Burning issues, embodied protests | Arts Feature | Indy Week

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Burning issues, embodied protests

ADF students, guests and companies explore the dance of social protest


There's something about an open flame that just grabs the attention. Particularly when it's applied to unprotected human flesh.

Miguel Gutierrez , a guest choreographer at the ADF School, certainly had the audience's attention before the final sequence of Retrospective Exhibitionist (1st Try), an after-hours one-person show at the Ark on July 11.

Speculative, experimental performances such as Gutierrez's make up an important part of the ADF experience for students because they leaven the festival's mainstream main stage offerings each season. Their function as counterbalance is particularly required since the school inexplicably has no input into the festival's main stage selections, although its tuition makes up a significant part of the festival's budget every year, and its dean, Donna Faye Burchfield, is clearly a dance visionary in her own right.

Produced on a shoestring with negligible tech support, concerts like teachers/choreographers Jennifer Nugent and Paul Matteson's earlier showing this year and Ann Livingston Young's memorable American Crane Standards in 2003 demonstrate, at their best, imagination and choreographic achievement equal to or greater than work displayed in main stage shows. They effectively broaden the spectrum of dance for all comers. In practice, they're the ADF's version of a fringe festival.

In Gutierrez's show, a choppy, compelling and frenetic mid-work solo had already proven an imaginative extension of the evening's TV trope, with a series of non-stop choreographic slam-segues that channel-surfed past a number of characters in radically different situations and movement styles.

That followed a particularly edgy opening choice, given the venue: Gutierrez lip-synching a videotaped question-and-answer session from a performance by his company, The Powerful People, last summer--at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, that, um, other major East Coast modern dance festival.

But if viewers thought that opening bid pushed the limits, they'd seen nothing yet.

After lighting a votive candle on a stand in the center right section of the performance space, Gutierrez removed his vintage Boris Badenov T-shirt and lowered his briefs. Then, on all fours with his stomach facing the ceiling, Gutierrez positioned his exposed upper thighs and buttocks a few inches above the candle's open flame.

Even more improbable, after that, the choreographer began to sing along, in a strained falsetto, with a recording of Kate Bush's 1978 pop song, "Wuthering Heights." The candle continued to burn just beneath his upper legs and rump.

This continued for over four and a half minutes, while Gutierrez maintained eye contact with us throughout. After an extended moment's silence at the song's end, Gutierrez extinguished the flame by bringing his body down upon the candle.

We cannot call it the first fire ceremony North Carolina has witnessed in recent months. Nor can it be accurately termed the most sacrificial.

Those superlatives must rest with the memory and the ashes of Thich Chan Hy, a 74-year-old Mahayana Buddhist monk and an elder of Charlotte's Chua Lien Hoa temple. Before dawn last Dec. 24, Chan immolated himself on the temple grounds while kneeling at the foot of a statue of Avalokita, the loving mother, the weeping bodhisattva of compassion.

The scroll he left behind concluded, "I therefore make the offering of my body and pray that my appeal will be heard. I wish that all Vietnamese may enjoy freedom of religion and belief. I wish that all Vietnamese will be entitled to human rights and democracy. I wish that Vietnam may preserve the sovereignty of its land and sea borders."

It is particularly fitting to remember Chan's literal self-sacrifice given the attention many festival students and faculty have placed on embodied political protest in recent weeks. Over 120 attended a July 7 panel on dance-making in response to war. Five days later, Moving Metaphor , a slow walk anti-war protest, prefaced Grupo Krapp's opening night performance at Reynolds Theater--accompanied by a posted disclaimer that its views did not necessarily reflect those of the ADF or Duke University.

It is important to note that both events were organized and led by students, not ADF faculty or administration.

Developing choreographers arguably gained little information at the July 7 panel from the herky marionettery of Kurt Joose's 1932 anti-war ballet The Green Table, or the brief, detail-poor and decontextualized archival footage of One Can't Eat Applause, Maguy Marin's stinging indictment of political and economic exploitation in Central and Latin America--and tribute to the desaparecidos--last year at ADF.

Thankfully, other useful--and visible--examples came in subsequent days. In a subversive excerpt from a work in progress called Social Security, David Dorfman 's character, a self-proclaimed "citizen in charge for social security for this event," quizzed the audience on how safe it felt at an ADF faculty concert on July 11. Dorfman's spoken-word and movement piece subtly critiqued the turn towards "safety"--and away from controversy--in public arts programming and education in recent years, before critiquing the forced urgency acceleration gives to a telling list: "a space ship, or a space program, or a relationship, or a war, or a campaign, or a war campaign...."

By this witty, elliptical work's end, the choreographer had decried the apparent deaths in a different list: belief in country, belief that everything will work out, and the belief that one can do anything to effect change.

In the first ADF student concert July 16, choreographer Michael Helland 's Endless Matter confronted the politics of embodied gender with fewer punchlines--and significantly more courage--than most of Larry Keigwin's lightweight main stage offerings earlier in the season. The choreographer's spare work interrogated the radically divergent meanings the same balletic moves and costumes are given when placed on male and female bodies. In contrast to most of the offerings, the chalky overhead fluorescent lighting actually aided this exploration of socially constructed difference, when its shadows emphasized the gauntness of Helland's half-nude form.

Before that, the easy laughter at dancers dressed in power suits, doing the pogo at the start of Daniel Ezralow's Untitled, gradually morphed into darker territory as the opening work in Hubbard Street Dance Chicago 's concert unfolded last Thursday night. After an amusing send-up of mindless, me-too corporate culture at the start, the work's interior movements explored the fierceness--and velocity--of competition.

Then in the sober final movement, dancers randomly arrayed across the stage in separate squares of light collapsed, one by one, without warning, to the raspy zang of David Lang's piano, drum and low bass. As the ranks were decimated, the others carried on. Just as it seemed all would be wiped out, a few from the floor slowly rose and resumed their duties. Then a few more joined them, one by one, as the subtraction from this human abacus continued in different parts of the stage.

In the potent, closing image of the work, the dancers were paired. The silhouetted, wing-like outstretched arms of those standing echoed the forms of the fallen ones on the floor, concluding a meditation on the events of Sept. 11, just as potent as Lynne Taylor-Corbett's Lost and Found which Carolina Ballet premiered in 2003.

Still, these overt works of conscience, protest and social engagement may not have left their audiences as shaken as Gutierrez's heated exhibition, even though its critical agenda was more submerged. Some viewers walked out, others averted their eyes. Some later said they'd felt betrayed, and harshly criticized Exhibitionist's "senseless violence."

But was it, really, all so senseless? After all, television was one of the putative topics of the evening. Before the final section, Gutierrez demonstrated (granted, with varying degrees of acuity) how it mediates, distances--and distracts. In one telling passage, the choreographer slowly pulled away from the video monitor and began a movement sequence while video footage continued to play in another part of the stage.

Again, all the while, he looked at us, noting how many of us thought to tear ourselves away from the screen to pay attention.

Though Gutierrez's final section may have contained more than an echo of Stanley Milgram's famous 1961 experiments on coercion and authority, wasn't it ultimately more about how being a viewer or a spectator disempowers an audience?

If one person saw the work, presumably he or she would have been more likely to say, "I'm not comfortable with you hurting yourself. Please stop." With all of us in the room, no one said a word.

Perhaps it was a reflection of a culture in which certain parts of the social compact have been repealed--in which we're all on our own recognizance for continued health, security, support and love.

But perhaps it was a reflection even more of a spectator society that will increasingly countenance just about anything--as long as it's televised or plainly staged in public. Isn't one of the dubious lessons of the last four years that if you want to steal an election or hijack a government, simply do it big?

Having countenanced that theft and all the ones which followed, a meaningless war--and now torture--in less than four years' time, doesn't Gutierrez's work beg this question of us all: What, at this exceedingly late date, are we not prepared to countenance?

Perhaps fortunately, perhaps not, such concerns were largely absent from the International Choreographers Commissioning Program , which opened Monday and closes Wednesday night. Unsurprisingly, the technique and poise of the ADF School's advanced dancers remained impeccable.

Frequently, though, I wished they had been employed toward stronger ends. Toru Shimazaki's Red was the evening's strongest work, with a notable tesseract-like solo from Jian Dai and particularly moving duets by Glen Meynardie and Molly Mae MacGregor. Still we questioned, with reason, the gender dynamics in which three clearly defined male dancers lead a significantly less significant herd of women through a set of black and red.

Even given Alison Clancy's electric lead work in the opening and middle sections, Miguel Robles' Something Beneath unfortunately left no question whatsoever about gender roles, making topless sexual predators of his company's women and men before the choreographer's indulgent, soft-core duet with assistant Victoria Viberti.

Olga Pona's disappointing Little Bit of Nostalgia opened the evening, a mixed bouquet of intriguing video, audio and choreographic clues set on what appeared to be a jungle gym modified to suggest the trunks of white oak trees. Juan Aldape and Thomas Noonan's moving duet detailed cooperation and conflict in a complex relationship, a rare moment of clarity that Pona returned to several times during Nostalgia. For the rest, portentiously screamed names, unidentifiable sounds, grainy video and dim, piercing lights suggested a choreographic Blair Witch Project by mid-work, in a piece th at ultimately never found much in the way of coherence. EndBlock

Note to departing ADF guests: Our coverage of ADF 2004 concludes with a season wrap-up in our next two issues. Still to come: more student works, Acts to Follow, Batsheva, assorted showings--and our last, best thoughts on the meaning of it all. We tell the world starting next Wednesday.

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