by John Munger | 8/5/09 • About 35 or 40 of us, including several late arrivals, settled into Mixed Blood Theater and were greeted by Artistic Director Jennifer Smith. She welcomed us and explained that the first piece was an improvisation involving herself and fellow-dancer Cassidy Bires. They had been given instructions written by other company members, which they had not yet seen, and on which they would improvise.
They got two volunteers from the audience to read the instructions, and then the first piece proceeded. I thought the instructions would say things like “travel using uneven locomotor movements,” or “jump twice, turn, then become inwardly focused.” Instead they were things like “Introduce yourself to a member of the audience,” “get the gum out of your hair,” and “dance like a zombie.” Each of the dancers delivered credibly, there was not much interaction between them, but a feeling of good humor lay over the volunteer readers, the dancers and the audience.
|going through the movements is the blog of john munger, one of seven bloggers covering the minnesota fringe festival for the daily planet.|
Right away I had three vivid responses. 1) This was going to be dance on a personally interactive level rather than on a formally presentational level. 2) Uh-oh. Truly open-ended improvisation is incredibly hard and this experience wasn’t feeling like it was at that level. 3) Déjà vu all over again.
Mostly I want to talk about number three, the Deja-Vu, but let me preface by fleshing out the performance.
Later in the show there was another audience interactive improvisation piece in which about six or seven of the dancers (I forgot to write down the exact number in my notes) took the stage and responded to phrases or words called out from the audience. These included such items as “cluster,” “naked” (uh, no-one stripped), “fast forward,” and “be a runway model.”
We also got an extended piece about difficulties in relationships, a solo to a beatnik version of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” and a comedic dance for five young women apparently intoxicated at a late 1950’s prom or sock hop. There was a lot of good fun energy in this show.
Let me dwell for a moment on the Déjà Vu thing. Thirty-five years ago I was Artistic Director of a company in Colorado Springs that did shows very much like what I just saw this group do. There were six of us, we did accessible, often humorous, often improvisational and occasionally dead serious modern in the dance idiom of that time.
I don’t know whether or not “Back To The Left Productions” does a lot of school lecture-demonstrations and other socially welcome gigs, but I sense they might. Their programme speaks of FFI for future bookings and for “educational outreach programs.”
We, too, had an item where we requested phrases from the audience and then we did improvisational responses. Ours was slightly different from this group’s, but the principle was the same. We began by demonstrating that dancers could verbally repeat short phrases, sometimes with radical distortions, while moving. Our favorites were “Home on the Range,” “Bouncing Buffalo Chips” and “Moving Forward.” After we did about two minutes of that we stopped and asked for phrases from the audience. Then we ran with them. We found that if we were at a school that we could get a rich level of response if we offered the option of suggesting food from the cafeteria.
I think we did about a hundred of these gigs over two or three years. We were the only modern dance group with credibility in the entire region covered by the Pikes Peak Arts Council in, like, 1974. My favorite experience was at the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind. We had a mostly deaf audience of about 150 kids and when they suggested phrases they did so in American Sign Language. We took that and ran with it. Silently. To this day I remember the ASL signs for “hamburgers” and “spaghetti”.
So I’ve been there and I’ve done that. I would like to say three things about what I saw “Passage” doing and what I’ve experienced. First, this is incredibly difficult work, and it has few rewards. You’re not in a situation where your choice of activity allows you easily to do cute, fancy or flashy or highly artistic stuff and look good. Second, America needs this work. I’ve already noticed that several audience reviews on the Fringe website rave about the show because the reviewers were self-confessed newbies to dance and loved the experience. Third, truth is that the performance isn’t likely to be as crafted, as inspirational, as accomplished, or as “credible” as more presentational-oriented shows.
Which brings us to the more formal pieces on the show. They wisely arranged this program to include both audience-participation and formal dances as well as both serious and humorous. There was an element of the unexpected. Actually my favorite moment in the whole evening was a catastrophic pratfall by an apparently drunken young lady at a 1950’s prom. It was perfect, and in my jaded viewpoint it beat out every long extension, every superb improvisational response, every pirouette and every choreographic moment of creative excellence. She went ker-flop all in her gown while yakking and it was exquisitely authentic.
Mostly, I think all the “formal” pieces need work and editing and a lovingly uncompromising outside eye.
“Dis/Connect” involves a large cast, men disagreeing with men, women disagreeing with men and with each other, live spoken text, and a lot of angst. It’s too long and it’s not clear how the thread of focus moves through it. We are left realizing only that people don’t communicate with each other very well. The problem is that this theme of communication breakdown infects the piece and it doesn’t communicate with the audience very well. Why did they move the chairs? I donno. Why did the first couple go separate ways? I donno. Why did one guy get subjected to a restraining order and where did that come from and what does whichever woman he’s with think of it? I donno.
Somebody once observed that certain simple human relationships are incredibly difficult to communicate through dance. For example, it is almost impossible to communicate “this is my sister-in-law” through dance. At least not succinctly. (The good news, on the other hand, is that you can communicate primal situations like deprivation, power, velocity and joy better through dance than through words.)
“Raven” is well danced by the artistic director to a beatnik variation on E.A. Poe’s “The Raven” but the whole is lesser than the sum of the parts. The dance vocabulary is very clearly late 1990’s contemporary. The spoken variation on the poem (by Lord Buckley) is very clearly anti-establishment beat. Thus a disconnect. No, they do not comment on each other. Further, there is no consideration of what the poem says, when it was originally written, what the beatnik distortion does to it, nor anything else. It is simply some technically pretty proficient movement grafted onto a pretty cool piece of text. That’s not good enough.
The closing piece, “What Girls Are Made Of” is a lot of fun. The fact that they are all (theatrically speaking) drunk establishes a movement vocabulary that is worth attention and giggles. And they do it alarmingly well. This one, too, has a problem. It doesn’t move forward clearly. We’re given a specific situation with specific characters, so we expect specific stuff to continue. Unfortunately the piece dissolves into a number of “She falls over and I catch her” drunk gags and not much else happens on this remarkable night in these young ladies’ lives.
I’m 64 now, I was there when those proms and dances were happening, and I can tell you that quite a lot more happened in our lives on those occasions. Or nothing at all, and that was its own story for those of us who were wallflowers. This dance had a wonderful premise, a wonderful beginning, then began to drift, then ended at an unresolved and almost random point, like when the music ran out.
These folks deserve support. They’re doing God’s work. They’re inviting newbie audiences to enjoy and participate in dance. They’re breaking down the snotty barrier that comes along with mega-dance “high art.” They will surely benefit from their experiences here at The Fringe. Yes, the kitchen here is hotter than you might expect. But that’s a good thing. I’m glad to have met them. I have fond memories of doing the same thing, and those are good, happy and instructive memories.
They have one show left, on Wednesday at Mixed Blood at 7:00pm. It’s fun, family-friendly, and let me promise you that except for the second piece and maybe Raven you and your kids will Get It.
NOTE: This blog does not reflect the opinions or policies of the Minnesota Fringe Festival, Dance/USA, nor anyone other than the author. These are purely and utterly my own observations and views.
John Munger (email@example.com) has been performing, teaching, choreographing, researching and writing about dance for about 40 years. He teaches at Zenon, day-jobs for Dance/USA, and still hasn’t gotten much of it right.
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