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Hungry ghosts and audiences

Redneck orientalism, dark spirits, and the carnivorous crowd--all at ADF

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By the time you read these words, the world will either have a new masterpiece in it, or something significantly less. Once I knew which one to pull for. Just now, I'm not so sure.

More on that in a moment. For now, let's say this is the week I've been working toward since the beginning of June--or actually last Summer. With Twyla Tharp and Paul Taylor's concerts receding in our rear view mirror, the dubious joys of the too well-known are now well behind us. Ahead lies certain terror--and possibility. Or so at least we hope.

The terror should come from Butoh fabulists Dairakudakan, whose ghostly, ghastly Sea-Dappled Horse gave regional audiences pause in the winter of 2000. For that work's first 10 minutes, try to picture a series of pale, wraith-like figures dusted from head to foot in rice powder: 16 crucifixions in a nearly dark chamber.

Then imagine the group reanimating, as a herd of sick, unstable horses, perpetually stuck with two legs off the ground. Their limbs are gnarled; the eyes of most are rolled up into their heads. Their teeth bite on a single length of rope; it connects them all as it stretches across the stage. Red rags where their mouths connect suggest raw tongues hanging out. The rope pulls them awkwardly back and forth, as they tug at a common tether that never gives way.

It's a scene of commercial domestication run amok, in which nothing suggests comfort, well-being or ease. Slowly the 16 come together at center stage to confront us. They have the most hideous smiles on their faces. Fresh proof, in short, of what Nietszche once said: When you look into the abyss, the abyss is also looking into you.

Can you can imagine all that? Good. Now imagine trying to forget it.

And, to repeat, that was just the first 10 minutes of Sea-Dappled Horse.

The video of RyuBa suggests the same radical form of social protest audiences have seen in choreographer Akaji Maro's previous work. Always, Maro seeks to expose the grotesque that already lurks inside the trappings of conventional society. In RyuBa, the weight of religion crushes some when the backs of wraithlike men and women bend under a massive cross. Elsewhere, the conventions of courtship and sexuality are just as strenuously critiqued. While there is humor in the work, it's strictly the darkest variety.

In short, it's a work of Butoh, which translates as the dark soul dance. As it has since the 1960s, Butoh gives voice and form to ancestral ghosts who return to accuse, mock--and, finally, warn--the living.

To say the least, Dairakudakan will not be everybody's cup of tea. But for good and ill, brave audiences will gain a dark vision of some of our culture's most damaging mistakes.

Then they have to live with it afterward.

Before the terror, the possibility: Shen Wei's completed version of The Rite of Spring. The first section of the work placed him well within the realm of masterpiece last year. His choreography was an unlikely mix of organic movement and architecture, a complex arrangement of dancers on stage which repeatedly suggested--but never once delved into--chaos. In short, we saw something resembling a culture--either of cells or people, take your pick--developing and behaving in finite space according to pristine, but enigmatic, rules and principles.

As musical stress increased toward the end of Part One, the group responded with closed eyes and a physical stillness--one unpredictably interrupted on an individual basis by sudden tics, jerks and seizures.

Now we get to find out what happens when they--and we--open our eyes.

By the time you read this, Monday and Tuesday night's audience will already know the fate of The Rite. But given what we saw from Twyla Tharp and Paul Taylor last week at ADF, I'm not sure I'm ready for the information.

In both concerts, the recent frequently proved the weakest. Taylor's In the Beginning, commissioned this year by the Houston Ballet, was an embarrassment, and one all but undistinguishable in places from some of the dismal recent offerings from Pilobolus. In it, dancers seemingly garbed in costumes from Ben Hur rushed through a mangled retelling of the biblical creation myth, in skeletal, failed sketch comedy.

The banned-in-France Offenbach Overtures demonstrated lacerating wit in a sharply calculated sendup of ballet. Roses, from 1985, was truest in the moments where couples like Silvia Nevjinsky and Patrick Corbin simply touched each other tenderly.

In similar vein, I'm tempted to call Twyla Tharp's Westerly Round an exercise in redneck orientalism. Edward Said coined the term, orientalism, to characterize the stereotypes pop culture and art has used to represent people of differing ethnicities and nationalities. Perhaps one day such injunctions of taste and conscience will apply as well to the rural, agrarian inhabitants of the American Mid-West and South, who've actually got a lot more going on than the Broadway-based cultural ciphers found in Western Round.

As with Taylor, the best Tharp we saw last week was actually the earliest: the performance of 1970's The Fugue.

Not that many ADF students actually saw the performance, since it was only presented during an afternoon ceremony on Saturday, June 28--in a tribute to the life of Stephanie Reinhart, the late ADF co-director who died from leukemia last fall. Though classes were canceled during the tribute, few students apparently felt the need to honor the woman who made international dance her cause--and therefore largely possible--in the last decades of her life. The few who showed had the chance to see the crystalline architecture of Tharp at her best--a rare sight indeed these years.

They also had the rare opportunity to hear ADF dean emerita Martha Myers' poetry, which cut to the heart of the general loss with characteristic insight. "To love," she reminded us, "is to ride with the doppelganger whistling in your ear--and to hear the silence doubly when it stops." After characterizing Reinhart's loss as "an incomplete sentence," Myers praised her ability to communicate much without words. "I still hear your silence," she concluded.

Why should any of this give me pause when contemplating Shen Wei's finished work?

We sometimes ask the wrong questions of artists and our other heroes, I believe. Something in our clawing nature, something in the innate immaturity in this time and culture leaves us ethically famished. It leaves us with the ethics of the starving, particularly in our responses to the artists of the age.

Critics are hardly immune to the wasting disease. In fact, they often pass it on. Last year's masterwork is insufficient to this hour; it's already been sucked dry, like a bone, a husk or rind. "Where is this year's great leap forward?" we demand like so much rent. When that assumed debt can't be paid, we foreclose early.

We forget that for many geniuses the first quantum leap is frequently the easiest. Sometimes it's the only one. And when it comes early in an artist's life, there's a long distance between that moment and the close of day.

"Where do you go, what do you do, the night after you save the Universe?" Steve Gerber irreverently asked three decades ago, from the holy pages of a popular comic book. In some ways, it's the question of the age for our brilliant young dance artists--more than a few of which are currently, temporarily, residing in Durham.

A number of them will have to wrestle in the near future with the implications of too sudden fame, and a culture just as suddenly turned carnivorous. What will they do when the beast, without warning, turns to each of them, and demands one thing only: "More." EndBlock

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