Maybe he's doing something right: That could explain the excited crowd of over 250 people who packed the main room of Carrboro's Century Center on Saturday night for photographer Steve Clarke's curated dance showcase, Focused Fluidity. They stood, squatted and sat on ledges, chairs and the floor, surrounding the performance area from all sides. And they were vocal in their appreciations: The audience's yelps and exclamations at times recalled the celebratory aspects of the summer crew at the American Dance Festival.
In retrospect, the absences were as conspicuous as those present. Curiously, there was more faculty in the room from UNC Greensboro than from Duke, Meredith, N.C. State, Peace and UNC--alone or combined.
But then this show was about getting new people in front of worthy new dance. On that count, it scored, repeatedly.
In her opening solo, Symbols, Ashlee Ramsey's physical commitment and risk-taking provided a wake-up call and a contrast to the complacency and slipshod technique that's too frequently become the norm in this region.
Trisha Brown veteran and recent Triangle transplant Niki Juralewicz followed with Understated, a cool, brainy, razor's-edge exploration of physical planes, an altered primer of movement that seemed to repeatedly switch the dancer back and forth between two- and three-dimensional space. Juralewicz's work is sympathetic to those forces influencing Shen Wei--without reducing itself to mere quotation.
Carrie Plew and Kathryn Ullom's ironically titled green followed, an emotionally monochrome duet whose somber inner passages present--but don't significantly unfold or explore--an apparently static relationship between two unsmiling women. It was striking when Ullom held Plew from behind as both repeated the work's initial gesture, in which one head is raised while the other descends. Still, focus and form were challenged whenever one dancer carried the other. Plus, a relationship without build, whose dynamic never changes, loses interest beyond a point.
Though Amanda Smith beguiled us with an untitled work to Astor Piazzolla's Oblivion, her technique was a step removed from those who'd come before; she's clearly not as comfortable or developed in her mid-section and upper body movement, or her relationships for that matter with balance, risk and gravity. Smith's comparatively safe steps, leaps, poses and postures contrasted with the disciplined abandon Piazzolla's music begs for.
Stephanie Blackmon's Suffocation (of/by) the Last Generation followed--a convincing, dramatic merger of theatrical character, choreography and spoken word in the same work. Dancer Kimberly Lynn Herndon embodied a young girl slowly learning just how different it is being a girl, with a full arsenal of sharp moves, dirty looks and physical cues that communicated a young girl's growing bewilderment, frustration and anger. We want more.
More comic was Emily Daughtridge's Tabbed, ostensibly a how-to piece on the care and feeding of the domestic introvert. Laughs were abundant as Daughtridge awkwardly applied a one-sided dress, apparently cut out of an oversized doll's coloring book, and danced in ironic accompaniment to her witty prerecorded text. In the final analysis, though, this work clearly seemed more comedy than choreography, a work more of theater than dance. Still funny, still rewarding--and still a merger of genres that seemed to favor one over the other.
Ullom returned to the stage afterward, in a compelling performance of Janna Blum's No. 5 Reworked. Again, the physical commitment and risks were underlined in finely detailed explorations of personal space. From an arresting opening gesture that suggested someone sifting grains of sand through their fingertips, to jackknife moves at mid-work, Ullom's excavation of surrounding space did not stop at the body's edge. Rubbing the muscles of neck and back disclosed interior facts about the body as well as the exterior ones. We only questioned intent once during this interesting work.
Love Muwwakkil's untitled solo, a limited exploration of body surface and surrounding area, seemed not as fully developed as the work that came before, growing repetitive before its conclusion. G. Alex Smith's Unjust Indiscretion of My Perfect Little Life similarly seemed a work more begun than finished--as the dancer's comparatively blunt, less refined physical vocabulary on this outing did not always seem to pair movement with intent in transitional space crossings.
Blank Canvas, Renay Aumiller's quartet with dancer Erin Guthe and two painters, closed the evening. This tantalizing excerpt from Aumiller's regional premiere at Bickett Art Gallery the week before displayed an artist unafraid to experiment with mixed media, even media that's being mixed on the surface of the body, as painters applied paint--and cued the dancers' gesture starts, stops and changes--in real time during the performance.
In retrospect, I can understand why the visual artists seemed so timid--there's no telling how hard it was going to be to clean spilled paint from Century Center's lovely hardwood floor. But did the prospect of mixed melange really provide such little opportunities for joy as we saw on the faces and in the bodies of the dancers? Didn't the brushes tickle? Or was Serious Art the only version being honored here? The questions were enough to make me wonder if I'd missed a short hour--or a long one--the week before in Raleigh.
From the stage, Clarke asked us if we knew now why he was "so obsessed with these people." The overwhelming answer was yes. We were encouraged to hear this budding impresario plans to do another showcase in late spring or early summer.
We close this time with a potent tip for insiders: Burning Coal's free local playwright staged reading series reconvenes at 8 pm Monday, Dec. 13, with Kim Moore's "Give It Up, Turn It Loose," at Raleigh's Irregardless Cafe. More on this series as things develop.
***1/2 Not About Heroes , Playmakers Rep--I couldn't be more sympathetic to playwright Stephen MacDonald's aims, but this production of his two-character play finally proves too spindly to do the awful lifting asked of it: to raise the dead of World War I, expose the horrors under which they died, and sound the alarm against the lies of war. Would that it could have--the world desperately needs these lessons, now.
In part, it's a problem of balance: Since Ray Dooley's portrait of soldier and protest poet Siegfried Sassoon at times seems etched in acid, Greg Felden has a hard time holding his own as a Wilfred Owen directed to remain not only younger but weaker through most of this play. But there's difficulty also in the staging of the poems by the pair: Too often, director Joseph Haj appears to lead a retreat into the printed page, instead of unleashing the characters in those poems to join their authors on stage.
Though McKay Coble's cold, elegiac set of marble, ash and concrete suggests a war memorial laid over layers of armaments, sandbags and munitions boxes, half-measures and imperfect courage elsewhere further qualify the work. To the playwright's opaque take on his characters' sexuality, add an opening montage that seems to suggest that the appropriate historical parallels to this work end at the Gulf of Tonkin, 40 years ago. (Tuesday-Sunday through Dec. 19. $30-$10. 962-PLAY.)
***1/2 Stones in His Pockets , Actors Comedy Lab--Transplant the Greater Tuna concept (dozens of eccentric characters in a small town, played on stage--by two actors) from Texas to an Irish village overwhelmed by a crew filming A Major Motion Picture. Then subtract any hidden onstage changing area--and all of the wigs, costumes and paraphernalia--that Tuna uses for morphing into different characters.
What do you get? A greater acting and directing challenge, obviously--plus a wee bit of vertigo at points--as master comedian David Bartlett and Tony Hefner literally go reeling from character to character in this rewarding work. In between jokes, Marie Jones' script tries to score some darker (but still too familiar) points about depression and the lack of opportunity in rural Ireland, before a facile, how-we-got-this-play conclusion. And a number of the characterizations are more successful than others. We savor Bartlett's canny director and roughneck security guard a lot more than his turns as starlet Caroline; while Hefner's take on Mickey, the "last surviving extra from The Quiet Man," outdoes sketchier work on titled character Sean and an annoying--but comparatively boilerplate--production assistant, Ashley.
But hey, if you don't like these characters, they've got a bunch more between them. And our reservations don't compromise the overall accomplishment involved in keeping this many addled characters in spin--literally. (Through Sunday. Theatre in the Park, Raleigh. $15-$12. 831-6058.)
**1/2 Taking Sides , Wordshed/Ghost & Spice Productions--An indisputably fine lead performance by Jordan Smith doesn't change the ethical corners playwright Ronald Harwood cuts in this play about Maestro Wilhelm Furtwangler, the German musical genius who was permanently tainted--some say smeared--by a WWII war crimes tribunal.
Furtwangler's situation poses questions eerily germane to the present hour. When a government violates human rights and international law, how much resistance retroactively exonerates one for simply having lived in the country during the time? After the fact, should a country's citizens be blamed if they didn't antagonize the regime enough to merit their own execution? At what point does an artist accepting a corrupt regime's favors become complicit in its evil?
But nearly any serious consideration of the larger issues is sabotaged by Harwood's transparent attempts to engineer a verdict of innocence--as opposed to just "not guilty"--on Furtwangler's behalf. Though knowledge of fact is all that's needed for the latter, nothing less than knowledge of the soul is mandated for the former--and Harwood never convinces us he has it.
Still, kudos to John Murphy for the thankless task of animating corrupt prosecutor and designated philistine Major Arnold, while Katja Hill and Sarah Kocz bring their trademark credibility to supporting roles. (Friday-Saturday. Swain Hall, UNC-Chapel Hill. $12-$10. 384-9272.)
**1/2 A Christmas Survival Guide , Temple Theatre--Since this is a game--and, surprisingly enough, partially successful--attempt to update Christmas cabaret to reflect the urban yuletide angst of present-day thirtysomethings, the witty and interesting half of this show belongs more on Glenwood Avenue at high tide than with a retirees' audience in Sanford. Credit Brian Norris' commuter nightmare edition of Silver Bells; Gretchen Goldsworthy's open mockery of Kurt Weill, Surabaya Santa; and particularly Elizabeth Williams-Grayson's cynicism-melting rendition of a memorable new song, All Those Christmas Cliches. But then demerit an audio mix that buried the vocals the afternoon we saw it, and the anemic two-man band that wasn't up for the rock and r&b send-ups that riddle the work. (Thursday-Sunday through Dec. 19. $18-$10. 774-4155.)