by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2010 by Leigh Witchel
• “Gezeiten” Sasha Waltz & Guests
• “now and nowhere else” Iver Findlay/Marit Sandsmark
• “The Painted Bird|Bastard” Pavel Zuštiak|Palissimo
• “Anchises” Jonah Bokaer x Harrison Atelier
Sasha Waltz & Guests
Brooklyn Academy of Music
November 3, 2010
In “Gezeiten,” (German for “Tides”) Sasha Waltz managed a coup de theatre by putting a convincing disaster onstage. It would make for a snappier headline to say the results were a catastrophe, but frustratingly, it was neither a disaster nor a success – mostly a lot of expensive effects.
“Gezeiten” took place in a dilapidated room with peeling paint that had the feel of a classroom or some other nondescript public space.
It began with dances accompanied by Bach cello music. At first, the piece moved at the tempo of sleep, but the tone changed and gained urgency. The free-form partnering and slow manipulations were striking; one man walked up the sides of two other people. Waltz explored weight and partnering with humans as her deliberately awkward building blocks.
Suddenly, there was a deafening rumble and the lights went out. We couldn’t see it and didn’t know exactly what it was, but we heard the sounds of catastrophe. The lights went on and the room, still the same, had changed purpose to a shelter and everyone in it was looking up, gaping.
The cast began to crash to the ground as if the earth were unsteady; chairs and pipes went flying. What was the disaster? An earthquake? Radiation? There were moments when people acted somehow contaminated and the others needed to decide whether to assist or abandon them to their fate. Everyone huddled and piled on chairs and tables. Some were hysterical seemingly from lack of actual information.
As the piece went on the signs of the calamity encroached: smoke and an actual electrical fire on the back wall of the room. (How much did that cost?) The tension mounted, people had pointless arguments and ripped up the floorboards to hide or hide things in them.
What started realistically ended surrealistically; a few people reappeared in pairs, wrapped together under cloth to form one elongated humanoid form – a variant of the old Moiseyev trick where one bent-over gymnast plays two young boys. The wrapped figures unbent, slowly became upright and waved like some sort of sentinel as the piece closed.
“Gezeiten” seems to be set in the present, but doesn’t acknowledge that communication has radically changed. You wonder why no one even tried to use a cell phone; something that seems to be an integral part of modern disaster response.
As impressive as the stagecraft was, (the set design is credited to Waltz and Thomas Schenk) “Gezeiten” was weirdly unmoving. Waltz never zeroed in on the individuals involved; we rarely saw them as other than a mass. You felt as removed from it as watching the destruction of an ant farm.
For all the money spent on stage effects, at least in “The Poseidon Adventure,” you cared about Ernest Borgnine and Shelley Winters.
“now and nowhere else”
Iver Findlay/Marit Sandsmark
New York, NY
November 11, 2010
“now and nowhere else” was an evening of retro-punk theater games and existential dialogue. Your warning: “Waiting for Godot” is quoted in the press kit. Early on, Joey Truman started declaiming, and Diane Madden warned Marit Sandsmark, “He treats objects like women.”
As we entered the main theater at P.S. 122, there was a large metal tub of ice with beers cooling in it. No artisanal brews here, just Bud and Pabst. Everyone was invited to take a beer before sitting. Whether a friendly gesture or a bribe, it couldn’t hurt.
The stage was fitted with plastic screens and a sofa in the back that had been stripped of its original fabric and reupholstered in clear plastic. Truman, shirtless with stringy dyed blond hair, stood in the front, twitching as if he were strung-out and playing an imaginary instrument.
The twitching went on for a long while as the audience took its seats, beers in hand. Other cast members bent or stretched in full view to warm up; it went on past when we were all seated. When did the dance begin? The lights dimmed to half, which seemed to demarcate a start.
At a table at stage right, Pål Asle Pettersen mixed sounds and occasionally played guitar. At stage left, Iver Findlay controlled visuals and occasionally got up to take the microphone and rant. Findlay and Sandsmark, the driving forces behind this, are based in Stavanger, Norway.
Sausages were hung from strings near Pettersen; at one point he got whacked with one and sent it playfully back at his assailant. It took a lot of beer to come up with this. Soon enough, the stage was littered with empty cans.
There was a partially deliberate incompetence to the whole evening – an endearing nostalgia for an era when you could get drunk, rant angrily on stage, and at least some of it would be art. That was part of the stated intention of the evening: to force the non-dancers to dance, the non-actors to act and to explore that tension. It gave “now and nowhere” the honest impromptu feel of early punk, and the mixed bag quality of punk performances: Jean-Paul Sartre joins Johnny Rotten to compete on “The Gong Show.”
It was a short hour, and you were never completely sure what was pretentious tedium and what was satire. Truman started to read “No Exit” on stage. Then he ripped a page out of the book and chewed it. “We’re all in some kind of hell,” someone intoned.
I gave up trying to critique in the middle and just had a beer.
“The Painted Bird|Bastard”
Ellen Stewart Theater at La MaMa
New York, NY
November 12, 2010
The Ellen Stewart Theater at La MaMa is a long rectangular space with bleachers at one end and a deep space for dancing with a proscenium arch all the way at the back. A gallery runs along the sides above the audience and stage. As unconventional as it is, the space is inherently dramatic and dance looks good in it.
For “Bastard,” the perimeter of the dancing space was demarcated by large metal clip lights, and there was a large, dark wooden block at the front. An ominous rumble accompanied us as we took our seats.
A woman walked in from behind us, went to the back, and then soundlessly lay face down on the floor. A man did the same. They repeated and repositioned several times before she walked into the audience and he disappeared to the back, where unseen to us he took up his space to make music.
They were replaced by a short wiry man in a coat, Jaroslav Viňarský, who entered in a crouch. Still crouching, he disrobed on the stage and changed into jeans turned inside out as the score rumbled in the background. At a crescendo a sword fell to impale itself in the wooden block, which turned out to be a box that he opened. He reached in and smeared himself with black substance.
When he moved towards us, he was blocked from going further by a barrier of light. A narrative of atrocities was projected across the back and Viňarský started to sing in Slovakian. This all took much longer, and was much more difficult to do than it took to describe. Viňarský’s endurance was the most impressive aspect of a good performance.
The clip lights suddenly became unmoored and headed towards the ceiling. People came on to the floor, several from out of the audience, others from behind. The crowd onstage seemed to be almost as many as were watching: a reverse flash mob.
Viňarský was subsumed into the crowd. Zuštiak used its movement and more pedestrian (and easily taught and rehearsed) choreography to give a feeling of displacement and migration. The crowd looked surprised, and then broke into a run. It moved in a circling swarm; away from something we couldn’t see and towards nothing. They all stopped in exhausted panting as the rumbling resumed.
One by one, they lay face down as at the beginning, and got up and replaced themselves. The mass of bodies – which had the ominous overtones of a gravesite like Babi Yar – slowly moved forward, and then back to the other side of the stage.
The section ended; they got up as a front line linked arm in arm, and a swarming group behind. Someone from the group would continuously replace someone in the line as the crowd slowly progressed forward.
They all left the space with as little ceremony as when they entered. The musician silently exited and Viňarský retrieved his coat and cleaned his face at the side of the stage as a projection announced “[blackout]” and “[curtain]” in lieu of the actual events.
Like Jane Comfort, Zuštiak was also awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship this year. He’s also done work that blurred the space between the performer and the audience; last year’s “Halt!” was done at the Whitehall Ferry Terminal. “Bastard” is the first part of a planned trilogy inspired by Jerzy Kosinski’s novel “The Painted Bird.” Zuštiak mentions inspiration from the climactic scene where a bird is painted in brilliant colors before being killed by its own flock. One sensed less the violence implicit in that more than the displaced wanderings of refugees.
The best part of “Bastard” was its atmosphere of dark tension. Joe Levasseur’s imaginative, economical and evocative lighting gave magic to the space and to Zuštiak’s interesting work. “Bastard” had both magic and mystery, and that’s more than enough to make theater.
Jonah Bokaer x Harrison Atelier
Abrons Arts Center
New York, NY
November 17, 2010
Jonah Bokaer, a dancer and choreographer who has worked with both Merce Cunningham and Robert Wilson, assembled a raft of talent for his “ANCHISES” and put all of it to good use. It was what made this simple and restrained performance worth watching.
Harrison Atelier – the husband and wife team of Seth and Ariane Harrison – created both the scenario and the striking and simple set. Plastic tubing tied together and hung from metal pipes at the rear that held within them large foam cylinders. Foam cubes were the building blocks of the set, moved into varying configurations. With saturated, elegant lighting by Aaron Copp, these simple means became architecture.
The beautiful, contemplative score was composed by Loren Dempster, and played live by him and his father, Stuart, who created a similarly successful atmospheric score for Cunningham’s “Ground Level Overlay.”
In the cast, Bokaer was joined by Catherine Miller, James McGinn and two stellar Cunningham dancers of a previous generation; Meg Harper and Valda Setterfield.
“ANCHISES” is based on the tale in the Aeneid of Aeneas carrying his father from the burning city of Troy, but it followed the story more in spirit than detail, and knowing it more than in outline wasn’t necessary to appreciate the moods of the piece.
Bokaer’s Anchises isn’t male; Setterfield plays the role. The piece opened slowly with ticking noises. Bokaer and Setterfield faced one another, slowly clapping their hands, gently using one another’s weight less as partnering and more as positioning
The interaction between Bokaer and Setterfield had the detached, experimental quality of Cunningham – a hand on the shoulder, moved to the torso – but Bokaer lifted up Setterfield with his arms wrapped round her, or supported her as he lay on the ground and she “flew” – shades of the flight from Troy.
The tone was pastoral and refreshing like a dip in cool stream. Miller posed with an upraised arm recalling the Death of Socrates. Bokaer composes dance like a painter; it doesn’t move a lot, but there is plenty to look at.
At midpoint, the plastic tubing was released and the cylinders clattered to the ground, scattering like the ruins of columns. The music had the same destruction implicit within. The dancers tossed the cylinders, mayhem erupted, but Bokaer and Setterfield remain unperturbed in the center and once again, he places her “in flight.”
Setterfield paced about the strewn columns and bodies and sat down at the front, her back to us, and slowly heaved as if in mourning.
“ANCHISES” ended with an evocative image that had both the stark geometry of De Chirico and the restrained emotional warmth of Flemish masters. The dancers brought in two large foam cubes and placed them at the front like a table. Setterfield sat at the center with the rest of them arrayed around her in query. She leaned her head on the cubes as the lights dimmed on that contemplative tableau.
The choreography was minimal and restrained, but Bokaer himself occasionally broke into a complex Cunningham-esque combination with the parts of his body operating seemingly independently. He has impossibly high arches and dances with calm, precise details.
He also has a tendency towards overintellectualized preciousness and ambition; his program notes read like a grant application and he lists himself as an “international choreographer, media artist and entrepreneur,” but “ANCHISES” is a much better work than all that puffery would lead you to expect. In an effective collaboration with his team, they created a distilled, beautiful narrative that made complete sense with or without the specifics.
copyright © 2010 by Leigh Witchel