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Mermaids, a Madman and the Open Road

Photo by Lee Hemingway

Water — pulsating, swirling, insistent, loud and mysterious — enveloped Hae Kyung Lee’s dance ensemble during Ancient Mariners, the group’s mid-September performance at California Plaza’s Watercourt. The fountain has been used to great advantage by local choreographers, but none in recent memory has been as spectacular as Lee’s display of aquatechnics, which included ample use of the Watercourt’s “shooter array” — synchronized jets firing up to 20 feet — and its “wave” feature, which can send 50,000 gallons of water cascading down the stage. The nine dancers’ slow, sustained journey forward, from the top of the fountain at the rear of the space to the shallow pool at the audience’s feet, was interspersed with solos, duets and trios that exemplified Lee’s propensity for repetition and sculptural, often inverted, poses. But from their initial descent to their final quixotic offering of rubber trout to the audience, we were never quite sure who or what the beings were. Various associations — of Neptunian merpeople, or naiads, or bobbing ducks, or idyllic boaters on a lake — arose and floated away, but as the dancers vibrated between human, animal and fabled characters, one realized that Lee was going for all of it, riding an imagistic schism that addressed something deeper, some liminal, sensate existence of and between human and water.

This had its downside — there was narrative dissonance between these elemental beings’ very human desire to conquer the water and their otherworldly sense of belonging to it. The occasional execution of rather dancerly dancing (pointed toes, prancing about on relevé) also confounded the illusion, and ill-fitted what we’d come to understand of these watery creatures. Nevertheless, Ancient Mariners prevailed by leaving the audience with beautiful, mythic imagery — bodies dissolving into and emerging from baptismal walls of water; a rowboat pulled across dark water by torchlight; a solitary figure spreading her arms in a wide arc that echoed the line of the boat while expressing the vastness of the night sky to which she gazed, from a world apart.

In SKINning the surFACE, at Highways Performance Space earlier in September, we knew exactly whom we were encountering on stage — the Amerasian children of U.S. servicemen. Here, the bodies were neither imagistic nor mythic, but instead intrinsically linked to the politics of an era. The fate of over 30,000 con lai (half-breed) children left behind after the 1975 fall of Saigon is not an easy bit of content to theatricalize, and Maura Nguyen Donohue and the New York City–based Amerasian ensemble In Mixed Company worked hard to convey the factual and emotional layers of this history, as well as the experience of living in a biracial body.

As the ensemble moved quickly through vignettes assembled in thematic sections of “Father,” “Skin” and “Home,” it was hard not to be sucked into their passionate commitment to the topic. But the piece rode the edge between an external reading of history and an internal one, and didn’t leave a lot of creative elbow room. Perhaps in an attempt to subvert these limitations, the ensemble propelled the audience from one aspect to the next while shifting between visual, physical and aural modes of storytelling.

Movement was used descriptively and most often as a counterpoint to the other media — song, sound score, spoken word, video and slide projections. At least this was the case until Donohue’s forceful solo near the end of surFACE. Removed from the audience in a dark upstage corner, her naked skin neither American nor Vietnamese but a blank screen upon which historical projections of helicopters and the American flag were reflected, she repeatedly curled into her gut, then lashed out with knifelike limbs in leaps and kicks until she exhausted herself. Raw, nonstop and teetering toward abandon, Donohue’s soliloquy reeled between anger and vulnerability, embodying the emotional resonances of her politicized body and ultimately speaking volumes about, as one line in the show stated, “the space between blood and skin.”

The fall dance season kicks off this weekend with the Parsons Dance Company at UCLA, and Leonard Crofoot’s one-man show, Nijinsky Speaks, at Pepperdine University. Parsons, whose work is considered either inventive or gimmicky depending on whom you talk to, presents a program featuring the signature 1982 solo Caught and other repertory that is bound to appeal to the masses. What is compromised in favor of accessibility (or worse — heaven forbid! — popularity) is the crux of a debate among dance-world pundits about the merits of his choreography, in what sometimes seems like a heaping pile of insider gossip. But kudos to Parsons, who stepped in to fill the spot left vacant when the Martha Graham Dance Company unceremoniously crashed and burned earlier this year. The future of the company and school hangs in limbo while various parties fight over rights to her name and work. Politics aside, it is interesting to note how Graham’s extant choreography is referred to in the media as “ballets”. Am I the only one who finds this strange? I must have missed the meeting where it was decided that once a choreographer reaches a career zenith her work will be exalted by this appellation, and I keep wondering whether dear old Martha would think such a designation traitorous.

 

Ultimately, factionalism is useless when presented with true innovation. Witness the case of Ballets Russes star Vaslav Nijinsky, who broke with classical conventions and shocked audiences of the early 1900s with L’apres Midi d’un Faun, (a stunning meditation on desire) and ã Le Sacre du Printemps, “ballets” that reflected the vanguard modernist and primitivist tropes of the times. Nijinsky’s groundbreaking choreography, combined with his meteoric rise to fame and equally public descent into madness within the space of a decade, provides ample and juicy material for Leonard Crofoot to explore in what has been heralded as a theatrical tour de force.

Based on the diaries Nijinsky wrote upon first being institutionalized for schizophrenia, as well as on a plethora of scholarly research, the piece depicts an artist whose ability to metamorphose into almost anything onstage — a rose, a fawn, a puppet — carried over into his private life and led to brilliance as well as dysfunction. Stepping into Nijinsky’s shoes to enact his life story is apparently easy for Crofoot, who discovered he was the same build and shoe size as Nijinsky when he donned costume reconstructions for a performance at the Severin Wunderman Museum in Irvine a few years back. In another serendipitous twist of similitude, it turns out that Crofoot learned Nijinsky’s roles from George Zoritch, a student of Massine, who in turn was a student of Nijinsky. All of which contributes to the conviction that one is in the presence of the artist himself. Nijinsky Speaks has gained an unstoppable momentum since it opened at Glaxa Studios in the fall of 1997, where the initial run was extended from two weeks to six months. In promo material for the show, Crofoot has said the appeal of the show has less to do with the enigma of the genius-madman than with the fact that Nijinsky “is art, pure art.”

Among the profusion of upcoming performances this month, the debut of Cid Pearlman and her company, Nesting Dolls, stands out, not the least because Pearlman moved here recently from San Francisco, a city known for a very tight-knit, supportive dance scene. After a decade of making and showing dances there, Pearlman decided to find “a new sandbox to play in,” as she put it in a recent interview. “I was interested in seeing how my work would play in other places. And L.A. is like the Wild West.”

Pearlman’s work reflects an eclectic mix of influences. The daughter of bohemians, she learned Hawkins modern-dance technique from her Aunt Bunny in Provincetown, then spent her formative years in dance clubs in Berlin and as part of the hardcore punk-rock scene in San Francisco. Her brash wit and postpunk aesthetics show up in 1998’s Shiny Gun, which, featuring a quartet of women, weaves the acerbity and jaundiced self-loathing of Dorothy Parker’s poetry with the music of an all-girl punk rock band, but belies her allegiance to the formalist precepts of modern dance. “I like bodies in space, their relationship to the three-dimensional plane,” she says.

Pearlman also likes to collaborate with artists from a variety of disciplines. For Drive, which premieres at Highways, she worked with composer Jonathan Segel (of Camper Van Beethoven, Sparklehorse and Cracker) and filmmaker Ann Kaneko. She also consulted a dramaturge for the first time, an experiment she says designed to keep her on track and true to the piece, which she describes as “very technical, but also free-flowing and colloquial.” Calling her dances “abstract narratives,” she talks about being compelled by a desire to get at “the thing itself, rather than describing or commenting on it.” The “thing” in Drive is the exhilaration of speed, motion and the open road. It’s an apt topic for us freeway-bound Angelenos — and it looks like Pearlman’s adapting to her new home just fine.

PARSONS DANCE COMPANY UCLA’s Royce Hall, 405 Hilgard Ave., Westwood | Friday-Saturday, October 6-7, 8 p.m. | (310) 825-2101

NIJINSKY SPEAKS | Pepperdine University’s Smothers Theater, 24255 Pacific Coast Hwy., Malibu | Saturday, October 7, 8 p.m. | (310) 456-4522

DRIVE AND OTHER DANCES At Highways Performance Space, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica | Thursday-Saturday, October 19-21, 8:30 p.m. | (310) 315-1459

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