Soaking WET on the UWS

Theater

On Monday night, as part of Movement Research’s Annual Town Hall members of the artist advisory council led brief discussions on topics that have arisen during previous AAC meetings. We touched on Kathy Westwater’s Economics of taking class, my Academia and art making, Marjani Forte’s Art and activism and Joe Levasseur’s considerations based on Barbara Bryan’s comments about community. In thinking about my weekend dance viewing experiences, these ideas of community and how we might locate them in a time of increasing interpersonal disconnection and physical distances felt very present. At the Town Hall Laurie Berg read the absent Joe Levasseur’s comment: If community is a unit with common values, as geographic privileges shift, I would specifically ask: “How does a dispersed community maintain a sense of identity?” And, Diana Crum offered Marjani’s emailed question “what’s downtown dance when I live in Harlem?”  While living a life that spends more time above the bottom border of Central Park, I felt specifically tied to those geographic concerns. The difficulty of maintaining a physical presence at the standard downtown (and Brooklyn) dance venues where one of my defined communities gather can feel daunting. With a full-time job and 2 kids, time out gets rationed, and when one apparently owes their Bessies subcommittee 2-4 shows a week (!) the commutes are epic.

This leads to one small part of why I love my neighboring, neighborhood’s bike ride accessible West End Theater and more specifically the David Parker and The Bang Group’s Soaking WET Series that happens there.

This little chapel of a performance space (complete with pew seating and vaulted ceilings) is a kind of secret, underground performance gem. It might feel almost pop-up, practically invite-only, tucked into the second floor of the Church of St. Paul and St. Anthony, but Parker and his guest curators have built a pluralistic and diverse roster of artists and aesthetics in this intimate space.  The Bang Group has been the West End Theater’s first and only resident dance company, and rather than build and show their own work, they’ve developed an inclusive programming mission. This is one of the many legacies that Parker (and Soaking WET’s indefatigable, beautifully bow-tied, producer Jeffrey Kazin) has offered the field is finding a way to expand The Bang Group’s own wide ranging dance and musical interests and influences onto a platform that serves other artists. Once you can find this pocket of performance, stage access is not so opaque a process, if you love movement and want to dance there…ask David. As I watched two different programs this weekend, I wondered how many artists would give over their resident-dance company status so easily for others to use. Thanks to that kind of vision, for a few moments on a Saturday evening and a Sunday afternoon, my neighborhood held my community – one made up of artists and audiences coming in from Illinois, Western Mass, Pennsylvania, Queens and, even, Brooklyn. But, somehow, truly local in sentiment.

Elizabeth Coker in Sean Curran's "Better to be Looking at It Than to be Looking for It."

Elizabeth Coker in Sean Curran’s “Better to be Looking at It Than to be Looking for It.”

On Saturday night, I saw a program from veteran guest curator Valerie Gladstone. She gathered artists who were both accomplished dancers in non-modern dance forms and ardent contemporary innovators. Sean Curran had two works on the program and while neither had Irish step dancing, his Better to be Looking at It Than Looking for It, danced impeccably by Elizabeth Coker to Schubert played live by Jonathan Mathews, included fleeting glimpses of bent elbows and low second plies in a danced curry a’ la Curran. These hints at Indian forms were swept quickly away with a balletic ronde jambe and the accumulating phrase material assembled and re-assembled in a display of his signature nimble rhythmic play. His Duet Event, danced with exacting precision by Dwayne Brown and Jin Ju Song-Begin, was generously referential to Cunningham with long clear lines and seemingly impossible bodily arrangements, but deliciously Curran in its warmth and playful sensuality. Brown and Song-Begin were a gorgeous pairing, slicing through the space with long limbs and then, finally, intermingling on the floor.

Dwayne Brown & Jin Ju Song-Begin in Sean Curran's "Duet Event" Photo by David Gonsier

Dwayne Brown & Jin Ju Song-Begin in Sean Curran’s “Duet Event” Photo by David Gonsier

Malini Srinivasan introduced her Bharatanatyam solo Pannagendra Sayana to the audience with a description of some of the component parts to the 8 raga dance, providing a key of sorts to the various mudras we would be seeing. She was so welcoming and thoughtful, I barely listened to her, but basked in her generous spirit and demystifying effort. And, of course, once she began dancing I was too enthralled by her simple and sophisticated shifting personae to recall any specific gestural translations. I felt present in the temple, feeling the rising curves of the West End Theater’s back walls while delighting in being close enough to watch the rapid changes in her drishti. I am a sucker for a good saachi. Srinivasan inhabits the multiplicity of the tale with ease and shifts between characters, between advances and retreats, entreaties and losses with a dexterity that is best served close. As a performer, she instills the work with a potency, filling the knowing smile and averted to focused gaze with a modern sensibility. Srinivasan dances for a lover, not her lord and in doing so levels the playing field in a subtle portrayal of female agency.

Malini Srinivasam Photo by Nicholas Burnham

Malini Srinivasam Photo by Nicholas Burnham

Daniel Holt’s Crusoe was a molten, coursing blend of supple, rippling, dirt smeared torso… He begins standing downstage and slowly, as the lights rise, so does his middle finger. His bicep is wrapped in gauze and there’s a sense of menace. He slowly begins rotating his torso and then his head and then arms and I’m reminded of a Gaga movement exercise and then the tension in his body and the proximity the West End Theater affords reminds me of a tiny, tight, hot Tokyo basement where a butoh dancer dripped sweat at my feet without barely moving. In this moment, I remember the joy of discovering someone new in the 1st floor of PS 122 or up in The Club at La Mama. Holt’s been performing in Times Square, but here in this tight space together I can see all the popping, twitching, krumping, house-y, release-y sparks and surges in minute, moment-to-moment detail as if he were caught in a zoetrope. The back and forth of hip hop tension and contemporary release is heady and then we hear waves crashing and he pulls himself up from the floor, crawling out of the sludge and flipping us the bird once more. Ah. Yes. Look how far we’ve come.

Crusoe (Reaching - Minimal)-1

On Sunday afternoon, it was Sara Hook in school-marm, rimmed glasses and a v-neck sweater vest and Paul Matteson in a polo shirt navigating imaginary opera houses and private drawing rooms in their duet Bored House Guests.  Both accomplished dancers, their pairing was finely wrought with technical prowess and wry sensibilities. From Nikolais to Bill T., these two hold serious dance pedigrees and it shows in their creative constructs as well as their kinesthetic sensibilities. Paul has long been one of my favorite dancers and to see him convulse, bound, reverse and dive roll is to revel in just how much capital-D-ance there is still in him even if he’s left us for the Happy Valley. And, Sara maintains the lithe suppleness of a somatic maestro while carrying all the authority of a capital-M-odern dance grand dame into her role as ballerina/hostess/house guest with unfailing deadpan and panache.

Sara Hook & Paul Matteson Photo by Jessica E. Stack

Sara Hook & Paul Matteson Photo by Jessica E. Stack

They’ve given the grand pas de deux quite the work over and I spend 1/2 of my time holding an imaginary Ann-Daly-like-Ballet-as-a-discourse-of-difference lecture to my Aesthetics students at Hunter College: Observe how Paul’s opening several minutes of dancing on demi-pointe explodes the precarious and precious expectations of the ballerina by situating it in the male body. Or attend to the repeated ways in which Paul is kneeling below Sara in a deconstructed version of a fairy queen and her gallant cavalier. Even better Here you see an example of postmodern commentary on the ostentatious showmanship of “the big lift” complete with shiny silver boots (perhaps a stand in for both pointe shoes – ridiculous footwear – and tutu – frivolous dressing) and an accompanying drum roll. Recall Ramsay Burt’s “Trouble with the male dancer” in your written response as you consider the choice of the dive roll and the silky tunic. Must the male dancer always display athletic prowess and the female dancer show her legs? How does the ambiance (silver chair, Jay Ryan’s shifting lighting, the champagne) set up a domestic landscape and potential commentary on the role of the bourgeoisie in establishing defined gender roles in the pas de deux?

Photo by Jessica E. Stack

Photo by Jessica E. Stack

Truly it could go on. After several weeks of introducing the gender troubles of representation and performance in various dance aesthetics, I do think I could power point my way through various illustrations of feminist concerns with classical ballet and how postmodern artists indeed have found ways to comment and counter all different kinds of normativity with this single work. I might have to start teaching to Bored House Guests, if Professors Hook and Matteson would oblige. Scholastic wranglings aside, it was a pleasure to ponder my through this very smart, and eventually sexy, reckoning of the many ways in which we all pander to one another.

Photo by Jessica E. Stack

Photo by Jessica E. Stack

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