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“Fort Blossom,” performed at Bryn Mawr, is a fuller version of a work originated in 2000.

By Merilyn Jackson
For The Inquirer


Nude men dance on a black floor, in subdued lighting; women on a white floor, in contrasting brightness.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “Philosophy ought really to be written only as a form of poetry.” I am never happier than when I can read choreography as poetry, as I – and, I think, the audience – did over the weekend with choreographer John Jasperse’s Fort Blossom Revisited 2000/2012.

This fuller version of the original 2000 work premiered Friday at the Hepburn Teaching Theater, Bryn Mawr College’s black-box theater. The college was the leading funder of the reconstructed and expanded 60-minute work.

On the black side of the divided black and white floor, Ben Asriel and Burr Johnson dance completely nude in subdued lighting (designed by Stan Pressner in its 2000 premiere, now directed by James Clotfelder). On the white side, Lindsay Clark and Erika Hand dance in contrasting brightness, wearing thigh-high dresses the rich red color of cinnabar.

A combination of mercury ore and sulfur, cinnabar is as deliberate and precise a choice as every other element in this revised work. The set’s coloration is minimalistically mid-century moderne, sleek and beautiful. A compilation of Ryoji Ikeda’s eerie recordings made a complementary sound sculpture.

Ever since I saw Xavier Le Roy’s 1998 nude solo, Self-Unfinished, I’ve been thinking about the difference between seeing the naked body and the costumed body dance, and I’ve concluded that the skin is a costume. It hides and holds together everything that is inside, but it also exposes the kinesthetic awareness of the body in a way that even skin-tight fabric cannot. We like to see nude studies in museums and books, so why not live on stage, in three dimensions and in movement?

Jasperse packs Fort Blossom with information of a philosophically poetic and exploratory nature. He creates angular geometrics for the women’s dances and simulated sex between the men, in ways that make us question intimacy and our relationship to our own bodies.

Another startling and playful thing was the repeated zoomorphism of the dancers’ bodies. Asriel lies prone parallel to the audience. On the other side of the divide, Clark and Hand lie on their backs on clear plastic cushions, gyrating on them as if weightless in a gravity-free space. They harness themselves to the cushions, like turtles held upright, with legs dangling from their shells.

Asriel wriggles, wormlike, across the floor, the difficulty of the movement expressed in the tortuous rise and fall of the buttons of his spine. The women bend from the waist, triangulating their legs like flamingoes. The men carry each other at times, looking like camels bearing burdens.

In the upbeat final moments, the women swat the men with the cushions. Near the end, they bend their torsos over one another in a line and walk centipedelike. It seems Jasperse is asking us to see the human body not only as sexual and vulnerable, but also in relation to other species.


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Posted: Mon, Feb. 13, 2012, 3:01 AM
By Merilyn Jackson
For The Inquirer

                                             P. BROWNING
David and Lindsay Browning, father and daughter, in the dance theater work “Lincoln Luck” at the Painted Bride. The mystical dream sequences have moments of clarity and beauty.

Abe Lincoln had an irksome dream he’d be assassinated just two weeks before he actually was. Dancer Lindsay Browning and her father, actor David Browning, collaborated in a dance theater work, inspired by the dream, titled Lincoln Luck which evoked a dreamlike atmosphere rather than a narrative.

It premiered at the Painted Bride over Lincoln’s birthday weekend with performances Friday and Saturday.

The audience entered through the cafe with David Browning, bearded and in Lincoln dress, inviting us to follow him into the theater. Of course it’s the theater where Lincoln goes to meet his end.

Lindsay Browning is there waiting onstage in a harness and hoop skirt with three long white trains trailing out in different directions. With one red-gloved hand, she waves the air before her, writhing within these confines like a woman possessed. She soon sets herself free and dances to Thomas Wave’s sitar, guitar, and organic sound environment.

The Painted Bride set included three long vertical rectangles for poetic video projections by Gaetan Spurgin. Tommy Burkel is the youngster walking in one, Myra Bazell dances in another. A third featured abstract images.

The lighting by Madison Cario infused the work with a mournful aura that also helped to create its ambiguity. This moody atmosphere sometimes overwhelmed the work, becoming more dominant than the meaning, which was hard to decipher. We were supposed to be viewing Lincoln as a 217-year-old dancing with an imagined daughter in 2026. This did not come through for me in the performance but was merely told to us by David Browning.

Nevertheless, if you took it as a mystical dream and just went with it, it had its moments of clarity and beauty.

When John Luna joins Lindsay Browning in a duet, they swing gold pocket watches on a chain together. Luna takes a walk to and fro, still swinging his watch by its fob, but it pulls him in the opposite direction each time. Is he supposed to be the young Lincoln and is time pulling him back?

David Browning’s soliloquies are lovely, notably the one where Lincoln speculates on what would have happened if he’d had a daughter: “A girl would’ve changed us,” he says, “to dance while bullets rang out.”

He is most charming when he carries in a birthday balloon and what looks like a birthday pie with candles that read 87.

He blows them out, bringing us back from the future to the present, and the lights go out.

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February 9, 2012

By Merilyn Jackson

Few choreographers have the power to effect life-altering changes the way Pina Bausch did over the course of her 50-year career, and, even now, three years after her untimely death. That is what Pina does. She changes your life. She changed mine and she changed the lives of others I know. She altered my life so much, before and still long after I met her, that I have always felt touched, blessed, and saw my own work stretch to a level beyond what I had achieved. I’m even writing a poem about her effect called Pina, Queen of the Desert.

German filmmaker Wim Wenders in a recent NPR interview spoke about the first time he went to a performance by Bausch and her Tanztheater Wuppertal. “I found myself on the edge of my seat, crying like a baby after five minutes, and crying through the entire thing,” he recalled. “I was hopelessly, helplessly crying, and didn’t know what was happening. It was like lightning struck me.” The work? It was Café Müller, from 1985, and he says it changed his life.

Anyone who’s seen the film Pina (I have, three times, in previews in Philadelphia and New York) is struck with wonder, even if they haven’t seen it in 3D. I made a new friend: a German professor teaching in the U.S., he had not known about Bausch, but was so taken by her and the film that he ordered it in Blu-Ray for his university library, yet hasn’t seen it in 3D. I told him he can’t imagine the adrenaline rush of nearly ducking when a sheer curtain flies toward you, a Wuppertalian monorail car feels as if it will run you over, or buckets of water come splashing at you.

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Posted: Mon, Feb. 6, 2012, 3:01 AM
By Merilyn Jackson
For The Inquirer

Throughout their show at the Annenberg’s Harold Prince Theatre on Saturday night, Green Chair Dance Group displayed intellect and exuberance in Tandem Biking and Other Dangerous Pastimes for Two. Its three dancers, Sarah Gladwin Camp, Hannah de Keijzer, and Gregory Holt, sustained a high level of gutsy, risk-taking antics, halting only periodically to “explain” what they were doing, or about to do.

Founded in 2004, Green Chair is the only dance group to grow out of Swarthmore College’s dance department and is now supported in part by its theater department. It is based at the Mascher Space Cooperative in Kensington. The three artistic codirectors produced Tandem Biking in collaboration with actor/director Alex Torra. Part of Annenberg’s “By Local” series, Saturday night’s show was packed, making the laughter and spontaneous applause all the more fun.

Holt strolls out to what could be an ordinary living room, with a neatly arranged backdrop of radiator covers topped with household bric-a-brac, and taps a computer that begins to play New Zealand composer Rosie Langabeer’s sound design. There ensues a frenzy of dance that is not dance – at least it’s certainly not traditional-looking dance phrases, even from a contemporary dance viewpoint. Various triangulations of the body – both arms on the floor, one leg out in carelessly torqued, ankle-hanging arabesques; other triangles made by the three as they connect and disconnect.

Watching, you’d think this is stuff you and your friends could do in your living room. Think again. It took these pros years to make it look so simple and playful. There’s wrestling, and finger wiggling, and Holt galumphing around flapping his arms, a wacky signature of his. Camp lies on her back, legs extended up, de Keijzer (who was so fascinating to watch as the chimpanzee in Marcel Williams Foster’s Sonso, Simians & Pierrot last year) bends over and Holt clambers over her, resting his chest on the soles of Camp’s flexed feet to create a perfectly square architecture.

They strip out of their hipster duds to beachwear and do beachy poses. They leave while Langabeer’s gently atmospheric music keeps us company as we wait for them to return, this time in multiple layers of winter outerwear; they do beachy poses in them, too. Stripping it all off to reveal themselves in skintight gold lamé, they dance with wild abandon, and then in slow motion, eyes often locked with the audience. You ought to see me laughing as I write this. Better yet, see Green Chair.

Thirdbird soars with music, dance

Posted: Mon, Jan. 23, 2012, 3:01 AM

By Merilyn Jackson
For The Inquirer

Thirdbird bills itself as the new “wing” of Ladybird and Bowerbird, the organizations directed by Anna Drozdowski and Dustin Hurt. As scouts and presenters, Drozdowski and Hurt bring together movers and music makers from near and far, producing concerts in various and sometimes out-of-the-way venues.

Thirdbird’s second flight landed at Christ Church over the weekend with Voransicht, pairing soprano, pianist, and composer Judith Berkson in the first half with dancer, choreographer, and performance artist Eleanor Bauer in the second. Both gave soaring performances that left the packed audience floored.

Voransicht, in German, means preview, and that is what Berkson delivered: an hour-long glimpse at a much larger opera to be performed with chorus and other musicians next fall. As a soloist on piano, drums, and keyboard and as a singer, she made this Voransicht as lush as a Babylonian garden in moonlight. The music, which also used electronic score, was mostly microtonal and chromatically rich.

Her vocal output, inflected with idiosyncratic tics, ranged from soprano down to a very low register that was powerful and weighty for a person of slight stature. She startled with articulations of unexpected vowels exploding on top of other sounds.

Voice output and stature figured in Bauer’s Big Girls Do Big Things as well, and in a big way. Bauer is tall and as ravishingly curvy as her concepts. She slips into a polar bear suit lying on the floor and creates the most mysteriously interesting or hilarious collages of movement. This beauty is not afraid to sweat or be ludicrous, but her humor drips with irony, intelligence and, perhaps, some tamped down rage.

Who could sustain such a high-pitched hour of switching between drollery and swanning her arms exquisitely without a simmering undercurrent of a passion, such as rage? Once the polar bear fur comes off, she is back down to her sexy black teddy, feet in high, white pumps that intensify not only her gorgeous legs, but also her vulnerability and danger as she climbs a ladder in them. Slowly, she sings Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” taking her pitch up an octave for each rung. It’s excruciatingly funny at first but gets devastating the higher she goes and the song and she begin to disintegrate.

As a woman of substance, Bauer went far beyond what she has to work with to become a dance artist of the highest state. Kudos to Thirdbird for bringing Bauer and Berkson to Philadelphia. Wow!

Posted: Sat, Jan. 21, 2012, 3:01 AM
By Merilyn Jackson
For The Inquirer
“Gravity of Center” was performed by the Montreal troupe RUBBERBANDance at the Annenberg Center.

The 10-year-old Montreal troupe RUBBERBANDance returned to Annenberg Center on Thursday evening with the Philadelphia premiere of Gravity of Center. In focus and technique, the soulfully danced work far surpasses the company’s last offering here in 2008.

The vision of company founder and former hip-hop dancer Victor Quijada is to blend his b-boy background with ballet as well as such martial arts movement as capoeira. In Gravity of Center, he’s crystallized this style into what I’ll call “acro-balletic.”

With his co-artistic director, dancer Anne Plamondon, and their collaborators, DJ Jasper Gahunia, who wrote the music, and Yan Lee Chan, who created the lighting design, the team has made a homogeneous work in perfect pitch with its concept. I like seeing hip-hop danced raw on the street, but seeing it danced more slowly and by well-trained dancers like these is like eating tournedos de boeuf instead of hot dogs. There’s nothing wrong with hotdogging on the street, but it can go only so far.

With this work, RUBBERBANDance pares break-dance phrases down to their core and spins lovely strands that seamlessly link them. Quijada was inspired by the disparity between social classes created by the economic failures of recent years. Elon Höglund, Emmanuelle Lê Phan, Daniel Mayo, and Plamondon appear with Quijada in near-darkness struggling with one another, but also against something larger, outside their understanding. The movements flow one from the other in an endless stream, arms slipping over shoulders, legs over backs, necks under torsos. In one phrase, dancers appear to be stepping out of each other’s circled arms as if from a pair of trousers.

Plamondon and Quijada go at each other, simulating head butts; the men have several elegantly crafted fight scenes, always blending the dynamics of hip-hop with the stretchy formalisms of ballet.

They all wear multiple layers of clothing that one expects will be peeled away as the dance reveals itself. But they remove only a vest here, a shirt there. In one instance, a male throws his jacket away after he is ejected from the group. It becomes, for the woman who loves him, a talisman. Eventually, she finds him again, and, forming a human chain, they all pull him back into their community.

Somehow the despair and fear of living in poverty come through. A pulsing light high in the flies beckons. The woman ventures out beyond their circle of light into darkness and is left alone at the end. Is she the one who escapes or is she abandoned?

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Posted: Tue, Jan. 17, 2012, 3:01 AM

By Merilyn Jackson
For The Inquirer

Last week a clever little dance festival called Falls Bridge – founded in 2010 by Curt Haworth, who heads PARD (Performance Arts, Research and Development), and Nicole Bindler – provided an investigatory laboratory for dance and movement arts that ended with two concerts.

On Saturday night, Ishmael Houston Jones, Yvonne Meier, Meg Foley, Zornitsa Stoyanova, Manfred Fischbeck, Sharon Mansur, and Daniel Burkholder performed at Mascher Space Co-op. I made it to the Sunday night show at Mt. Vernon Dance Space; after seeing the caliber of Sunday night’s lineup, I was sorry I had missed the first performance.

Merian Soto has partnered with Marion Ramirez since 2003; they opened this contact-improv-based show with Circulations. In total silence, Ramirez, a beautiful mover, paced the space with increasing speed, spiraling her circles smaller until she reached center. She and Soto embarked on an exploration of the space, avoiding collision with each other as their breathing became labored, finally ending in a heap together.

Street Grace was Lela Aisha Jones’ poetic solo, beginning as a paean to a poem she thought her grandmother wrote. The little music box playing Schubert that she danced to seemed to represent the poem. Often just standing in place, she languidly led us through an evocation of many emotions, from hunger for beauty to acceptance of self.

At last, I got to see much-discussed Michelle Stortz, who danced a witty improvisation called Open Wide with Leah Stein. At times, they played like small animals, mostly communicating with each other via guttural sounds or visual signals in a language we all somehow understood.
Another wonderfully playful improvisation – between Sarah Gladwin Camp, of Green Chair Dance Group, and Gregory Holt – started out with a kind of rock-paper-scissors stare-down. Holt ran around, wildly flapping his arms like a madman wanting to shout his love from the treetops, while Camp sat watching impassively. In a magnificent moment reminiscent of Xavier Leroy’s nude Self-Unfinished, the fully-dressed Holt upended his legs over his upper back to touch the wall, head unseen, backside up, his arms and hands extended absurdly behind him, taking on a life of their own.

NOW! by Silvana Cardell was all about immediacy. She and her five dancers blocked and challenged, held and climbed over one another, as artist Jennifer Baker drew life-size impressions of them on six large easels. It was fascinating to see her stretch all over with her charcoal even as she watched and studied whatever phrases the dancers presented. Baker captured the whip-snap swing and sway of the choreography better than any words.

My Wigilia Table 2011

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Montreal dance troupe lops off prelude, filmic imagery, cool costumes.

Posted: Sat, Dec. 10, 2011, 3:01 AM

By Merilyn Jackson
For The Inquirer

Courtesy Marie Chouinard
Sandrine Lafond (left), Carla Maruca, Isabelle Poirier of Compagnie Marie Chouinard in “24 Preludes” by Chopin. The troupe began its first visit to Philadelphia in 17 years Thursday night.

At opening night of Montreal’s Compagnie Marie Chouinard at Annenberg Center, their first Philadelphia appearance in 17 years, some in the audience said they were in shock and awe after her Rite of Spring.

But after seeing Chouinard’s Rite in Phoenix in 1996 and longing to see it again all these years, I was just in shock. It was so unlike the original, my favorite of many Rites I’ve seen around the world. Company agent Paul Tanguay said Shanghai audiences will see the original with the white and tan colored leotards and Rober Racine’s 12- minute prelude, Sound Signatures. But we get a bargain-basement version, without the Racine and the costumes.

In 24 Preludes by Chopin, which opened the program, the women wore sheer black leotards taped thong-like around the groin and across the nipples, much like a costume I saw on a pole dancer at Delilah’s when I was a judge in an exotic dancer of the year contest. For both topless genders in this Rite, Chouinard recycled the same briefs as worn by the men in 24 Preludes making for a confusing opening moment. Was this merely a continuation of the first piece?

The brilliant original use of Racine’s amplified pencil on paper score had evoked pre-human insectile life, repeated visually by the angular, torso-undulating choreography. Here, Dance Celebration’s program notes say his score would extend Stravinsky’s work to about 50 minutes. Asked why these changes were not mentioned, Tanguay said some audiences didn’t like the Racine and that it made it too long.

This, with a show ending at 9:15 and within a work that itself caused riots?

Also excised was the beautiful imagery of the early version, in which each dancer appears as a film projection in a pillar of light, a luxuriant illusion that falls away as when wind whips across a reflecting pool’s surface. Now lacking that sensuous prelude, the dancers squirmed into raw illusions that had their bodies seem to fracture into fractals or spiral into DNA. It was more big-bang than evolution.

Still there were many moments of awe: Leon Kupferschmid’s feral jetés and wounded rasps, Mariusz Ostrowski and the others using their hands like cleavers to sculpt the air around them. Lucy M. May in the opening solo was jaw dropping with her bent-knee, flexed-footed running in place.

Perhaps Chouinard took her cue for the osculating curvatures of the bodies which barely touch, much less kiss, from Stravinsky’s opening bassoon solo, “Kiss of the Earth.” It imparted a slimy fluidity as the dancers pecked and goose-necked at each other in this rite of annual renewal that occurs without thought or sentiment, only the primal urge to be.

24 Preludes by Chopin began with Megan Walbaum and Valeria Gallucio’s flamingo-like walking. To Chopin’s famous “Prelude in E-Minor” the full company in lineup passes one upright woman back and forth by her waist. As three women rotate their arms a flickering light makes them look like a silent film. Throughout, quivering, splayed hands conjured a Mayan look or brought comedic relief.

Overall the mohawks all the dancers wore, the undulating torsos in profile, the high-stepping, crooked-knee walking gave 24 Preludes movement birdlike qualities which I loved. Ostrowski, who I’ve followed over 15 years from Ballet Arizona, through Les Grands Ballet Canadiens, Rubberbandance and now Chouinard’s company is at the top of his form.


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