2001 Season at Jacob's Pillow

Buglisi/Foreman Dance: "Suspended Women," Twyla Tharp Dance: "Surfer at the River Styx," Mark Morris Dance Group: "The Office," & Hubbard Street Dance Chicago: "Petite Morte"

Ted Shawn Theatre & the Doris Duke Studio Theatre, Becket, MA

October 25, 2001
by Stephen E. Arnold

Memory or the backward -look across the bar lines of public time blurs the rhythm of one's dance with life. And death, the spur to memory, determines the dance. To the dark, enchanted waltz that spells the Ravel Piano Concerto in G, the eleven women of Suspended Women, choreographed by Jacquelyn Buglisi and performed by Buglisi/Foreman Dance at Jacob's Pillow, look back across the measure of their lives.

Each uniquely costumed as if for a night of social dancing, yet bare foot, the ladies move in a softened Graham inspired lexicon. Recurring motifs such as an upward stretch followed by a collapse to the floor structure Suspended Women. Additionally, movement described as confident advances in line abreast, or formal groups fragmenting into random pairings or complete separation, crawling, dragging or stepping over each other revealed both the result and processes of memory. Memories, in fact, that hint of personalities or relationships such as Flowers in manege and furious tangos.

Muted brass sounding an astringent chord herald the presence of men. Unremarkably costumed in black trousers and jacket, and barefoot, first one, then three other male dancers seemed both welcomed by and disturbing to their 'dates.' Additionally, the bitterness of the music, the agitation of swift and frequent enterence and exits, and the angular, tormented forms shaped by female dancers as they sweep across the stage suggest that the men are more than cavaliers. They are, one thinks, figures of death; and if this is so, then the rapturous lifts in the partnering that follows personifies a relationship between death and the maidens contrary to the tradition defined by Baldung-Grien. In fact, agency rather than misogyny inform this picture of life's transience. Suspended Women began and concluded with an image, a statement of feminine confidence and power. On lights-up in a common theatrical gesture of aggression, if not mere confidence, the eleven women advanced in line abreast from downstage toward upstage. As the lights dimmed to blackout, the eleven women formed upstage in three lines facing front with staggered spacing, such that all remained visible waltzing, softly stirred but not shaken by their thoughts of mortality. Although, suspended in the sense of defenselessness against the power of death or abandonment in a retrospective reverie, the eleven women, nevertheless, danced their own lives.

Yet, a natural look back cost Eurydice her resurrection and Orpheus his dream of recovery. Instead, Charon re-collects the dead wife of the divine poet and rows her back across the Styx. The surfer invented by Twyla Tharp on the other hand crosses the Styx without Charon's aid. Set on two males and two female dancers, and to the music of David Kahne (a.k.a. the Junk Man), Surfer at the River Styx celebrates life in the fast lane- perhaps, at its last moment. Bravado breaking-out of intense risk and concentration informs Tharp's turbo-driven mix of ballet, surfer's gestures, and Tharp. Although Tharp discourages 'narrativizing' her work, the surfer, given the change in lighting, intensity of movement, and costumes, nonetheless, appears to ride the wave to Elysium successfully. Enjoinders or not, it might be that Surfer at the River Styx is Pincher Martin, by William Golding, with a happy conclusion. For example, upon review of his life, (while drowning?) the Surfer forgives himself, an option denied Martin, and gets the heavenly babes. Alternatively, in Surfer's vision, life rushes in an iffy balance towards then across the Styx defeating that river's uncertain span and reaching Elysium by bravura alone.

For Mark Morris, on the other hand, life stoically dwells in death's waiting room. The Office, set on six dancers to 5 Bagatelles for String Trio and Harmonium by Dvorak, neither retrieves the past nor describes an after-life. Instead, five 'clients' - two male and two female dancers costumed as ordinary people- interact in a waiting rooms here and now in a folksy and egalitarian kind of way. One by one, however, a stern female character costumed in black business attire and holding a clipboard steps from the wings and summons them. Each knew when it was their turn; therefore, neither doubt nor argument spoiled this tranquil, even if fatalistic subtraction from quintet, to quartet, to trio, to duet, to solo (for Morris), to silent emptiness.

Since the time of Euripides melding opposing ideas such as marriage and its cognate, for example, women, sex, or birth with death has provided artists with startling images important to dramatic conflict. Not surprisingly then, Petite Morte or little death, choreographed by Jiri Kylian and performed by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, refers to a colloquialism for sexual climax. Alternatively, if one subscribes to the idea of death maintained by French thinker Georges Batalille, petite morte equates the sexual activity that prompts the climax rather than the climax with death. Nevertheless, visual puns abound in Petite Morte; for example, the piece opens in silence as six males costumed in loincloth drill with rapiers. Mozart begins and six female dancers materialize seemingly ex nihilo from the down stage blackness. Although costumed to suggest nakedness, a dance for women, however, featured a revealing prop- a coffin black stand-alone gown lined in red and mounted on castors. Besides exaggerating the female torso, the device overshadowed any choreographic allusions to classical or contemporary expressions of either sexual or mortal ecstasy. Pushed from the wings, castors squeaking, onto the empty, silent stage just before curtain close, the prop in a sense has the last word. That word abandoned merely suspending women. It erased them.


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Edited by Mary Ellen.

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