For years Nicholas Leichter had been one of those peripheral, perennial dark horse choreographers at the American Dance Festival--a gifted teacher whose student showings, occasional solo exhibitions and faculty concert contributions tantalized us with a combination of street moves, hip hop and funk, grafted with all but surgical precision onto a modern dance idiom. So for years, North Carolina dance insiders had been more than usually curious to see a full evening of work by Leichter's New York-based company, a wish that was finally granted when Duke Performances presented him last Wednesday and Thursday at Reynolds Theater.
But miscalculations--ones similar to those that plagued Ariane Reinhart's uneven ADF recital in 2002--marred over half of the evening's works.
In theater it's all but automatically given that works created and rehearsed in small studios must expand when placed on stage. Obviously, actors' voices must adjust so their lines can be heard at the back of the theater.
But other elements usually have to change as well. A facial expression or a microgesture that effectively conveyed an emotion or a moment on a TV screen or in a studio might not read beyond the first five rows of a larger house. The entire physical economy of expression must potentially be revisited when a play changes houses, to ensure it still communicates what it did in smaller rooms.
Spread the word: The same is true for dance. From our seats, Leichter's opening Discretion remained far too, well, discreet. Where last summer's ADF showing put us near two men deliberately downplaying next to nothing precisely what draws them together, the poker face on Lauren Basco and Jared Kaplan's interpretation remained far too perfect; basically unreadable from mid-house.
We were similarly able to catch some but not all of the signifiers in Leichter's Animal, a recombinant hip-hop fusion work from 1997. Even the emotional valences in the new work, Skin Diving, were easier to discern in places on the promotional videotape we received than they were 12 rows from stage. Adding to difficulties, Erik Bruce's lighting design was stripped to the minimums in Durham, and didn't effectively spotlight and direct our attention at crucial moments. Meanwhile, the passion of Chris Lancaster's original score was marred by cello playing that repeatedly veered in and out of tune and tempo.
These works preceded Free the Angels, a club dance filibuster. Its flashy opening and closing sequences bookended lengthy, interchangeable and plateau-ridden interior passages that could have been condensed significantly.
Why was the best work in Choreo Collective's annual concert from those choreographers with the shortest association with the company? I refer to K. Rain Leander's Automne, a work that swiftly rose from a lengthy video prelude into a Butoh-based time ceremony. Local fans of Eiko and Koma would appreciate Emily Bearden's glacial transit across stage, filled with intent, while Annie Kao, Susan Saenger and Jennie Sussman appeared to be davening at points in Tracy Miller's saffron-red Japanese costumes. Before that, civic activist--and non-choreographer--Anne Franklin's first work for dancers, Cross Training, arguably displayed a work more begun than finished. Still, this gutsy, amusing mélange expanded Choreo's physical vocabulary appreciably by bringing in outside hip-hop dancer Brad Leach and meringue dancers Kelley Montoya and Sadie Driscoll to spice up the morning transit on a commuter train. When is that TTA line supposed to get here?
***1/2 The Gods Are Not To Blame , National Troupe of Nigeria--It may be called "The New PSI," but the theater at the Durham Arts Council exhibited some old--and odious--behavior Friday night while hosting these distinguished international guests originally slated to perform last September at Duke. The pageantry and professionalism was obvious in this production, even though vivid African dance and drum ensemble sequences seemed at times shoehorned into this space.
But embarrassing, asynchronous light cues repeatedly left sections of The Gods in inappropriate shadows, before inexplicably plunging performers into darkness in the midst of one scene. After a moment's pause, the actors continued reciting their lines in the dark until vision was finally restored.
Ola Rotimi's script is understandably championed by Durham's Rotimi Foundation, which produced this show. It presents an English language adaptation of Oedipus Rex as seen through the eyes of Yoruba culture, one that is overtly lyrical and rich in symbol. Nowhere is this more evident than in scenes where Odewale (Albert Akaeze) engages in magical battle with the followers of King Adetusa (Leke Onanuga). Through fetish worship and warfare, Odewale likens his opponents to trees that cannot move and a mountain that always sleeps, before calling Adetusa's blood to flow like a river.
Akaeze ably embodies Odewale's desire to teach his people and the monarch's paranoia and swiftness to anger as his true legacy becomes clear. He counsels the citizens to hold their leaders--himself included--accountable for their governance during difficult times. Rotimi breaks with earlier interpretations when Odewale insists on accepting responsibility for the acts that bring him down. (Show closed March 19.)
***Harvey , Theatre in the Park--Ah, for the days before alcoholism, when shabby gentility (and invariably impeccable manners) made the town drunk just another colorful character one might see on the village square. By itself, this probably makes Mary Chase's 1944 Broadway comedy a work whose day has frankly long since passed. After all, once upon a time its title character, a 6-foot talking rabbit audible and visible only to his inebriated host, would immediately have been recognized as kin to those amusing pink elephants that only the soused of yesteryear could see.
But even if director Ira David Wood pines for simpler times in his choice of script, with actor Scotty Cherryholmes he still ultimately gets at the considerable melancholy behind Elwood P. Dowd's boozy bonhomie. Even saddled with a speculative constant companion, well before play's end it's obvious that Dowd is a singularly lonely man, one in need of an endless stream of drinking buddies to keep something else at bay. Not for nothing does he say, late in the play, that "Nobody carries anything small into a bar."
All of which makes this Harvey a comedy whose occasionally shrill center is appropriately bordered by darkness at the edges.
The shrillness unfortunately is provided in Jillian Voytko's chemistry with Frances Stanley. Both actors amuse individually as Dowd's niece and sister, an opportunistic pair who plan to take his house away from him by having him committed. But whenever the two wind up within five feet of each other, a shrieking-diva contest invariable ensues.
For the record, nobody out-shrieks Frances Stanley. Her dithered interpretation of sister Veta is robust and comic. And there's much to savor in Kevin Ferguson and Mariette Booth's romantic squabbles as a Dr. Sanderson and Nurse Kelly clearly fated for one another. Wood's character work and direction in scenes with these two actors particularly pays off.
Elsewhere, Marto Schuler overacts as the ditzy society wife of Dr. Chumley (John T. Hall), the head of the asylum.
And we don't buy Veta's sudden change of heart in the clearly manufactured crisis at play's end; that one injection from the good doctor will permanently banish all mythical creatures--and all imagination and kindness as well--from Elwood's life.
But these momentary difficulties pale before the playwright's unfortunate, earlier rescue of Mr. Dowd. By revealing that Harvey actually is a pooka--a Scandinavian animal trickster spirit who can appear to other people--and not a boozer's hallucination, Chase wants to reassure us that Elwood's really all right. He's just a drunk, instead of a drunk who sees things. That sad joke has been over for a long time, too. (Closed March 27.) Byron Woods can be reached at email@example.com.