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DANCE VIEW; NEW DANCES THAT MADE AUDIENCES THINK
Jack Anderson, The New York Times
December 18, 1983



 

The Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival has helped make this autumn rich in modern dance and multimedia theater. Productions were unusual and often surprising, and one of them, ''The Gospel at Colonus,'' the gospel music version of a Greek tragedy, is back at the Academy for a return engagement through Dec. 31. As a result of the emphasis upon collaborations between choreographers and visual artists, Next Wave productions were good to look at and, in addition to giving visual pleasure, they provided food for thought.

Thus, three works that received their New York premieres during the festival - Molissa Fenley's ''Hemispheres,'' Trisha Brown's ''Set and Reset'' and Lucinda Childs's ''Available Light'' - posed fascinating problems of perception and even though they told no stories and preached no sermons, they expressed some interesting ideas about life in this world.

''Hemispheres'' invited viewers to think about one thing while watching something totally different, thanks to what could be called the ''portable decor'' devised by Francesco Clemente, an Italian artist. The stage space was empty, except for Miss Fenley's cast of three dancers and the members of Episteme, the musical group that played the score by Anthony Davis.

Yet, as the program note promised, the work did contain a visual element. As they entered the theater, spectators were given a packet of prints by Mr. Clemente and they were free to examine those prints at leisure and to take them home or dispose of them as they wished.

Few spectators, I suspect, used them to decorate their walls, for the prints depicted bound and mutilated bodies. The dance, however, was in the athletically exuberant style for which Miss Fenley is noted. Therefore ''Hemispheres'' could be said to contrast the degradation of the body, as symbolized by the prints, and its liberation, as symbolized by the choreography. Presumably, as one watched the dance one may have recalled the prints; and if one glanced at the prints again after ''Hemispheres'' was over, one may have recalled the dance. And letting one's mind run back and forth between the dance and the prints may have prompted ideas about human shame and glory.

''Hemispheres'' was as much of a mental event as it was a demonstration of physical skill. If anything, it was too much of a mental event. With its repeated runs, turns and flingings of the arms, the choreography lacked invention. Its limitations may have been deliberately imposed upon it by Miss Fenley in order to emphasize the energy, rather than the intricacy, of the steps. Yet the steps she did include had little cumulative power.

In order to demonstrate the dancers' stamina, they had to keep going on and, in order to appreciate that stamina, one had to keep on watching them. But watching the dancers became almost as much of a trial as doing the dance must have been, and when Miss Fenley attempted to inject variety into the proceedings by means of a section in a slower tempo, she merely demonstrated that, thus far in her choreographic career, she is more adept at allegro than adagio movement. ''Hemispheres'' was undeniably interesting. Yet it was sometimes more interesting to think about than to behold.

Miss Brown's ''Set and Reset'' and Miss Childs's ''Available Light'' seemed equally good on stage and when they were scrutinized by the mind's eye. Both gave viewers unusual freedom of perception.

Laurie Anderson's score for ''Set and Reset'' included clanging and thudding sounds and, significantly, repetitions of the phrase, ''Long time no see.'' The structure by Robert Rauschenberg that served as decor consisted of a rectangle surrounded by two pyramidal shapes. At first, this construction stood on the ground, then it was suspended in the air above the dancers and films were projected on its gauzy surfaces.


What were they films of? That question is extraordinarily difficult to answer. The films appeared to be blurred newsreel images of people, animals and machine parts. Or maybe they showed none of those things. But, whatever they depicted, they were so misty and they came and went with such rapidity that, no matter how long one squinted, peered or stared at them, one could not be sure just what one was looking at. And if one puzzled over them too long, one missed the dance entirely.

The dance, though, was just as peculiar as the films. As if summoned by some mysterious power, the members of the cast were constantly drawn out of the wings toward stage center in knots and whorls of movement. Yet whenever patterns started to crystallize, they melted away again, and anyone trying to devote total attention to them would have had to ignore the films.

Working in collaboration, Miss Brown and Mr. Rauschenberg created a dance that could not possibly be assimilated at a single viewing. Perhaps its events can never be fully assimilated, even after several viewings. Miss Anderson's reiterations of ''Long time no see'' therefore emphasized the work's special nature: whereas several things in it invited one's attention, if one watched any specific thing for a long time time one would not see anything else. Yet one always had the freedom to see what one wished.

Miss Childs gave viewers comparable freedom in ''Available Light.'' For this work, John Adams composed an attractive rhapsodic score and Frank Gehry, a California architect, designed a setting dominated by a platform on which two dancers - but not always the same two - kept performing some of the basic steps from which the dance was made. While they did so, other dancers on the ground wove these steps into elaborate patterns through changes of direction and choreographic counterpoint. Miss Childs herself was a variable in this formal scheme. She made two appearances among the performers on the ground, harmonizing with them without ever fully merging with their patterned activities. Yet, at the end of the piece, she was on the platform.

By having different kinds of events occur simultaneously on the platform and on the ground, Miss Childs gave the audience the freedom to regard her dance as either a sequence of isolated steps or as a sequence of interwoven patterns. How one perceived it simply depended upon where one decided to look. Or spectators could create their own personal combinations of steps and patterns by switching attention back and forth at will between platform and ground. Miss Childs, as a choreographer, had to be concerned with both steps and patterns. Therefore it was only fitting for her to appear in both locations.

As their contributions to the Next Wave, Miss Brown and Miss Childs offered complex dances that could serve as fresh choreographic metaphors to express that old chestnut of a theme, the complexity of modern life. But unlike the artists who decry contemporary complexities and yearn for a simple life off in the woods or in some utopia, Miss Brown and Miss Childs delighted in a certain kind of complexity, and their attitude should not appear surprising or inexplicable to anyone who is a city dweller by choice. Indeed, some utopian visions, and even a few otherwise practical city planning schemes, often lack appeal because they propose a way of life so simple as to be boring. Although to survive in a city may occasionally require the stamina of Miss Fenley's dancers, confirmed urbanites can be excited by the diversity of urban experience and even by the very fact that in a big city one can never see or do absolutely everything. Yet one always has choices.

The dances of Miss Brown and Miss Childs affirm that complexity need not inevitably involve chaos or mayhem and that there can be a complexity that is intellectually and emotionally stimulating and in which one can feel at home. Perhaps another word for this complexity is ''civilization.'' And by stressing such complexity the Next Wave was a civilized festival.

A version of this article appears in print on Dec. 18, 1983, Section 2, Page 10 of the National edition with the headline: DANCE VIEW; NEW DANCES THAT MADE AUDIENCES THINK

https://www.nytimes.com/1983/12/18/arts/dance-view-new-dances-that-made-audiences-think.html

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