writers on dancing


Trial by Jury
Fresh Tracks
New Works by Rachel Bernsen, Chase Granoff/Jon Moniaci, Isabel Lewis/The Labor Union, Jessica Morgan, Paule Turner/Court, John Wyszniewski
Dance Theater Workshop
New York, NY
November 25. 2005

by Tom Phillips
copyright ©2005 by Tom Phillips

Ever since its founding 40 years ago, Dance Theater Workshop has been presenting an annual showcase of new choreographers.  This year, a jury of eight arts professionals auditioned some 60 artists to come up with a program of six new works.  The results indicate either (A.) young choreographic talent is in short supply, or (B.) Dance Theater Workshop’s aesthetic is getting old. My hunch is that the answer is (B.) based on the recurring sense during this evening that we’ve been here and seen this done better some time ago. Not everything was painful to watch, and the evening’s finale was by far its most inviting piece. But up to then, it was mostly reruns.         

Case in point: “Boredom with objects!” Two young men in jeans and sweatshirts  spend 20 minutes or so sitting and lying on the floor, fiddling around with a sound system.  According to their program bios these two fellows are members of a band in Brooklyn, and their piece does capture the isolated tedium of life in a recording studio. The problem is that boredom as a mental state doesn’t need another examination; it was plumbed to the depths of its shallows by Andy Warhol in the 1960’s, especially in his films. Watching Nico trim her bangs for half an hour in “Chelsea Girls” was a study in the beauty of banality. Watching these guys loll around is just unvarnished boredom. 

Boredom is at least preferable to torture, which was the dominant theme—and often the effect—of three other pieces. In “The Labor Union’s Dance Work 1,” two grim-looking women in green jump suits are tormented by a military-industrial complex consisting of two male musicians playing a cello and a guitar with a variety of machine tools. The sound was unmusical and literally painful, the worst ever inflicted on a set of ears that endured and enjoyed the loudest rock bands of the 60’s. The dancing was too mediocre to distract.   

A somewhat more interesting victim was Paule Turner, who introduced his piece by asking if this was the audition for the role of an “angry black gay performance artist.” He got the part, with a tour de force in which he stripped naked to his painfully pierced body, got shot by a white thug named God, then groveled on the floor performing fellatio on the pistol. It was painful to watch, but in large part because we’ve seen and heard this character so many times before.  

One more torture treatment was offered by John Wyszniewski, who emerged from a cardboard box with his torso and arms bound in shrink wrap, then read a letter supposedly from an international pen pal who was being tortured in some place like Abu Ghraib. Wyszniewki is an ingratiating fellow in the style of a standup comic, but not much of a dancer, and out of shape in any case.  His bio notes that he just happens to be the director of marketing for Dance Theater Workshop.  Jurors, mark your ballots. 

There were some modest rewards along with the punishment. Rachel Bernsen’s “Experiment in Progress” was a minimalist exercise in self-discovery, beginning and ending in silence and stillness.  Finally, Jessica Morgan’s “You Are Gone Goodbye” was a lyrical piece for four women who start out with contortions and sobs, but then discover each other. Near the end they form themselves into a people-pile that has the symmetry and strength of a fine abstract sculpture. At the end, they strip off their shirts and face rear, showing letters inked on their milky backs. They retreat slowly, weaving in and out like particles in an atom, so that the letters make different combinations. We read “Is it me” and then “Visit me” among the permutations, a tender ending to an evening that sorely needed one.

In its 40 years, Dance Theater Workshop has grown into a powerful and well-connected institution, now with its own headquarters, studio and theater, and a big staff including a team of heavy-duty fundraisers. It has the power to shape much of the new dance we’ll be seeing in the coming years.  Judging from the looks of things, it’s not in danger of financial collapse.  But it needs to watch out for other, more pernicious forms of bankruptcy. 

Volume 3, No. 44
November 28, 2005

copyright ©2005 Tom Phillips



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last updated on November 28, 2005