central station at dtw

Collage of images from the Central Station festival
On Friday we braved the snow and cold to go see more of the Central Station festival, this time an evening featuring three choreographers at Dance Theater Workshop. On the program were dances by Galina Borissova (Bulgaria), Márta Ladjánkszki (Hungary) and Cosmin Manolescu (Romania).

In the lobby prior to the show I had discussions with various people, trying to define what it is that makes the work from Central and Eastern Europe so distinct. It may be due, in part, to a consistent philosophical and intellectual rigor that is generally absent from American work. One senses, in many of these dance pieces, the importance of the interiority of the performer. While the movement is key, it seems to suggest that we should look towards the emotions and psychology of the dancer, rather than the movement in itself. Of course, the political unrest in the region informs the work, and it tends to be darker and bleaker than American or Western European work. And of course the influence of 70 years of Communism cannot be discounted. For so many years these countries were behind the Iron Curtain, subject to cultural isolation. While the art itself developed, it developed in a much different tradition, free from outside influences. And in some ways it as if we are seeing work that is much more closely related to the great philosophical movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before the age of grand ideas came to an end.

Coming from a theater background, I tend to think of the early 20th century when I think of Eastern Europe: the deconstructivists and plays such as R.U.R., from which the term “robot” was born.

Anyway, back to the work at hand.

The evening began with Galina Borissova’s series of related solos entitled La Sonnambula, which are all part of her full-length piece Looking for Versavia.

La Sonnambula does, indeed, seem like the rumination of a sleep walker. The solos move fluidly from one to the next in a succession of surreal and suggestive sequences, punctuated by costume changes and the occasional prop.

In the opening sequence Galina enters the stage in a dress bulging at the belly, appearing to be pregnant. As she moves across the stage she plucks stones from the dress one by one and scatters them across the stage as she dances. Finally she bends over deeply from the waist and a cascade of stones falls from her bodice and over the floor.

In another sequence a stuffed-animal tiger is lowered from the ceiling on a rope. She takes the rope as if it were a long leash and does a coy, playful dance with the tiger.

A subsequent sequence has her bring a gentleman out from the audience to wait onstage as she goes into the wings and calls out, “Wait just a moment. I’ll be right there, I just have to put on a new dress. Or maybe this other dress. I also have new shoes.” Before she returns to the stage, however, he returns to his seat and Galina emerges from the wings, looking for her “suitor”, bereft. It is in that moment that you realize the scenario she has created.

I would say that this sort of questioning moment was the most defining feature of the work, and I find myself wondering about the extent to which cultural differences influenced the way the work was perceived. Galina’s choreography seemed to be in the vein of dark humor, yet the audience was, by and large, silent and respectful, earnest even. I didn’t get a chance to speak with her, or any of the presenters, to find out what the tone was supposed to be, but in discussion with other audience members at intermission there were several people who thought that it was humorous, that the piece was intended to have humor, but that they were afraid to laugh for fear of appearing disrespectful.

Nonetheless, it was a well-danced piece, well-executed and conceived. I would love to learn more about the ideas behind it.

Next up were two pieces from choreographer Márta Ladjánkszki, Two and Stretching Thighs. I have to say at the outset that I found these pieces really quite stunning, though I’m not sure I can adequately describe them. Not being as well-versed in dance as I am in theater, I’ve come up with a very simple set of rules for how I rate dance: “How often did I space out?” and “Have I ever seen this before?” I can honestly say that I never spaced out once in either of Márta’s pieces, and that she made me look at the body (or consider the idea of “the body”) in ways I previously had not.

In Two, Márta is joined by dancer Eszter Rácz, they enter the stage solemnly, tracing a clearly delineated path created by the lighting. (The lighting design was by Richárd Németh, recreated by Chloë Z. Brown, who did the lighting for the other shows. All of the shows had exceptionally beautiful, tastefully dramatic lighting design). They are wearing gauzy blue gowns, tight-fitting at the bodice and flowing to the ground. As I recall, they were hooded at the outset.

My notes were destroyed in a mishap involving a taxicab and a pile of slush at the corner of 8th Ave. and 19th, thus I’m hard pressed to accurately describe the entire piece. So I will skip to the part that was singularly surprising and riveting. At one point, the two dancers stand center stage in a box of light. Eszter walks upstage as Márta, undoing her blouse, turns front and center, her hands covering her breasts. Her arms, however, are positioned in such a way that her elbows are parallel to the floor, and thus the muscles in her arms, shoulder, torso and neck stand out as if she were a body-builder flexing. She begins to slowly manipulate her breasts, one up and one down, as if in a robotic, emotionally detached simulacrum of erotic display. Gradually, over the course of two or three minutes, her hands moved faster and faster, harder and farther, until they were a blur of fingers and her breasts underneath became invisible. The more furiously she worked, the more pronounced her musculature became, until she looked like one of those incredibly muscular Eastern European gymnasts we remember from the seventies, a kind of Olga Korbut on steroids, desperately trying to rip off her breasts.

It was simultaneously fascinating and difficult to watch. Finally she stops the frenetic motion and begins to twist her nipples in a similarly dispassionate, almost masochistic way. Just when you think it’s becoming unbearable, Eszter enters slowly from upstage, holds Márta from behind, stops her motion and calms her down. The piece ends soon after that, on a gentle note of compassion and reconciliation.

The second piece of Márta’s was a solo entitled Stretching Thighs. Danced under a single light – an exposed bulb- and a showerhead (that was actually a light and cast rays of light like water) Márta once again used her body in unexpected ways. The overall “story” of the piece probably had to do with a woman alone in a shower, crying. But as she moved through her very minimal movement sequences, the audience was drawn into her world, into all of the emotional possibilities of the scenario. At one point, she was naked, and arched backwards to make a “bridge”. Once again, she positioned her body in such a way that she was parallel to the ground, and this perspective on her inverted form recontextualized the meaning of the “body”. In this display the parts no longer make sense, no longer carry the weight of eroticism or even gender at all, but rather represent the body as an aesthetic experience, an experiment in shape, form, color and tone.

Two big thumbs up for Márta!

After intermission we returned for Serial Paradise a playful piece for three dancers, choreographed by Cosmin Manolescu. In the lobby during intermission I ran into Cosmin’s manager, Gabrial Tudor, who directed me to an animation that was playing on all the video monitors. Apparently the animation had been created for Serial Paradise in had originally been included as part of the performance. For reasons that are still unclear, it was excised from this performance and played instead on a continuous loop in the lobby. It was a very simple, yet funny animation. It reminded me of the sort of simple, abstract, jokey cartoons that young web designers were churning out endlessly in the years of the internet boom. Thus I had some intimation of what was to come.

Of the three dances in the evening, Cosmin’s was by far the most light-hearted and playful. At the risk of getting in trouble with the gender-neutral crowd, I’m going to say it was because it was made by a bunch of guys. Serial Paradise had the energy and sensibility of a bunch of hip but self-effacing guys in their twenties who are worldly but not world-weary, self-aware but not self-conscious, masculine but not macho, funny but not precious, smart but not pretentious.

I’ve had female dancer friends tell me how much trouble it can be finding good male dancers. I often wonder, though, what that means in the context of modern dance. I think it means men who can dance the way modern dance is supposed to look – still based on early modern notions of form, grace, muscularity and precision. I think a lot of male dancers fall short of the ideal because that form of movement doesn’t mean the same thing to them now as it did then. It is possible that male dancers look uncomfortable in the modern dance context because “grace” it no longer common to the male gestural vocabulary. Even as recently as the 60’s, stylish men could be said to be “graceful” without impugning their masculinity. Maybe that’s not so much the case anymore.

I think it is possible that there could be a movement afoot (as it were) to reinterpret masculinity in dance. I can think of two dance performances I’ve seen in the past year that, intentionally or unintentionally, redefine masculinity in the context of modern dance, walking away from the rules of what dance is supposed to look like and extrapolating movement from the everyday vernacular movement of the “regular guy”.

Serial Paradise is the third. The three dancers walk onstage wearing cartoon pig heads – one in a track suit, one in businessman garb and one in “hip” clothes (we later learn he is the “rock star”). They high-five each other, and start to hit coordinate “cool” poses: thumbs-up, the “v for victory” sign, all the while nodding their big pig heads and acting cool.

During the next sequence, the lighting designer has created a large square of light on the floor which covers almost the entire stage. The “businessman” dancer comes in and does a movement sequence around the perimeter. Then the track-suited one comes on, and follows him with a similar, though slightly different sequence. Finally the “rock star” comes on and does the same.

Due to the aforementioned mishap with notes and puddle, I cannot recreate the evening with 100% accuracy, so I will try and articulate some highlights:

The “rock star” comes on and sings a song as he dances around the perimeter of the box. The lyrics are simplistic, but that can probably be chalked up to the difficulties of translation, or the challenges of writing in a foreign language. Basically, he seems to be embodying the developing world’s simultaneous fascination and repulsion with American consumer culture. While the execution is somewhat naive, it is enjoyable because the dancer is so personable and atypical. Slightly pigeon-toed with a scraggly light-brown beard and permanent bed-head, wearing shades, baggy leather pants and ear plugs, he carries his microphone like Bono on a bad day, crooning in English with a Romanian accent. As he moves around the stage, striking poses and dancing, you get the sense that he his having fun, that he is playing at the idea of dancing as much as he is actually dancing.

In a later sequence, the boys enter the stage in short, gauzy dresses and alternate between masculine and feminine styles of movement, which creates an interesting tension.

Manolescu, who has been the track-suited dancer, and the “businessman” dancer do a fanciful duet which also explores the differences between masculine and feminine movement, pushing it further by having the two dance closely together, as if waltzing. Their dance is broken up by the re-emergence of the “rock star” who separates them and sends them off the stage. He stands at center stage and puts on all of his “rock star” apparatus: shades, earplugs, jacket. He begins with a simple movement, keeping time by bending his knees, and rapidly builds up into convulsions, as if he is being overloaded or electrocuted. The other dancers return to the stage to calm him down and escort him offstage.

The end of the dance has the trio return to the stage and invite the audience to clap along as they a pop song, I think by Phil Collins, about Paradise. They invoke the boy-band phenomenon even as they mock it, and the audience finds themselves singing along and clapping as the boys dance their way offstage.

All in all it was a really clever and playful piece that, while engaging larger philosophical issues, was remarkable for the obvious fun the dancers seemed to be having, and the way Manolescu interpolated modern dance tropes with pop dance styles and vernacular movement.

It was a fulfilling night with a diverse body of work that I enjoyed. While these performances are over, The Central Station Festival continues at DTW and Danspace Project through December 20. Please see their individual sites for schedules and information.

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