Posted on Fri, Apr. 25, 2008

For the Inquirer

Ever since the right-wing attacks on the arts in the ’80s, arts funders have been driving artists to make multicultural, community or issue-based art, and driving arts organizations to base their operations on business models. So a for-profit, business-model dance company, not beholden to private funding, might sound interesting.

Not so with the Rebecca Davis Dance Company, which has been making art-like shows for the last two years and now has attempted one based on a serious world issue.

Davis presented her 70-minute Darfur as a world premiere at the Arden Theatre Wednesday evening. Twenty-five percent of ticket revenue is pledged to Global Grassroots, a nonprofit organization founded by the sister of Brian Steidle, an American adventurer who witnessed genocide in Africa. Davis based the show she calls a ballet on Steidle’s book, The Devil Came on Horseback.

The show opened with a rear-projected Google map zooming down to a Manhattan intersection and dooming the show to mediocrity: Its comic-strip video was totally out of sync with the subject.

What seemed like the Hullabaloo Dancers appeared in the intersection, wearing berets and red-and-white-striped shirts, as in French apache dancing. That’s a la mode in the Big Apple these days?

Davis’ choreography consisted of basic ballet preparations, jumps and tours on demi-pointe, which kept most of these earnest dancers off balance. Their ballet slippers were mystifyingly comedic in this poorly conceived effort.

A couple of Davis’ dancers have done well in other companies with better material, but few displayed any visible technique here. Under-rehearsed, they were ill-prepared for an opening night.

Gabe Stone Shayer, as the young boy, showed the most promise. But LaMar Baylor and Lauren Putty, as his mother and father, threw him down in so unsafe a way it could literally have injured his ankles.

After Manhattan, the Google map zoomed into Sudan, plummeting Darfur from victim of Khartoum to cartoon. At the airport, pilots and attendants tossed gaily colored baggage to each other while dancing lightheartedly to weird alternative rock. In a clumsy rape scene, the lyrics were vapid to a V. “Do you brush your teeth before you kiss?” the singer asked of the girl who’d gone off with another man. “Do you miss my smell?”

How off-base can you be? This was too big and horrific a subject to be trivialized by an amateur, no matter how well meaning or businesslike. One audience member wondered, “What is she going for, Darfur, the Musical?”