Saturday, February 19
Friday, February 18
Reader Comment: Friday 18 February 2005: Juicy Point B: Maureen Whiting Company at On the Boards
Joe Boling, theater chronicler
I was wondering how Ms. Whiting was going to integrate a very disparate group of performers such as retired PNB principal dancer Julie Tobiason; local theatrical producer, director, and actor Frances Hearn; singers Grace Hearn and Pamela Tobiason; designer Etta Lilienthal; and three other modern dancers.
The piece is marvelous. The dancers mostly work individually around the house, and it's hard to decide whom to watch. Once in a while the piece gets dull, but mostly it is anything but, and the checkmark-earning pas de deux between Kory Perigo and Laurentia Barbu about forty-five minutes in is the most complex series of linked actions I have ever seen - breathtaking.
The other dancers are Whiting herself (she maintains a low profile, letting the others have their solos and duets) and Tamin Totzke. Additional checkmarks to Frances Hearn and to Whiting as choreographer and director. Unfortunately, the show will be closed before my weekly post goes up.
Thursday, February 17
Ballet Dancers Do It Better
Following please find a list of what happens in the most boring ten minutes of Maureen Whiting's new dance theatre work, Juicy Point B: A torch singer belts out a blues song a capella, a pixie-faced girl with a boy's haircut helicopters her arms in a lime green tutu, a man scoots his impeccably white-clad body lengthwise along the floor, two women wearing fishnet stockings slap their thighs, and a middle aged blonde in a lemon yellow sequined jump-suit asks the audience if we're ready to fuck.
And if that is the most boring part, you may rightly ask, what happens in the rest of the piece? Political leaders are burned in effigy? Ping-pong balls are launched from unmentionable orifices?
Dancing. Dancing happens.
It's not surprising, really, seeing as this piece was choreographed not only for the talented original members of the Maureen Whiting Company, but also for recent addition Julie Tobiason, former principal dancer for Pacific Northwest Ballet.
That's right, folks. (Drum roll, please.) A ballerina has entered the building.
But for a while, as the piece barreled noisily onward, nothing happened. Dressed in a black wrap skirt, the dancer's equivalent of the proletariat coverall, Tobiason worked uncomfortably hard to blend in. Her movements were subdued, almost apologetic, as she played her small part in a three-ring circus of simultaneously performed actions.
But a dance company is not a democracy. And Tobiason, reticent as her movements were, still looked like a jaguar in a room full of house cats. Even though her gloriously trained body moved almost listlessly, even though many other, more interesting, things were happening on stage, I still felt compelled to watch. Call it the Jessica Simpson syndrome. Tobiason very quickly became a distraction from the choreography as a whole. When she exited after a while, stage left, I was almost relieved.
Annoyed, and a little bored, I settled back in my chair. The lights came down and the remaining performers moved towards the middle of the stage. A haunting, disembodied voice came out of nowhere and curled like smoke over the place. The voice sang wordlessly, and the dancers moved simply, and behind a scrim of plastic sheeting the pixie-faced girl walked slowly in her punk-rock tutu. All was soft, and blue, and the girl walking behind the plastic under the crayon colored lights looked suddenly like a tutu-clad dancer in a painting by Degas.
It was magical, one of those rare and beautiful moments of pure theatre.
Then, she came back, Julie Tobiason, and I was prepared to be annoyed and distracted again. But this time she stepped into center stage. This time she was alone under the spotlight. She drew her tiny frame taut, and the music came down, and bam! She was really dancing! In moments it became clear that what I had witnessed before was an extreme case of under-achievement. To a blaring soundtrack of thudding heavy metal music, Tobiason cork-screwed and dived, stopped dead still, then leapt forward, her body crackling with an extraordinary voltage that more than matched the thunderous guitars.
I'm going to go out on a limb here. Ballet dancers do it better. Now, before you send metaphorical stones whistling through cyber-space, hear me out. Modern dance is the movement frontier. It is a fearless, fabulous, medium that refuses to be pigeon-holed or stereotyped, but the very qualities that make it great limit the nitty-gritty technical prowess of the dancers that study it. Most modern dancers simply don't have the benefit of a lifetime of orthodox ballet training---a regime that is archaic, cruel, stiff as a strait-jacket, and undeniably effective. All questions of beauty aside, ballet teaches a dancer how to move very quickly and gracefully in any direction, including straight up. So, although modern dance isn't always about "pretty," it's undeniably about movement.
Whiting's blend of traditional ballet-based steps and her own brand of totally unique physical hieroglyphics is always interesting, but this is your chance to see it executed with passion by a world-class performer.
Listen, I could go on, but I don't want to spoil it for you. You should see this performance for yourself.
The singing is amazing, the theater is intriguing, and Tobiason's solo has to be seen to be believed. True, the beginning is difficult, the piece has its banal moments (like the Norah Jones songs), and not everything that Whiting tries, works. But all in all, Whiting has rejected a more conventional and polished style in favor of a kaleidoscopic world of astonishing variety and brave humor. It is a place where extraordinary things can happen. Juicy Point B will make you feel alive in a marvelous way.
With "Juicy Point B", Maureen Whiting is incoherent to an aggressive degree, pushing a lack of consistent style to the point of consistently flouting the very idea of "style" as anything that matters. It's most obvious in her choices of music, which range from a cappella blues to classical to trip-hop to speed metal to spaghetti Wester/surf to Japanese something or other---sometimes two or more styles will be playing at the same time. The action of "Juicy Point B" is utterly decentralized; there's no indication of where you should be looking at any given moment; even when only one person is dancing, there's little sense that he/she is the center of attention. When the dancers seem to be interacting with or to the music, it feels accidental and untrustworthy. There are stretches of what is conventionally called dance, but there's no reason to experience them any differently from the stuff that isn't conventionally called dance.
Now, none of this is good or bad. And while it seems inappropriate to call such willful chaos cohesive, it is certainly thorough and deliberate, and you can, even on a single viewing, see that certain transitions are executed with a great deal of skill. The very unfocusedness of it can be enjoyable; there's a something relaxing about watching someone walking very slowly behind a translucent sheet of plastic while a variety of other activities are going on in front of it---Whiting is perhaps giving you permission to create your own narrative out of the disparate elements she has to offer. My own story of what I saw that night would include the way she and other dancers manipulated their joints with their fingers, as if they were simultaneously children playing with articulated dolls and the dolls themselves; as a dancer moved in a field of blue light glaring down from straight overhead, the shadow of her tutu on the floor was as spiny and delicate as some undersea plant; while the entire ensemble was dancing in unison (for the first time? hard to say), a sprinkler started up in the box of grass and flowers in the upstage corner. And Etta Lilienthal's set radically transformed On the Board's stage in the most stimulating way.
You've got to be in the right mood for this kind of art, because this art is not going to assert its reality over yours and immerse you in its experience. I have a friend who is annoyed by movies like David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive" that ask him to draw his own conclusions, because he feels that's the artist's job: To shape a vicarious experience in such a way that you're shaken out of your usual ways of ordering the world. "Juicy Point B" would irritate my friend immensely. If you're similarly inclined, I wouldn't recommend it.
Some nearly random jottings about what struck me as a nearly random piece.
As one enters, a sheet of translucent plastic forms a catenary in front of nearly the entire stage, the bottom practically touching the front row of seats.
It is clearly too fragile and at too reckless an angle for someone to skateboard down it, but also too opaque for the performance to occur entirely behind it.
The dancers come on and take their places against the side walls, which are covered in a similar material. Silence. A projection of greatly magnified streams of water runs down the plastic, which suddenly falls away, revealing an almost bare, dazzlingly lit open stage, on which a rather glittery woman performs Janis Joplin's "Mercedes Benz" as the dancers slowly begin to move.
Neither their costumes nor their movement cohere in the manner traditionally expected of dancers in a single company or a in single work. The dancer's costumes range from austere black (albeit with fishnet stockings), to 1970s chic, to tutus. At first the dancers seem dwarfed by the scale of the stage:
early on, they stay mostly near the edges of OTB's large stage, and there are few large movements until much further into the piece. The set consists of a nearly bare box of plastic sheets like the one that has dropped away on the audience side, on each of which shadows often loom large; occasionally blue or purple light is used from behind these, and one of the dancers spends considerable time partly visible behind the rear sheet, perhaps interacting with the other dancers' shadows, or perhaps not. For no terribly apparent reason, there is a flower garden upstage right.
The movement vocabulary and the musical vocabulary are enormous. Other than the minimalist set design, it is hard to believe that Maureen Whiting left out of this any choreographic ideas that crossed her mind. Classical ballet gestures (many of them performed with apparent irony), now-classic mid-century modern dance, tango via Broadway, Broadway proper, mime, just plain stage business, martial arts, insect and dog movements, spastic movements, clownish acrobatics, and maybe a bit of the movement vocabulary of the World Wrestling Federation (or whatever it is that we are supposed to call them now that the World Wildlife foundation successfully sued them over using the name WWF). The music (some of it live, some of it recorded) is equally eclectic: besides Joplin, the live songs include The Temptations' "Losing You", the gospel song "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" and one verse of what I believe was either an Aerosmith or a Led Zeppelin song that I should be able to name but can't.
The recorded music veered even more widely, from classical to heavy metal to Bollywood, and all points in between, sometimes shifting radically from one moment to the next, or even overlapping. And then there were a few snatches of dialogue from melodrama, and some near-nonsense phrases.
There is a lot going on, and there seem to be some themes about people treating each other badly, and in places there is some very good dancing, and even snatches of excellent choreography, but what does it all have to do with itself?
The incoherence was not just from moment to moment, but from different parts of the stage at the same time. At times, it seemed like several dancers improvising on the same stage, and then two dancers would do some very precise, identical movements, reminding one again that this was a choreographed piece. It was a bit like leafing randomly through an anthology. "Help us," said one of the dancers to the audience at one point, "you're are only hope." I thought to myself, "I hope not, because if so, all is lost."
Some of this seemed like an impossibly proficiently performed student piece: the array of talent on the stage was clearly large, but I was still reminded at times of David Sedaris's story about the period in which he did a lot of amphetamines and called himself a performance artist. My companion of the evening said she was mostly bored, but occasionally entertained. I wasn't bored, though I was confused. I found plenty to watch and to listen to, but in a short-attention-span sort of way: there wasn't really much on, but as long as someone kept changing the channel, it would hold my attention for the necessary few seconds. I'm not sure my brain found much to chew on here, but there was some interesting candy.
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