Arts » Theater

The persistence of memory—and movement

Laura Thomasson shows us how she got that dance, and blood drips at Salome

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Whenever a dance presenter goes "on hiatus," part of me is always holding my breath. They don't always come back, after all. So I was disturbed to learn last January that INDEPENDENT DANCEMAKERS was taking 2005 off, particularly since under Laura Thomasson's direction the group had distinguished itself in recent seasons as the most demanding and accomplished of curators in regional independent modern dance.

The collective's 2004 concert at Durham School of the Arts paired some of the most promising local choreographers and dancers with professional counterparts from New York, continuing artistic relationships they'd struck up during previous summers at American Dance Festival. As a result, we saw a successful attempt to elevate the level of practice in local independent modern dance, even if the tech for the dance studio staging remained too much an ad hoc affair.

That was followed by a two-year pause--one thankfully now concluded by the Feb. 10-12 performances at DSA's Weaver Auditorium.

The good news: production values have never been higher for local independent dance, and works by several artists have advanced in truly interesting directions.

Begin with the strongest work of the evening: small ensemble works by NIKI JURALEWICZ and two new solos by LAURA THOMASSON.

Up to now, Juralewicz' combination of technical precision and non-narrative, emotionally allusive (and elusive) gestures has invited comparison with abstract impressionism. Here, her Dulcinea heated things up a bit as dancers pointedly assessed each other in ever-closing, circling encounters, negotiating angled boundaries with near-Mondrian exactness. Still, until a final, ironically unexpected embrace, the dancers appeared more determined to alter each other's planar geometry than their emotions, in what at times nearly seemed a mathematical proof set to choreography, a work where impressively-shelled humans only occasionally disclose any news of their interiors.

Before that, Juralewicz' multi-media piece in the find kept us wondering where our attentions should go in a work where a larger videotaped image of a dancer dwarfed--and regularly distracted us from--the live performers. The seemingly random, ill-defined juxtaposition of the two cut against the choreographer's trademark precision on both live and video planes.

For all her achievements in choreography, Thomasson still loves improvisation. This is a good thing, given the striking qualities of her brief solo, Length and Breath. Her signature style was very much apparent in this performance as she established her unusually direct, completely fearless relationship--with the audience--returning its look as she unhurriedly, repeatedly adjusted the aerial position of her right leg while balancing on the left. After this, further adventures in grace, balance, gravity and isolation clearly illustrated the chaotic melodic line from Yo Yo Ma's "Silk Road Journeys."

But the premiere of Human Anatomy, her solo for Bridget Kelly with video montage by Arledge Armenaki and Jesse Koester, easily proved the most intriguing work of the evening. Videography tends to stymie most choreographers--if the visuals don't dislodge viewers from the performance, the relationship between the projected images and dancers and the live ones are never clearly articulated. But in a quantum leap from her previous multi-media work, Thomasson here presents Kelly as a woman haunted by a series of memories--still images, in black and white or early color photography.

A child with her back to us lifts her left arm at the edge of a snowy street--as Kelly echoes the movement a moment later. The dancer follows suit as a woman lies on her side, on a blanket in a green field near a mountain lake. As the work continues, several of these images find more contemporary--and disturbing--echoes all their own. A homeless person's posture on a granite bench parallels the woman above; a wartime image mocks an earlier, more tranquil, more domestic pose.

Repeatedly, Kelly's character shows us the choreographed gesture while a visual overlay alludes to its earlier development. Only after this does Thomasson reveal the frozen images that the gesture "came from."

These striking revelations are the most powerful part of the work. Clearly, Kelly's character carries with her the memories of parents, relatives, striking strangers and moments. But the effect here isn't just that Kelly's character consciously memorializes or continues them in movement. Human Anatomy also suggests she's the sum of them as well.

In the long decay of memory, the echoes on the screen are continued in real-time, on stage, ever widening ripples extending outward from a source, translated and abstracted from human experience and pain, into art.

With this said, Human Anatomy still needs judicious editing at this point, to prevent the diffusion of its humane and central point.

 

There was unease among the swells at OPERA COMPANY OF NORTH CAROLINA's first foray into Chapel Hill last week with Richard Strauss' SALOME.

Don't get me wrong: This production soared on vivid vocal performances, well-supported by a strong orchestra in the pit--even if Boyd Ostroff's striking, multi-story granite, gold and lunar set for the Opera Company of Philadelphia seriously threatened to upstage the lot of them.

(Then there was the matter of bait-and-switch, when local actor Dorothy Recasner Brown, who was apparently portrayed as the lead in the show's visual advertising--and credited nowhere in the program--was found to have no actual part in the production.)

Still, the emergence of professional-level opera in Chapel Hill was gratifying. Hugo von Hofmannsthal's translation of Oscar Wilde's text places the characters in a dangerously voluptuous world whose seduction is mirrored by Strauss' music. At times it echoes the eerie calm of the oversized moon; elsewhere it roils at times with passion, and even momentarily with a brash discord, anticipating the later experiments of Bartok and jazz composers.

Though Bradley Garvin's resistance to Salome's intreaties veered toward melodrama, his vocal work as Jochannan, the John the Baptist figure in the drama, bore the gravitas of a true believer. George Gray's Herodes musically fretted about the stage, as his contentious duets with Gwendolyn Jones' Herodias sliced the air.

But Kelly Cae Hogan's work as the title character was, in the best of senses, the true caution of this production. Physically and vocally, Hogan's Salome was a woman whose all-eclipsing embrace of beauty left her unmoored from ethics, from sanity, on a voyage beyond all notions of good, evil, right or wrong.

As seen and heard here by director Robert Galbraith, she's an exquisite monster, a Siren of the first order who ultimately must be killed lest civilization follow her, out of reason, into chaos and old night.

Reviews

(3.5 stars) The Children's Hour, Peace College--As we watch, more or less spellbound, playwright Lillian Hellman slowly, deliberately demonstrates the fragility of a network of trust extending from two private school teachers in a small village to friends, parents and neighbors. Under Kenny Gannon's direction, Rita Glynn's work as Mary presents a portrait of evil reminiscent of The Turn of the Screw. We squirm, repeatedly, as a vengeful, manipulative, ninth-grade psychopath shakes the school to its foundations with nothing more than well-placed rumors and innuendo.

Lynda Clark and Stephen LeTrent ably support as windy aunt Lily and suitor Joseph, while newcomer Megan Staab brings the right note of eternal detachment from life's harsher realities as the rich Amelia Tilford. As two teachers smeared by childish lies, Sarah Thomas does well as Martha, but Kristal DeSantis adds appreciably to her quickly-growing reputation as an actor with her work here as Karen. (Through Feb. 25.)

(3 Stars)1/2 Map of the World, Burning Coal Theatre, St. Augustine's College--In an age when many playwrights have trouble shepherding a single worthy idea onstage in an evening's time, David Hare considers the ethics of international aid and the responsibilities nonfiction and fiction writers have to the worlds they write about--among other topics--in an impressive 1993 theatrical juggling act set at an international conference on world hunger. But Hare's rhetoric involving the revenge of the old is sabotaged in this production when actors playing warring writers--a jaded Indo-British author (Neil Shah) and an idealistic fledgling journalist (Brendan Bradley)--appear the same age. It's a puzzlement, particularly since director Roger Smart later directs Shah as a believable older man. Though sexual politics are the weakest of the several hands Hare plays here, this play successfully negotiates a minefield of soapboxes to provide an intellectual workout, and a meditation on what it actually takes for people to change. But if you don't want to know how things work out ahead of time, avoid Jerome Davis' otherwise memorable program notes--with spoiler included--until after the show. (Through Feb. 26.)

(3.5 Stars) Wit, Raleigh Little Theatre--See Best Bets on page 5. (Through Feb. 26.)

(3 Stars) The Colored Museum, University Theater, NCSU--Every so often, it's good to check in with George Wolfe's satirical and sharp-toothed collection of sketches on "the myths and madness of Black/Negro/Colored Americans" to see how far our culture has--and hasn't--come since its 1986 premiere. Wolfe's pointed critique of the hollowness of black advertising and consumerism still rings true, as do his jibes at an upwardly mobile businessman trashing his past in his search for corporate success. The laughs in "Cooking with Aunt Ethel" and "The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play" skewer clichés that American media and theater are still ever-so-slowly evolving away from.

Strong performances abound, from Baria Adams and Ashlee Phillips' doubleteaming in "The Hairpiece," to Anthony Hardison's haggard solo "The Gospel According to Miss Roj." Brittany McCullough is touching and innocent one moment and filled with childish evil the next in "Permutations." But with a voice as strong as Wanda Spell's, this show needs a live band to back her up, not music director Ronald Foreman's prerecorded synthesizers. (Through Feb. 26.)

 

E-mail Byron at bwoods@indyweek.com.

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