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Hot off the boards….

josephine barbican 3Aki Tsujita in Darren Johnston’s “Zero Point.” Foteini Christofilopoulou photograph courtesy the Barbican.

LONDON — The muffled, thudding beat of Tim Hecker’s ambient sound score reverberates through our bodies — it’s like the noise you might hear waiting outside a cool nightclub. The dazzling bank of lights rotates towards the audience, blinding us before diminishing and plunging both stage and auditorium into darkness. Smoke fills the stage and laser lights shine down on it from above to create giant cones of mist. This is the hypnotically dramatic opening to Darren Johnston’s “Zero Point,” seen at the Barbican on May 26. A male dancer emerges from the claustrophobic gloom upstage and walks meditatively into one of the cones, fluidly progressing through a series of sculptural poses, working within the confines of the translucent edges. He leaves as two women emerge and take up position in the other two cones. In slow motion they sink to the ground then rise up again, turning, then repeat these motions, their mouths gaping open like gargoyles from an ancient civilization. Their physical language mixes Butoh, contemporary and Eastern ritualistic dance. It’s strong and grounded.

British choreographer and visual artist Johnston works with perception-altering visual and aural effects in “Zero Point,” which takes its name from Quantum Physics’s notion of ‘trapped’ space. Video projections, motion sensing digital technology, and trancey music transform the stage into another galaxy while lighting effects unzip the darkened stage into geometric sections for the dancers to perform in. Even time seems to be momentarily suspended.

“Zero Point” is a work that has been inspired by Johnston’s residency at the Museum of Art in Kochi, Japan. His cast of nine Japanese dancers who collectively draw from a range of disciplines including ballet, contemporary, Butoh, and Qigong are alumni of Tokyo’s New National Ballet, Sankai Juku, Netherlands Dance Theatre, and the Forsythe Company. The mixture of styles is performed with a contemplative quality and presence that is inspired by Buddhism and sacred Japanese ceremonial spaces. Movement flows in repeated cycles, with frozen poses pausing the tempo and the performers embodying a theatrical neutrality and modesty. Energy is contained and protracted through their bodies. There’s a welcome stillness and an aura of calm about them but also a lack of humanity. Sitting in the auditorium, I feel distanced from the performers and yearn for a fuller immersive experience.

Loose narratives of re-birth are played out through duets between Yatsutake Shimaji and ballerina Hana Sakai. He carries her onstage then makes her come to life, his hands hovering over her body, commanding her actions as if she’s his puppet. She ascends from the floor and extends to her full height on pointe, before gliding towards him as if under his spell. In their partnering Sakai and Shimaji create imaginative tableaux, but the use of balletic lines, while visually striking in the fractured light, lacks the earthy connection that is seen in the shapes of the contemporary and Butoh dancers. The demanding, ambitious Western associations of ballet jar awkwardly with the selfless Eastern spiritualism of the work as a whole. This balletic duet is also annoyingly patriarchal and while the other women move as equals to the men, with their freer expressions, Sakai does not, restrained by both her partner and her discipline.

While “Zero Point” is a reflective and inventive work which can easily seduce, choreographic ideas feel somewhat undercooked.

Museum dance from a Gauguin muse

gauguin chicago smallAmong the work on view for the exhibition Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist, opening June 25 at the Art Institute of Chicago, where it continues through September 10, is (above) the artist’s oil painting “Te nave nave fenua” (Delightful Land), circa 1892. Musée de Grenoble, bequest of Agutte-Sembat, 1923. Copyright Musée de Grenoble and courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.

The DI, Year 1: Tantra Tarantula? Pilobolus’s Misogynist Spidey Sense

By Byron Woods
Copyright 2000 Byron Woods

(First published on June 17, 2000. Today’s re-post of the complete article is sponsored by Nutmeg Conservatory Ballet, Freespace Dance, and Slippery Rock University Dance.)

DURHAM, NC — It’s not the first time that spiders have wound up in a dance. The tarantella, that literal Italian dance craze of the 15th century, originated from a belief that its moves cured the venomous bite of the tarantula. Nineteenth-century heartthrob Lola Montez achieved notoriety through her signature “Spider Dance,” while Leo Staats’s “The Spider’s Feast” won Parisian hearts in 1913.

But “Tantra Aranea,” Robby Barnett and Jonathan Wolken’s erotically charged new duet for Pilobolus Dance Theater, uses the mating behaviors of orb-weaving spiders as the unlikely lens for revisioning elements of Hindu spiritual practice and Japanese mythology.

Stay with us here. In this new American Dance Festival commission, which premiered in North Carolina on Thursday night at Page Auditorium, Pilobolus once again looks to the natural realm for insights on the human condition. Of course, there’s nothing remotely new in that: Over the centuries, agenda-laden readings of the natural world have been used to justify a number of curious institutions.

But it is telling — and disappointing — that where the original Hindu chroniclers of Shiva and Shakti’s greatest hits envisioned transcendence through sexual union in the Kama Sutra, Barnett and Wolken’s arachnophilic take on that text ultimately finds one thing: the very high price of satisfaction.

That is, if you’re a guy.

“Tantra Aranea” invokes that tired canard, the monstrous feminine, in a world where men can’t trust women or sexuality. Why? Because maneaters only decloset after orgasm.

How useful. And how very original.

The result negates the Indian sacred text, in what at points seems an unintentional exploration of male erotophobia.

Though both Angelina Avallone’s costume for dancer Josie Coyoc and the initial moments of Anwar Brahim’s guitar accompaniment seem almost Castillian, the physical dialects here soon place matters in the sub-continent.

The gracefully beckoning hand gestures in Matt Kent’s initial entreaties to Coyoc seem directly taken from sacred Indian paintings of the idealized god and lover, Krishna. The resulting love-play of the two is tantric and sexually frank; a vivid, libidinous, steamy celebration of heterosexual pursuit, capture and imaginative physical recombinations.

But the briefest of fates awaits the male after sexual union in the spider world. Here it’s not Shakti the consort who mates with the love god — it’s Kali, the destroyer, who is rarely met without cost.

Kent and Coyoc arouse us, first with playfulness and then with passion, as Barnett and Wolken give the pleasures of the flesh their full moment in arresting choreography.

But Nirvana’s price is steep in this natural — but less than perfect — world. And the endgame of “Tantra Aranea” leaves entirely open the question of its worth — along with the choreographers’ attitudes towards women.

We’ll warrant that the recombination of Hindu myth with amateur arachnology is novel enough. But the end result here — soft-core porn, tastefully served, with a misogynous twist — is really anything but.

Byron Woods is a dance and theater critic and correspondent for the Raleigh (NC) News & Observer. He has previously written for Backstage, InTheater, and CitySearch.com.

The DI, Year 1: Viennese dances for the people

By Tara Zahra
Copyright 2000, 2017 Tara Zahra

VIENNA — “Volksoper” translates literally into “people’s opera,” and it was a good deal of fun to discover Tuesday night at the Volksoper Wien that the Viennese Volksoper is supporting dance for the people as well. “Sintflut,” which premiered Friday here, was an evening-length modern dance production based on the story of Noah’s Ark. The piece has the potential to reach out to even the most resistant audience, and to make children beg for dance lessons. Of course, I have been told that in Europe “outreach” is not a part of the vocabulary for dance companies, for whom an audience is a given. But Vienna is a city known for its music and not its dance, so it was a pleasure to see a new work from a Viennese choreographer which brought in a respectable crowd on a Tuesday night. (The practice of selling tickets at half price to students, military, and the unemployed an hour before curtain time must help.)

To get the rest of the article, first published on June 22, 2000, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) and receive full access to our Dance Insider Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1999 through 2015. Just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to find out about payment by check or in Euros. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $99 (institutions) Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com .

The DI, Year One: Dance Theater that dreams are made of from Needcompany, Ballet Frankfurt, and James Joyce

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

PARIS — The main reason I love dance is its ability to dream, and to help me dream. It dreams every time a dancer leaps for the sky, and everytime she contracts her abdomen. It dreams when a lover instinctively clutches a partner and when the partner instinctively falls into the lover’s arms and is caught. It lives from image to image, with the flow of a dream; nothing seems pre-meditated, everything seems instinctual. As in a dream, the connections aren’t always logical, or even readily decipherable. But also like a dream, the images convey a tangible, not always describable, feeling. With “DeaDDogsDon’tDance,” which sold out three performances this weekend at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt here, Needcompany and Ballet Frankfurt have upped the anti, creating a danced play that presents as totally unpremeditated. This is as rough and raw as it gets, folks — the stuff that dreams, and nightmares, are made of.

To receive the rest of the article, first published on November 6, 2000, subscribers can contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) and receive full access to our Dance Insider Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015, plus five years of the Jill Johnston Letter. Just designate your PayPal payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to find out about payment by check or in Euros. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $129 (institutions) Purchase by May 31, 2017 and receive a second, free copy for the recipient of your choice. Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com .

Post-modern fracas

heronScott Heron (prostrate on floor) with Hijack’s Arwen Wilder (left) and Kristin Van Loon in “Smithsoniansmith.” William P. Starr photo courtesy Scott Heron.

Copyright 2010, 2017 Gus Solomons jr

NEW YORK — Some art defies explanation and some doesn’t require any. Scott Heron, a notable New York performance artist, who now calls New Orleans home, and Hijack (Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder), a couple of post-modern movers and shakers from Minneapolis, met in Russia in 2002 and made a short dance, titled “3 minutes of Pork and Shoving.” The trio’s latest collaboration, “Smithsoniansmith,” the result of eight years of “many trips up and down the Mississippi River” –presented July 29-31 and August 5-7 at Dixon Place’s spacious new digs — seems like a compilation of these collaborative efforts. The hour-long collage opens with the above dance; a subtly stirring pile of denim clothing holds one side of the space (with Wilder hidden inside) and opposite, Van Loon seasons and marinates Heron, who’s naked, lying on a table — pants around his knees, keeping his nuts and berries covered with baseball mitts, and sporting a glove on one foot — and puts him on a spit like a pig for roasting, as stage smoke billows from an offstage “barbecue pit.”

To get the rest of the article, first published on August 10, 2010, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) and receive full access to our Dance Insider Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015. Just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to find out about payment by check. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $99 (institutions) Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com .