Thursday, August 19, 2010

No Leader of the Pack


Everyone seems to have a take on Wonderland lately. That includes Andrea Miller and her Gallim Dance company, who appeared last week at the Joyce Theater to perform Miller’s powerful, witty, and terrifying work of that name. A dozen dancers in gray (imagine Victoria’s Secret washed to death) writhed, crawled, and romped together in a series of disturbing vignettes, during which one person frequently broke off to be different, albeit just as disturbing, for just a moment.

In the beginning, a few of the dancers pranced about the stage as horses, with the sound of a cheering audience and children laughing in the background. After loping and lolling about, they pranced off as another group emerged from the dark singing the "Mickey Mouse Club" theme song. M-I-C-K-E-Y…Why? I suspect it wasn’t for the usual reason.

The stage remained a dark place where the performers smiled, danced gregariously to jazz, and shook their heads outfitted with clumps of hair sticking out of skull caps – all kinda gothic you know, and like, pretty intense. Their dancing comprised shaking, writhing, and rolling – usually violently, but they were also usually cheerful and triumphant as they went about their circus life. Once a dancer shook vigorously and all the sweat rippled out in fierce droplets, and the woman next to me gasped. It was, yes, magnificent. We could have gasped all night. There was plenty else that was fascinating to react to. One dancer stepped on another’s palms-up hands as if they were stilts; a group formed a pyramid, which immediately crumbled. A dancer slid to the floor and lay there. Dead? Who can say? But it must have looked like fun because soon, one by one, they gleefully copied the death. Happy lemmings all. A performer lip synched to a song in a high register – it was eerie, like Joel Grey in Cabaret. A leg and foot served as a microphone, and the song, “Do you want to ride with my pack?” laid down the theme’s track with a force that made you need to look away, if only you could. They crawled toward us in the darkness, reached out, and conformed to the expectations of the music that kept changing for no reason, other than it changed – from Chopin (who didn’t make the program notes) to Black Dice and Joanne Newsome, among others.

As they moved on all fours around the stage, their stage being an exhausted one, I thought of the Donner Party, and that this exhausted, dark group would just give up and eat each other, and then most likely turn to us, with all smiles. At the end, one dancer fell like a wounded horse and struggled to get up as the pack cheered. The dancer pushed on, fell, rose again, and injured beyond remedy, struggled on.

Miller claims this disturbing, witty vision of pack mentality, was “deeply inspired” by an installation of artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s in Barcelona called Head On. The comparison between that artwork (easily found on the Internet) and Wonderland is to understand why Miller needs to point our attention to Head On in relation to her work. Cai’s work completes it. Head On shows 99 wolves charging and hitting into a glass wall. Cai describes it as “an installation that depicts certain types of collective behavior or collective heroism, tragic and brave.” After seeing Head On, Miller wanted to explore pack mentality in the human instinct. Of Cai, she added, “I felt like he did it in a way that was so powerful and simple. He was making a political commentary on [an]…historical moment where people fell into line, following leaders who were leading them astray.” That is Miller’s interpretation, and her understanding of such behavior shows little redemption, courage, or hope.

Wonderland is certainly a strong piece and one responds viscerally to the remarkable, muscled imagination that created it. It’s certainly darkly funny. Powerful yes, simple no. Miller’s response to a piece that had an immediately perceived beginning, middle, and end was to construct a forty minute piece where we only have the middle of the pack. We’re not sure how it started, and we know the ending may be bad – as Julie Jordan sings in Carousel – and we can’t get out of the middle and aren’t sure we want to. Was that the point of Miller’s Wonderland? Well, it made me think, and that’s good, except if we’re in the middle of the pack, do we want to think? Well, there’s a thought.

After Wonderland creeped off stage, Camille A. Brown’s company presented five short dances. It was unfortunate programming. Wonderland should precede our heading for the exits, but too late now. We saw an except from Brown’s New Second Line, a fast, happy, rubbery, energetic, and well done piece set against images of New Orleans folk enjoying a parade. I felt cheated not at seeing the whole piece; this was not enough, and I only understood what it was about after looking at the program notes. But the energy was wonderful. I enjoyed that the bodies in the company vary in size, just like real people. They are earthy and earthbound and human, with terrific energy. I liked Good and Grown, Brown’s well performed solo in torn jeans and t-shirt to a different version of "It Was a Very Good Year," its lyrics revised for a different sensibility and gender. Her movements were jagged, often slow and angular, at times sulky. As the song took her to later years, Brown showed luxurious balance and slower moves. The music arrangement became more rhythmic, but in either arrangement, she did not convey a comprehensive attitude – was she looking back? Forward? Or just dancing? The energy was also just fine and fun in Girls Verse 1, and in the sassy duet of Brown with Juel P. Lane in Been There, Done That, but I’ve seen City of Rain before in other modern dance companies: it’s yet another ensemble of dancers moving and rolling and stretching on the floor. Brown’s company showed us lots of vital, good dancing, but attitudes were out of focus, probably inevitable in a program of short pieces. Brown’s troupe is enormously interesting. I would love to see more.

Gallim Dance will appear at New York City Center’s Fall For Dance September 28-29.
Gallim Dance. Artistic Director: Andrea Miller. Wonderland. Choreography: Andrea Miller; Lighting design: Vincent Vigilante; Costume design: Jose Solis; Dancers: Paula Alonso, Billy Barry, Matthew Branham, Bret Easterling, Caroline Fermin, Andrew Murdock, Troy Ogilvie, Francesca Romo, Erin Shand, Dan Walczak, Jonathan Windham, and Arika Yamada.

Camille A. Brown & Dancers. Artistic Director: Camille A. Brown. Choreography: Camille A. Brown; Lighting Supervisor: Burke Wilmore, Philip Trevino. Dancers: Antonia Brown, Julia Eichten, Lisa Einstein, Belen Estrada, Jasmine Forest, Otis Donovan Herring, Juel D. Lane, Mate Natalio, David Norsworthy, Francine Elizabeth Ott, Mora-Amina Parker, DuJuan Smart Jr., Keon Thoulouis, and Clarice Young.

Writer/singer Mary Sheeran’s novel, Who Have the Power, an exploration of cultural conflict, feminism, and Native American history set on the American frontier, was published in 2006 ( Her next novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess, which unfolds during a gala performance of the New York City Ballet, will be published later this year. She has sung through several operas, cabarets, and song recitals in New York, including several performances of Songs From the Balanchine Repertory.

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