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Dicey work about murder in Chapel/ Chapter

Dance of death


  • Photo courtesy of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company
  • Dancer Maija Garcia in Chapel/ Chapter

Chapel/ Chapter

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company
Page Auditorium

Joseph Otero, his wife, Julie, and their children Josephine and Joseph Jr. were killed by Dennis Rader, who was later dubbed the BTK Strangler, in Wichita, Kansas, on Jan. 15, 1974. And Nixzmary Brown, after months of being tortured, starved and beaten by Cesar Rodriguez and Nixzaliz Santiago, her stepfather and mother, died in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn on Jan. 11, 2006. She was 7 years old and weighed 37 pounds at the time of her death.

I wanted you to know their names. Without them, something crucial is missing from Chapel/ Chapter, choreographer Bill T. Jones' 2006 work that played at Page Auditorium last Wednesday night.

Jones and his collaborators use the murders of Brown and the Oteros as two of the three major narrative threads in the work. But something disturbing occurs when Jones alters or omits their real names in the performance. The members of the Otero family keep their real first names when company members are assigned their roles onstage. Their last names are altered to Soto. Brown, meanwhile, is referred to only as "the little girl" during the performance.

True, more than enough details are retained in each story to make researching the news a fairly simple task. And it's possible that legal considerations are at work in the substitutions—though associate artistic director Janet Wong spoke only of not wanting us "preoccupied by real identities" in a post-show discussion Wednesday night.

But what exactly is achieved when a work focuses on real murder while it simultaneously eclipses the real identities of the murdered? When the victims are particularized at the same time they're being, at least in part, erased; anonymized on grounds identified only as aesthetics?

You might have guessed it: A much higher degree of abstraction than is useful diffuses its impact, and vagueness compromises the nature of its communicated truth.

Perhaps it's odd to be saying that about a work whose audio component, which included a performer reading Rader's transcribed descriptions of his slayings, provoked scattered walkouts in Durham. But, ironically, there's as much of a disconnect between Rader's singularly dispassionate verbal account and the gruesome crimes he committed as there is between the reality of the characters, their killings and their representations in Chapel/ Chapter.

Here, character development primarily consists of having Otero family members exuberantly—and redundantly—repeat their names several times before playing an altered game of charades, one in which dancers' movements spell out the letters of phrases. (Jones has used this technique elsewhere; in a version of Another Evening it gave a profound question an equally profound response. Here, it fills in several vacuous riffs on the old saw about the road to hell.)

In this sequence, Wong's video graphics, equally parts '60s dance party and game show, are flashy, to be sure, as they dance across the floor. But something is amiss when the most vividly characterized family member is ultimately the dog (performed by Erick Montes, in a standout role).

Perhaps it is intentional that Rader's entrance into the Otero's house and the section in which he kills that family seems choreographed with nearly the same flat, matter-of-factness that delineates Rader's narration. The same odd quality, similar in places to computer simulation, is noticeable during the later scene involving Brown and her stepfather.

Are we seeing, then, a representation of a lie here? The murders as seen by the murderers? Or is it an embodiment of philosopher Hannah Arendt's conclusions on the banality of evil? In any event, the aestheticized phrases and gestures in these sections are entirely removed from the fatal realities behind them. The same seems true of Wong's digital animations of red butterflies and floating chairs that occasionally float along a screen behind the stage.

But too much of the choreography in Chapel/ Chapter seems atrophied, lacking the lyricism and breadth of Jones' best work. Perhaps this is because parts of it weren't choreographed by him: The printed program notes that portions were choreographed by Wong and members of the company.

Bjorn Amelan's heavily gridded white set design and Robert Wierzel's primary-color lights suggest the recent work of Gilbert and George more than the stained glass window depicted on the screen behind the stage.

Since its black-and-white projection grows progressively muddier and more distorted as time goes on, Chapel/ Chapter can conceivably be read as a critique of religion. How many faiths, after all, have as their basis the murder of a physical representation of deity—a killing ultimately recognized as a sacrifice? How many of them have aestheticized those beginnings to the extent witnessed here?

For whose sins did Brown and the Oteros die? The answer, unfortunately, is as uncertain as too many other elements in this production. Evil has been variously termed a failure of empathy and of the imagination. For reasons still unclear, both of these seem in short supply in much of Chapel/ Chapter.

E-mail Byron at bwoods@indyweek.com.

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