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Body Heat 

Donald Byrd’s Shack, Stephanie Gilliland’s TONGUE, and more

Wednesday, Apr 18 2001
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Back in the day, I used to bring this boy I was sexing to dance concerts with me, always curious to see what interested him or, conversely, put him to sleep. By chance, several years later we ended up together again at a dance concert. Maybe it was our seats -- close to the stage and oddly eye-level with the dancers‘ crotches -- or perhaps I was just a lot less naive, but this time around I noticed that my ex wasn’t only interested in what he was watching, he was physically aroused by the events onstage. When I confronted him, he was taken aback by my surprise and responded innocently, “But isn‘t that why people watch dance?”

I was reminded of this story last February while watching the underpants of Ballet Preljocaj’s female corps during a particularly revealing section of the company‘s performance of Paysage Apres la Bataille (“Landscape After the Battle”) at Royce Hall. Dressed uniformly in miniskirted pinstripe business suits, Preljocaj’s women sagged dejectedly to the floor, rolled on their backs ever so slowly with their legs aloft, spread-eagle, then crawled upstage away from the audience, skirts riding their haunches high for one last butt-and-crotch shot before the cycle of ennui started all over again. The message was clear: Inside today‘s smart businesswoman lurks a vulnerable girl-child who just wants to be fucked -- er, loved. But, despite the open eroticism of this pathetic spectacle, which was indeed effective, the section was a bit of a yawner. In fact, throughout Paysage the boys had all the fun, with male-male duets and a lovely group roundelay with chairs and lots of groping that generated almost enough heat to float a piece that, for all its trappings, ultimately was about as challenging as a Gap ad.

But then, I’m bored with sexual politics as usual, even if it is dressed up smartly in French voice-over, beat-heavy house music and psychedelic shag carpeting. Paysage purported to explore the tension between instinct and brutality on the one hand, and intelligence and reason on the other. But this ploy seems like the proverbial emperor‘s new clothes, a transparent excuse to revisit that perennial if tired theme of male-female sexual violence. I didn’t see intelligence or reason on display, although the brutality was evident from the opening scene, in which men throttled women a little too convincingly in a slow dance unto death. What obviously excited Preljocaj was the sweaty fun bare-chested hunks can have tossing each other about. So why not go with it? Relative to the predominance of placid sections of simplistically patterned movement spinning in place (albeit excellently performed), these moments of highflying partnering were a thrilling release, when we could relish the deliciously sensual physicality of bodies moving.

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Let‘s face facts. Watching dance is basically a voyeuristic act. Disrobe concert dance of its aesthetic intentions and philosophical posturings, and what’s left? The body on display. Whether it‘s a striptease or Swan Lake, we’ve paid to sit in the dark and watch beautiful bodies sweating up onstage for our enjoyment. I don‘t know if it constitutes a trend yet, but it does seem like choreographers are facing up to the elemental transaction between audience as spectator and performer as object of desire. But while many choreographers are awakening to the pleasure and politics of dance as erotic spectacle, a chilling specter of conservatism hangs over contemporary concert dance.

Which is why The Shack (a hot and sassy bit of satire punched up by a barely recognizable set of Ellington music performed by a group called Sex Mob), was not performed as the second act of Donald Byrd’s In a Different Light. Those who saw the piece last summer at California Plaza were treated to a randy burlesque of bumping, grinding, shaking and shimmying by women dressed in Valley of the Dolls fright wigs, go-go boots and mod minidresses alongside voguing hepcats in bell-bottoms -- with plenty of crotch grabbing, nipple licking and hyperdrive hip action thrown in -- aimed at drawing attention to the charged, sexualized gaze of the audience. When, near the end of the piece, the ensemble came onstage decked out in excessively oversized sex organs made from fantastical Day-Glo--cum--Peter Max fabric, things turned absurd and very juicy, as everyone strutted about with hyperbolically bulbous breasts and phalluses a-waggling, like some porno version of Dr. Seuss. As delightful as it was to watch women stroking knee-length appendages and big, buff men fondling beehive mammaries, the beauty of the moment lay in Byrd‘s not settling for cross-gender buffoonery, but creating tension as the sex kittens morphed into a menacing presence, staring down the audience and daring them to laugh.

Unfortunately, some of the national presenters who commissioned Shack didn’t like the message and demanded that Byrd choreograph a new section for the Ellington suite. The result, pointedly titled Not the Shack, presented as the opening section, was little more than a thinly disguised middle finger raised at the audience. For the two older ladies sitting next to me, it was a happy-go-lucky romp through a medley of popular Ellington tunes, a bright and shiny penny mixing ‘40s social dances and a lot of silly facial expressions. I couldn’t help but notice, though, Byrd‘s insistent repetition of a particular gesture reminiscent of stereotypical blackface-minstrel-show mugging. He seemed to be making it abundantly clear that (“Yes Sir, Massa Sir”) he would give presenters and audiences what they wanted, even while critiquing it. One can only wonder what he might’ve created, if given the latitude to do so, rather than having to pander to the lowest common denominators: accessibility and widespread audience appeal. Additionally, I wonder whether anyone subsequently realized on the ride home or tucked safely in bed that night that, ultimately, Byrd had the last word.

Stephanie Gilliland bristles at the notion that contemporary dance choreographers should make dances that will play in Kansas. “What has happened to the notion of freedom? Experimentation? Risk taking? Creating culture?” she wonders. At heart Gilliland, whose 4-year-old L.A.-based company TONGUE appears at Highways Performance Space later this month, is a contemplative sensualist. When she dances, it often looks as if she is listening for something deep within herself, and when she begins to hear it, you can see her start to smile. It‘s a seductive, I’ve-got-a-secret smile that reveals her enjoyment of the waves of movement welling up and beginning to spill out into sinuous, momentum-based phrases that play with gravity and suspension. Limbs snap out and recoil, her body flies into the air then falls heavily, all before returning to a central core of energy that almost audibly hums. Gilliland‘s aesthetic is rooted in the carnal bliss of pure physicality -- no external drama, no social critique, no battle of the sexes, just the exquisite joy of being a body in motion. Hence, the subtitle for the Highways concert: “An evening of dances that won’t change the world.”

Gilliland‘s dancers, too, tend to smile and laugh a lot, taking obvious pleasure in what their bodies are doing. Their deep, long-term working process shows in their commitment to the moment -- from subtle permutations to high-velocity partnering, they playfully engage with the movement, one another and the audience. There’s something very infectious about their energy: These are real bodies, real people, having a good time. Tongue dancer and rehearsal director Holly Johnston admits that this is what first attracted her to Gilliland‘s work: “I was watching a real human being onstage revealing effort, risk and pleasure -- all these things that were going on authentically in her body.”

Gilliland hesitates to reveal details about the show at Highways, although she hints that she’s been exploring how her dancers can switch between distinct physicalities and ways of relating to an audience, from object of the spectatorial gaze to active participant in a kinetic dialogue. The program will include Big Manuel, a 12-minute ride through a rapid-fire succession of idiosyncratic solos, duets and trios, which first premiered on the tiny stage of the Alterknit Lounge at the Knitting Factory. Unlike the intense, internal accretions of movement involved in choreographing last year‘s near-hourlong meditation on corporeal spirituality, Soon, Gilliland said that she choreographed Big Manuel much as she imagines Jackson Pollock painted -- fast, loose, freewheeling. The analogy holds in the finished product: The piece explodes in different directions out of the limiting frame of a pint-size spatial area.

But then, Gilliland avidly believes that creative risk is a central aspect of making dances. “Why do we feel so compelled to validate what we do?” she says. “Choreographers today have forgotten that the appreciation they receive by a larger audience has been made possible by the trailblazers who came before and most certainly weren’t always appreciated. Thank God for the obscure, outside-the-mainstream dance artist!” And thank God, too, for choreographers who fearlessly revel in the delights of the body.

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