuclear reactors in Japan, the institution of a no-flight zone in Libya -- creep into our theaters, galleries and concert halls. Sometimes a play is so involving that it acts as a momentary escape from international news, and that's how Artists Repertory Theatre's production of Jack Goes Boating worked for me. Not that the relationship issues at stake in Bob Glaudinin's romantic comedy aren't important themselves: We know from experience that our personal lives go on regardless of the events in Japan or Libya, and that those events go hardest on the personal lives on people a lot like us. But still, this is an indirect connection.

Other times, we may be watching a dance performance, as I did Saturday night, and experience a sudden mental newsreel -- of file footage of Tomahawk missiles or fresh video from the one of the tsunami's many disaster areas. In this case, I think the dance itself, Sarah Slipper's Black Ink for Northwest Dance Project, inspired that jolt of memory.

Those were two of the shows I saw this weekend. The third was an improvisation by Linda Austin set on and around and even under an installation by Kurt Burkheimer at Disjecta, an art space in the Kenton neighborhood. It took me on an entirely different course altogether, as Austin's work often does.

Swim class: Todd Van Voris, John San Nicolas/Photo: Owen Carey
Jack Goes Boating at ART

Romantic comedies rarely take as their subject relationships themselves. They usually focus on the characters -- how they meet, how they overcome the obstacles in the way of their relationship, how they reach that moment of “happily ever after.”  We have to suspend our disbelief in the fairy tale of romance to enjoy romantic comedies, but at the same time we have to acknowledge how powerful that fairy tale is. Such is love.

Bob Glaudini’s “Jack Goes Boating,” which opened Friday at Artists Repertory Theatre, follows the rules of the romantic fairy tale though its variations, meaning its characters and complications, are amusing. Its biggest surprise is its depiction of just how senseless, destructive and disturbing relationship drama can be. That drama is usually what the romantic comedy is about, after all, not what it critiques. Glaudini’s comedy doesn’t match the ferocity or the cynicism of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,  which is hardly a romantic comedy, but it does visibly cringe and then flee the wilder reaches of relationship conflict. This is awful, get me out of here!

Oh. And it also teaches you how to swim.

Like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Jack Goes Boating has two couples, one of much longer standing than the other, but we shouldn’t carry the comparison too far. No one in Glaudini’s play is anywhere near as toxic as George and Martha in Albee’s play.  Clyde (played by John San Nicolas in ART’s production) and Lucy (Tai Sammons) do have some problems, though, and these start to bubble up as they attempt to play matchmaker to their relatively schlub-y friends, Jack (Todd Van Voris) and Connie (Emily Sahler Beleele).  Clyde and Lucy are more competent (again relatively) in their jobs and more attractive, but then that’s part of the problem, because when they get “lost,” as Lucy explains it, it’s easier for them to find some comfort with someone else -- in Lucy’s case with a chef whom Clyde calls the “Big Cannoli.

Van Voris’s Jack is a sweet comic character. Full of anxiety, he seeks some release in his reggae music (a nice anomoly for a white working class stiff from Brooklyn) and his ganja. In fact, everyone but Connie is an avid self-medicator along these lines.  Not that he’s a full-blown Rastafarian, but Jack's one true moment of bliss comes as he listens to reggae under the influence and visualizes the meal he is going to prepare for would-be girlfriend Connie. Van Voris loads Jack with nervous tics, especially a constriction of the throat, and a convincing hang-dog expression, but balances it with a genuine affability and moral center. He desires, but he won’t offend.

Of course, he’s irresistible to Connie, who is even more sensitive and fearful about the world than Jack is, especially the world of men. Beleele makes her so tentative it hurts -- her unspoken question to everything that happens is, “Am I doing this OK?”. So, the basic obstacle to their romance is their own inexperience with relationships, their self-doubt, their retreat from the world into their own protective shells. And we know from past experience that they are going to warm each other up, don’t we? Eventually, Jack and Connie will go boating?

Jack and Connie are also witnesses, which means they have an observer effect on the dead-end Clyde and Lucy have reached in their, relationship. And their horror at the history and histrionics of Clyde and Lucy gives Jack Goes Boating a lot of its impact. This is a comedy, though, and both Clyde and Lucy seem to have the inner resources to overcome their obstacles, too. Clyde has his soft heart and his swimming. Lucy has a surprising reservoir of personal insight. And maybe they borrow a little of Jack and Connie’s sensitivity along the way.

For the actors, Clyde and Lucy are not quite so beguiling or “different” as Jack and Connie, but San Nicolas and Sammons give us detailed pictures of them -- tidy and professional, connoisseurs of good pot, restless and ambitious, dedicated to each other but maybe just to a point. And that’s what Glaudini is testing in a way: Can these characters overcome the doubts that infidelity raises? Or maybe more narrowly, can their self-images withstand the beating the Big Cannoli gives them? San Nicolas and Sammons take the test seriously, and so the account they give of their characters turns out to be deeper than we expect. Especially in a romantic comedy.

This is what we have come to expect, though, in an Allen Nause-directed play, this exploration of characters and the situations in which they find themselves, how to make a moment true and meaningful.

Northwest Dance Project

In the middle of Sarah Slipper’s Black Ink one of three dances on the Northwest Dance Project program on Saturday night, it occurred to me that a few hours earlier, more than a hundred Tomahawk cruise missiles had slammed into Libya in an attempt to stop Muammar Gaddafi’s army and air force from annihilating rebel forces, emboldened by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. I thought about our armies in Afghanistan and Iraq, our dysfunctional democracy here at home. And I shook my head at the quake-and-tsunami catastrophe that had unhinged Japan. I didn’t dwell on these events, just ticked them off in swift succession.

That’s a pretty strange effect for a dance to have, but Slipper’s Black Ink, danced to songs by Georges Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartman combined the minimalist sounds of the 1920s and ‘30s avant-garde with a quirky, world-weary movement style and costumes (by Rachelle Waldie) that somehow brought that era to mind, too. It was funny sometimes, but sad, too. And the next dance, Patrick Delcroix’s Harmonie Defiguree generated the same feeling, though it had a more contemporary Johann Johannsson score. We are small and vulnerable, the dances suggested, and our little private affairs are always on the verge of blinking into non-existence.

Both dances were world premieres and made on Slipper’s company of young dancers, meaning they took full advantage of their strengths -- speed, athleticism, physical daring, energy -- even though the pieces themselves had that end-of-an-era sort of feel. Delcroix’s duets, especially, had a sensuality, both robust and melancholy, that suited the dancers exactly. Smart and theatrical, Delcroix’s choreography has touches of Jiri Kylian, with whom he’s worked since joining Nederlands Dans Theater as a dancer in 1986, but it has a sureness all its own, too. And although the very last section of Harmonie Defiguree seemed unfinished to me, it’s an accomplished dance.

I wasn’t so fond of Lucas Crandall’s Blue, which opened the program, with its big expressionist gestures set on the high ballet carriages of the dancers. It seemed stiff to me, over the top, those straining rib cages and sweeping arm gestures, and the thin blue rectangles taped across the women dancers' chests somehow brought more attention to the fact that they were otherwise topless. I just didn’t see the point, maybe.

Delcroix and Slipper, however, got to the anxious heart of our times. And after I’d seen Slipper’s dance and imagined those cruise missiles hitting their targets, I read the program: “With current world crises seeping into my consciousness, words seem to escape me,” Slipper wrote. Her dance brought them immediately to mind.

Jin Camou, Keyon Gaskin and Linda Austin do the improv./Jeff Forbes photo
Linda Austin at Disjecta

Karl Burkheimer has filled the big Disjecta exhibition gallery with an installation, In Site, that couldn’t be more stage-like. You walk up a ramp onto a raised area that covers most of the floor area. In the middle of that big rectangle, Burkheimer has carved out a large circle, as though the performance for which he’d built the stage needed another playing area for some of its scenes or an orchestra pit.

Burkheimer himself wanted to animate the platform with some performances, and choreographer Tahni Holt curated three weekends of improvisatory dances to give it a spin. Saturday afternoon, she handed the keys over to Linda Austin, whose freewheeling approach to dance making is entirely appropriate to the challenge. Austin enlisted three other dancers (Keyon Gaskin, Danielle Ross and Jin Camou) and sound artist Seth Nehil to help her explore the space. She also brought along some props -- some shiny costumes, a large stuffed tiger from Goodwill, a stack of blankets for the audience to sit on, a bowl of oranges for intermission -- to inspire some movement, and she arranged for some vocal cues, too, such as “hold,” “sustain” and “reverse,” which meant exactly what you think they would.

So, with that preparation, Austin set the dancers free. At one point, Camou was doing a shoulder stand right in front of me (the audience was seated on the stage), kicking her legs, Austin and Ross were untangling themselves from a chance encounter, and Gaskin was in the big hole, lying on the ground. A minutes later, everything had changed. A couple of times, Austin gave the audience instructions. The first was to unfurl their blankets, display them to everyone and then find your “perfect” spot onstage to re-spread them. Another time, we were supposed to toss our blankets into the middle circle and then sit along its edge, our feet dangling. Meanwhile, the dancers did what improvisers do -- danced strange little solos and accidental duets, worked with the costumes and props, explored the dimensions of Burheimer’s platform.

This sort of anti-choreography drives some people nuts. I can see why: Sometimes you think the performers have simply lost their minds and regressed to an infantile state. It all seems so “purposeless.”  But it’s not, really.

Blankets as props at Disjecta/Jeff Forbes photo
Improvisation asks the dancers what they want to show the audience, and usually they don’t want to just walk around “normally.”  They want to do something they’ve never done before -- tiny steps, crawling on the ground, one-legged poses, hopping and odd calisthenics.  It just so happens that in the real world, we consider movement like this “crazy.” And what the dancers are reminding us of, among other things, is that we don’t have to move the same way all the time, that these bodies will do and express lots of different things and not just with facial expressions, that the rote way we respond to the world isn’t always satisfying. Maybe it’s rarely satisfying.

Improv puts the performer on the spot. What did I just do? Did anyone get that? Did I get that, for that matter. You look for creative resources within yourself, you risk impossibly awkward moments (literally and metaphorically), you miss out on the satisfaction of the well-danced and well-practiced “step” or phrase. You give up the training wheels, you take down the safety nets, you dive into the pool without knowing whether it’s full or not.

In the audience, we are left to our own devices, too, because our aesthetic categories likely won’t cover what we are seeing. And in the cognitive scramble that ensues, sometimes we drop the categorizing altogether, and take the plunge ourselves. This weekend, that wasn't such a bad suggestion.


Mead said...

Mr. Dispatch, I just want to say how much I relish and value your far-ranging ecumenicism. Thanks to you and your copadres Mr & Mrs Scatter, we can all enjoy an amazing breadth of awareness of arts of all stripes, as well as the cultural climate that fosters them -- or hinders them, as the case may be.

I appreciate your work and look forward to every new post.

Linda Austin said...

Thanks, Barry, for your thoughtful watching and comments and for your framing of Saturday’s performance at Disjecta in a larger context of "what is improvisation." I am mulling over two aspects of improvisation and choreography that emerge from your writing: movement choices and purposefulness. I will point out that it is not the freedom to use seemingly "crazy" movement ---"tiny steps, crawling on the ground, one-legged poses, hopping and odd calisthenics”--- that makes a dance improvised. These "oddities" (not odd to me) might just as well make their way into a choreographed piece, while more conventionally "dancerly" movement might be the basis of an improvisation. So, your comments re: the challenge of dealing with movement that, to some, may seem purposeless and/or without easily-recognizable "dancerliness" can also apply to a completely set choreography as well as to improvisation. It's very telling that our bodies and our eyes viewing bodies are so trained for utility (chop down a tree, make a cup of coffee) or obvious virtuosity (sports & many flavors of dance) or beat-oriented musicality (social dance or dance that makes a visual counterpart to already composed music) that the pleasures (and yes, virtuosity) of movement that fall outside these are hard to fathom. Yet, you say, "the rote way we the rote way we respond to the world isn’t always satisfying." I also like the term "cognitive scramble" you used in your review/commentary.

The second theme---purpose—operates on many levels. First, there is the overall arc and motor: If you are not telling a story and you do not have an objective such as the concrete goal of moving the ball down the court and getting it into the basket (was talking about this last night with friend/colleague Robert Tyree)—how is the piece moving forward through time? Lots of possible answers that I don’t have the clarity of mind and time to go into now. But I wanted to acknowledge that question and suggest, again, that it is a not improvisation per se that makes this a challenge, and that an improvisation certainly may have a kind of progression (ours did) while a choreographed piece may mine the same material for an extended duration. Another play of purpose occurs in the moment-to-moment actions of the performer. I propose that the improvisor’s real-time decision-making and responses to unforeseen situations may be less arbitrary and more filled with purpose than the re-enactment of already created movement. Like the consciousness that “right now I am going to break up this glacial timing with something quick and jerky.” Or "Oops, I was going over there to climb on her back but she moved! Must adapt!" At the same time it may all seem “useless”. But then uselessness, along with excess and play, is among the aspects of art-makng and viewing that I love.

Barry Johnson said...

Mead, Thank you so much for your kind words.Very much appreciated.

Barry Johnson said...

Linda, I'm going to pull your comment into the main Arts Dispatch stream. Thanks for taking the time to write!

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