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Dance, Dance-Theatre Review

Strange and Stranger at ADF

July 14, 2004 - Durham, NC:

One of the great things about the American Dance Festival is that it reminds us that people from all over the world have very similar concerns - and simultaneously knocks us back in our seats with how different our cultures are in their expression of these concerns. The Russian Festival, as seen in Page Auditorium on July 9, did both of these things and underlined the common perception that the Russians are Not Like Us. The particular varieties of weirdness presented by Provincial Dances Theatre and Kinetic could not possibly have been mistaken for American.

The nine-member Provincial Dances Theatre is led by Tatiana Baganova, who has worked through ADF's International Choreographers Commissioning Program for the last three years. Last year she presented her memorable Lazy Susan , a kind of cheerful mad tea party in a setting devised from light, scrims, and a large trampoline, that was one of the highlights of the Festival. The ICCP dances are set on ADF students and produced very rapidly, so Lazy Susan only hinted at the aesthetic more fully developed in this year's presentations, Maple Garden and Les noces.

Maple Garden (from 1999) was danced to unnamed music by Die Anarchistische Abendunterhaltung! and the Moscow Art Trio that included solo flute, birdsounds, and chanting. A woman with a lantern perches in a bare-branched tree. Another woman in a hip-hooped skirt crosses the stage in a gliding crouch, followed by a man with a large butterfly net who eventually captures her. Other couples appear, dancing strange scenes of desire and love, connection and separation. A man with a large pair of shears severs the line holding the woman to the tree - and she swings out, suspended. He follows and woos, then literally leaves her hanging. She performs a fabulous solo on the rope. Another couple conjoins by his swallowing the large carrot protruding from her mouth; someone appears and binds them together with plastic wrap. A man pulls strings from the mouth, the belly, the breast of his woman, but a maniacally laughing character with the giant shears cuts each one. Women are clothes-pinned to the tree by their long tresses. And so on. There were also some very nice group dances. It was all actually quite beautiful (if sometimes in a grotesque manner) and entrancing, despite how ridiculous it sounds in words. It was a little long - I thought it could have used a little editing &- but it had the magic, being mysterious and perfectly clear at once.

Provincial Dances Theatre's second piece of the evening was even better. Les noces (1999, revised 2004) was danced to music of the same title by Igor Stravinsky. The dance is not nearly as weird as Maple Garden , but makes full use of the sacrificial, sacramental, and ceremonial qualities of the music, which are also reinforced by the portals and scrims and ecclesiastical lighting of the stage design. In the costumes and the dance, the story of which involves bridal preparations, there are many Central Asian/Russian Orthodox references, but most of the choreography is pure modern. One thought of Ronald K. Brown, but also of Martha Graham. There were ritual processioning and ablutions; there was mystical whirling and fabulous windmilling of arms; and there was wonderful use of moments of suspension and inversion. Les noces is a rich and resonant work, ambitious in design and demanding on the dancers, who responded with a bravura performance.

Although the dancers were quite good, I did not find Kinetic, the second company on the Russian Festival bill, as much to my liking. Their first piece, Snow (2004) was an amusing short duet with a nice surprise twist, to (unnamed) music by Brendom Anderegg and Andrey Dergachev. Choreographer-dancers Taras Burnashev and Daria Buzovkina, all in white, move through a frozen world, she on skis. He lifts her off the skis, which then become props, and a series of rather mechanical encounters occur. But then one of these includes a kiss - and suddenly we are off into hot tango-land. The man strips off his flowing whites and sweeps the woman around in an elegant and fiery tango, cleverly protecting us from full frontal nudity all the while.

Kinetic's second work, however, did not have the merits of brevity. Mixed Doubles (which had premiered the night before) was conceived, designed and choreographed by company founder Sasha Pepelyaev. It is set to themes and, I'm sorry to report, "samples" from Sergei Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet , and augmented, if that is the right word, with video projections. Not even the sizzling, take-no-prisoners dancing of an extremely strong long-legged young woman in red hot pants and a fishnet top could make up for the silly concept and excruciating length, not to mention the long sections of boring choreography and the infernal red and green raincoats (don't ask). This was not the wonderful, symbolic weirdness of the Provincial Dances Theatre but mere postmodern game-playing.

When I read the program notes for Krapp, the Argentinian troupe that performed in Reynolds on July 14, I was afraid we were in for more of the same. The opening of Mendiolaza ("a choreographic drama") was not encouraging either, and I feared I was going to be suffering through an endless Beckettian performance.

I was so wrong.

Set in what looked like a drab bar for losers on some dusty road, Mendiolaza was danced by the troupe's six members, who are also actors and musicians as well as choreographers and dancers. The music for the work, some of which was played on-stage by them, was by two of the dancers, Gabriel Almendros and Fernando Tur, and included pieces for guitar, piano and accordion, as well as recorded "radio" sound and loud-speaker commands, sirens and claxons. Themes of control and aggression, both social and sexual, played throughout the dance, balanced by themes of passion and appetite, and cleverness at outwitting the routine. And it was ferociously physical. I don't know why all the dancers were not black and blue. They were hitting the floor with resounding thuds quite often.

Perhaps the cleverest aspect of the piece was the way it subverted and satirized the tango, which of course is in its greatest glory in Argentina. The sexual games of the tango are well-laced with a suppressed violence that give it its erotic edge. Here the dancers throw each other about, and the ocho steps become leg-hooking throwdowns. The violence is unleashed, and the sexual fizz comes from its expression, not repression. But instead of the smoldering coals of tango, this is a quick brushfire, and soon the partners wander off, back to their routines.

There were so many hilarious set pieces but, even more than the weird Russian symbolism, they elude verbal description. You had to be there to get it. Mendiolaza is full of ideas, but happily they are so completely visual and physical that they defy words. Theater like this doesn't translate: it is not just verbalization transferred to the stage.

Oh, it was strange, I can say that. There was not a beautiful thing about it; it was social and sexual commentary that kicked ass. But funny. Bitterly, corrosively funny. Wry, dry. Slapstick, deadpan, mocking. Absurd to the nth degree. Deeply refreshing.