Company: Reviews: 2009: Jim Rutter

Civilization's trappings, stripped bare

by Jim Rutter for The Broad Street Review
May 7th, 2009
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Jeanne Ruddy Dance closed its ninth season with two exciting world premieres: Ruddy's elegant Lark and Martha Clarke's nightmarish Sandman. To call the evening Juxtapose marked the cultural understatement of the season.

As lights slowly revealed the opening moments of Lark, Ruddy's dancers stood still on the stage, their measured breathing winding them up like springs. They burst forth, pirouettes turning into a wave, their hands flourishing in gestures of a courtship dance. The women flirted, flipping up their silk-ribboned vinyl skirts behind them as they pranced to a new position and new partner; and while two couples moved in tandem at center, Thayne Alexandra Dibble stared outward, seducing the audience.

Ellen Fishman-Johnson played with repeated passages from Haydn's String Quartet No. 5 in D major (the "Lark" Quartet), updating it with keyboard and electric violin that suited the choreography.

The first of four movements looked clean and elegant; the long vertical lines of the dancers' outstretched bodies lent a feeling of spring to this springtime work.

In the second movement, Rick Callender entered alone, stalking the stage with a forlorn expression before spinning down to roll backward onto his shoulders and pause with his legs fully split, as if expressing a tear in his soul. Janet Pilla appeared, following Callender's movements until he held her aloft and upside down against the vertical line of his body for a moment, before lowering her to the ground, where they cradled and re-cradled each other in bliss. A darker tone pervaded this segment, but unlike Ruddy's Obsessions last season, no rancor marred the soft courting; instead the movements express a purity, with arms folding and unfolding skyward.

Cause for confusion

Unlike her earlier pieces, here Ruddy abandoned storytelling or political issues, and consequently her work stuttered and wandered (even if it didn't falter). As Fishman-Johnson adapted a jazzy orchestration, Lark's third movement engendered a dissonance that breaks the mood entirely. Ian Dodge sashayed back and forth across the stage with his hands on his hips, and Dibble dipped forward to shimmy her shoulders. Jeffrey Wirsing's costumes confused as well; he replaced the men's vinyl tops and long pants, as well as the women's skirts, for matte gray shorts and clingy sleeveless tops, and little here suggested a longing to connect.

Though Ruddy returned to the clean, long lines and decorous gestures and infused potent imagery in Movement Four, in a moment before she re-established and solidified her soft and elegant original mood, she gave me pause to wonder: Why set a piece about coupling on an odd number of dancers?

Grotesque images

At intermission, the attendants ushered the audience out of the performance space. When we returned, the grandeur of Haydn and spectacular elegance of Ruddy's Lark quickly retreated from memory, replaced by a grotesque panorama inspired by photographs of Diane Arbus, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, and Helen Levitt. This was our introduction to Martha Clarke's Sandman.

Callender squatted on the stage, chalking mocking images on the floor, donning a paper bag punctured with two eyeholes and a tattered, draping hospital gown (that more resembled a straitjacket come loose). Dodge wore a painted white plaster mask with the reddened lips and eyes of a clown and the hideous expression of a gargoyle, and advanced menacingly on Christine Taylor as she scurried behind the stage.

The rest of the evening blended the disturbing and the erotic, and throughout, I couldn't tell if I was looking in on some primeval Eden or a Bellevue. Dibble writhed in ecstasy across the floor, her shirt hiked up to mid-chest. Arching her back until her head rested almost perpendicular to the stage, she leered at the audience before rolling onto her stomach to repeat the motion. Meredith Riley Stewart entered zombie-like, hair and arms hanging down her sides, eyes first on the ground then thrown up to the sky. Later, with her back turned to the audience, she placed oversized fingers on her hands to caress herself underneath her hospital gown. The tips of leathery nails groped at her back, twisting the child's game of an imaginary lover into something gross and unbearable.

Dance hall as mental ward

Arthur Solari's sound design blended the noise of cars peeling away, as well as muttered thoughts I thought I heard speeches of President Bush speaking and eerie syllabic chanting against a tableau of syncopated beats. Callender strangled Dibble to the chime of a church bell. The dance hall devolved into a mental ward.

As sparrows chirped, Dodge emerged, wearing a feathered mask (and little else), and Callender lured new victims with origami birds dangled from a reed, choking or raping them afterward. Taylor perched on a chair, then scraped feathers into a nest at the front of the stage with the leathery talons fitted to her feet.

Dodge reemerged with the paper bag mask and reeds held aloft like antennae to the chirping of crickets; like a lion tamer, Callender fended him off with a stool. As the other inmates writhed in terror, the pair beat each other about their paper bag covered heads. Someone in the crowd laughed, I couldn't imagine a more or less proper response to horror.

Some laughed, some applauded

But instead of coating the audience with blood, this Grand Guignol of choreography tore emotional rivulets from the hearts lodged in the throats of the audience. Some people laughed intermittently, some clapped at the ending. I don't know how anyone ventured out into the world after seeing the luscious, moving nightmare that Clarke created on stage.

I needed a cigarette. Seeing humans in this state primal, lobotomized, violent, damaged, and yet full of childlike inspiration, adult longing, and a need to understand, all without a trace of Clarke's pity instilled into the piece tapped into a buried part of the psyche on which civilization builds layers of boundaries. With a menacing force, Clarke sprung them all loose in an instant.