writers on dancing


A New Theatrical Medium

Loose Change
Cowell Theater, San Francisco
June 25, 2005

by Paul Parish
copyright ©2005 by Paul Parish

Every now and then a critic will have a real conflict of interest—one that doesn't involve money or influence but real interpenetration of fates, and sometimes it's a good thing to face the difficulties and write about it anyway. This is a case of that.

I've danced with some of these people myself—not on stage, but hip to thigh, cheek to cheek. Their sold-out shows this past weekend both got spontaneous ovations from the audience, so I don't think I'm in any danger of overestimating their appeal. What's harder is going to be finding a way not to betray either you or them.

Most dance companies come to the stage from ballet or modern-dance studios. Loose Change, however, started as social dancers: the core of the group were the most advanced Lindy-hoppers in San Francisco, the ones already incorporating hip-hop and salsa and pop-and-lock street moves into their dances. They got the hip-hop master Eric Fenn to work with them and formed a performing group and have developed a style. They've got the beginnings of a new medium—quite un-influenced by Rennie Harris (whose dancers are much more show-offs and isolated in their competitiveness).

Loose Change has a deep-cushioned, fluid-spined ease in making waves, which rolled on and on all night. It's like watching the tide come in. The questions the troupe raises—which are not disturbing questions, but hopeful ones—have to do with what they can DO with it, theatrically. Is this to be a spectator-sport, or more? Right off the bat, I'd say they have a choral medium. The most satisfying thing about the very satisfying evening was the surging group-mind in evidence all night. A couple of hours went by in no time.

"Quest" stars its principal choreographer, the afore-mentioned Eric Fenn, a charismatic hip-hop teacher at City Dance studios; the two-act performance is shaped (roughly) like a one-actor Greek tragedy. Fenn is the protagonist; "Quest" is (to quote the program note) "a modern day story of the hero's journey, inspired by the work of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung."

Others I asked seemed no better able than I to follow the story in detail, but nobody was expecting to. The theme DOES come through as a subtext. As one short scene succeeded another, the evening was built on a series of group dances, magnificently lit by Lisa Pinkham, that went from an opening prayer, facing the four primary directions, through many moods through a hellish stage to a kind of triumph, and ended where it began, with the same modest address to the cardinal points.

It was set to an evocative collage of music credited to no-one in particular but tossing up Ella Fitzgerald here and a poignant hip-hop anthem there and mostly consisting of a club mix of pulsing intricately subdivided beats. (I'd guess you might it call house-techno.)

Their heroic theme is remarkable, for there is no trace of portentousness, overweening, or pretentiousness in it. I think this is their primary debt to the African-American culture that hip-hop and Lindy hop both come from, and may be the clue as to why white American youth have taken it as their mode of musical thought, despite the obscenity and violence—for the main audience of hip-hop, there's no question that life will be dangerous, that the heroic mode is the only one that will bring you to any decent place. In the 30s, Lindy was a route to joy in a world of oppression, a dance with a galaxy of possibilities that made you happy when times were hard.

The dancers of Loose Change are almost all white or Asian, but not one of them shows any trace of "slacker" mentality; the heroic stance of the choreography is sincere and draws commitment from them, and a hip-hop song, "No-one knows what I go through," is taken up for its common humanity. That song's a rephrase of one of the great Negro spirituals in secular terms (it's famously included in Ailey's "Revelations"), and they dance it as if everybody in the audience will be familiar with the dehumanizing effects of modern life—the rat-race, the empty struggle to get ahead—and a longing for more.

The section of "Quest" most of the audience will probably remember best, mimes being dragged off the ladder of success. Suddenly there's ten people jammed into a space the size of an elevator (lit with a bright rectangular down-spot that just barely encloses them all) miming the harried wake-up rituals of modern wage-slaves. It's a brilliant set-piece, worthy of Charlie Moulton or Matthew Bourne, built of small arm gestures—checking the watch, brushing the teeth, washing the arm-pits, checking the watch, combing the hair, prestissimo. "I have measured out my life in coffee spoons," speeded up like a silent movie.

But the choreography yielded no lasting images; the real problem is, it does not reveal enough. Unlike the movement of Rennie Harris's group Puremovement (who performed the thrilling "Rome and Jules" here some years back, and members of the company turned later at a Lindy hop dance I went to after the show), Fenn's choreography does not open the body up large enough, or long enough, for an image to burn onto the retina and stay with you overnight. Harris may have a character move forward through grand plié in second position, transferring the weight from one foot to he other and wheeling 180 degrees before transferring weight onto the other and scything around again, zig-zagging across the stage.

Fenn's movement for the protagonist stays within a small scale of undulations for the hands, swivels in first position, snake-like undulations of the spine, and crab-like (capoiera-derived) tumbling and scrabbling very close to the ground. It certainly holds your interest from moment to moment without, however, ever opening up and building towards a moment of truth.

The problem parallels the difficulties that Contact Improv dancers have had, and (at a greater remove) with the problems faced by the Ballets Africains and the other great folkloric companies:
How do you get the spectators to identify their fates with yours? How do you organize the visual field, and direct the viewer's eye across it, so as to affect the empathy you've gained through your rhythms? How do you modulate your rhythm-medium, which works rather like a base radio signal, so that it carries a message that makes them feel something in particular?

Touch-dancing, a partner's imagination influences you with actual weight against your own body; dancers onstage must do this by engaging your imagination to make a kinesthetic identification so that at some deep level you're moving with them. Of course, the way they look can cast a spell, but unless they look beautiful in motion, not much will be gained by their moving at all. The deepest secrets of engaging the audience are matters of controversy, but certainly they involve ways of revealing things to the spectator. Aggripina Vaganova, who synthesized the great Russian technique, says explicitly that allegro solos are the epitome of stage dancing, "for they reveal the most." Many in the audience would object, that as for ballet, it is the grand adagios that reveal the most, since thighs opening 180 degrees, and the flow of adagio phrasing permits fluctuations of the most personal kind.But Vaganova did not consider the impact of a mass of dancers moving with a group mind to be primary. She is in fact discussing her own discovery of a way of teaching something which she could not master in her own dancing career, and of course she was working in a hierarchical system which gave pride of place to the ballerina. We may wonder if she really understood the power of Petipa's choral work - perhaps the ballerina's and soloists' dances were just a sop to our superegos to allow us to descend again into the oceanic unconscious identification with the massed dancing of the corps.

Social dancers can dissolve egos into the oceanic crowd on the dance floor. But the problem of fates remains: every time you ask someone to dance; you offer the hand, but will they accept it? Sometimes after a failed dance you wish you hadn't ventured, but it always helps if they like this song, for the music will be your common ground - that, and the common language of rhythms, holds, dips, kicks, spins, he-goes-she-goes-under-the-arch, and so on. It's like those conversations where you finish each other's sentences—in a good dance, you know how your partner feels as well as you do your own feelings. Without thinking how - you certainly can't stop to think—you know when it's happening that your partner likes the feeling, too. It is this intoxicating experience of intuiting the other person's sensations which causes leaders to learn the followers' moves, and vice versa, to heighten the connection even further next time. The mirroring sometimes builds as the song does (and if you're dancing to Ella Fitzgerald that can be a considerable build)—and it can lead you to go out dancing five nights a week, as a balletomane might go to the theater every night, and for pretty much the same reasons—to relive that mysterious feeling that you've been led through significant mazes by someone deeply versed in the mysteries.

The dancers who can take you there—well, it varies from person to person, on the floor and in the theater. When a social dancer knows he's outclassed, self-consciousness can keep you from really enjoying a dance with one of the A-list. At the opposite end of the spectrum, I sat in the theater and watched unmoved as many spectators around me were taken into some primal place by Lucia Lacarra; again, some of my friends could not understand the fountain of wit I found in the dancing of Elizabeth Loscavio.

Well, the difficulties a Lindy/funk/hip-hop based company will face resemble those of Contact improv dancers in another very big way - how do you take such inwardly-directed dancing and open it up, present it to onlookers.

"Contact" dancers typically tune inward to the proprioceptors. They dance commonly with a glazed expression, using a soft, unseeing focus that uses peripheral vision only, which many observers find annoying in the extreme. But what can make a great contact dance exciting to watch is the emotional changes that affect that glaze as the dancer responds to the rapid changes of balance as the dance evolves, the vertiginous falls that must get turned into lateral rolls by the sequencing process—most of all, it is the hormonal changes, the rushes of adrenaline as the dancer adjusts to rapidly emerging circumstances (rolling up onto a partner's shoulders, sliding down the back, falling like a cat, whatever). Since it's a dance truly in all three dimensions, upside down being one of the standard states and all-fours another, the weight transfers approach the limits of what's possible without added horsepower. Since the dancers are barefoot and covered in nothing more substantial than stretch jersey, they glow with heightened muscular sensuality.

But…. A) the dance obeys a very 60s etiquette, which many find off-putting, and B) the form eschews music, especially objecting to the compulsive power of the BEAT of music. This is the element the audience objects to the most—not having the music to share with the dancers.

Hip-hop dancers on the other hand are infatuated with the beat—they're too dependent on it.
At least for the large concert audience. That is changing as time goes on and hip-hoppers age and enter the spectating classes. The hip-hop festivals are thronged around here—as a high-school ball game would be. The African-American companies like Housing Authority (who float like butterflies, sting like bees and are my favorite) and New Style Motherlode (who do something more theatrical, with a burlesque-ish look to it) advertise through the grapevine and do not lack for audiences. HA has a following of musicians).

Loose Change is another order of being. It's ethnographic, the ancestry is more complicated. They're coming more from yoga and aiki-do and capoiera and Lindy hop than from funk and reggae and gangsta rap; they don't touch their crotches every fourth beat, but rather seem to idealize the idiom. At times it seems naïve, as if they've zoned into a medium that means more to them than it can. For there's a loss of personality in dancers whom I know to have amazing idiosyncratic imaginations that disturbs me when I watch them in this mode.

I know that I have seen adepts at both Lindy hop and contact improv dance with a surge of ideas, happy notions that erupted and surprised the dancers who had them, so they were overtaken by their own brilliance while we were watching phrases that had an electrifying immediacy I've rarely seen on the stage. The closest thing to it comes in the dancing of the Nicholas Brothers, Suzanne Farrell, Fred Astaire, Alexandra Danilova, performers who so valued spontaneity that they made their dances look as if they'd made them up on the spot.

Loose Change began by incorporating hip-hop, break-dancing, and other African-diaspora moves into their highly-evolved Savoy style Lindy. I remember watching in awe as Owen Donnelly ran some pop-and-lock moves out his shoulder, down his arm, through the hand of his incomparable partner Claudine Co, which went up her arm through her spine and out into the little finger of the other hand, around midnight on a dance floor in downtown SF back in 1998. I have to say, I have clearer memories of that dance (which I watched as a wallflower) than I do of anything that happened in the staged show last night. And thereby hangs a tale: the spontaneity that gets lost when any improvised dance form gets mined, carved up, rehearsed, and presented to the public is the hardest value to get back—but without it, well, it has all the life taken out of it.

Improvisation does not receive its due from dance critics today. "O that's just improvising" is an easy put-down, as if set choreography were intrinsically a better thing. I don't agree with this. In their day Bach, Beethoven, Mozart were valued as much for their improvisations as for their set compositions—and we'd feel the same today, I'm convinced, if we could hear those domes being built in air. It's our loss, of course, that we don't have them, but I'm unpersuadeable that they weren't as valuable as, and perhaps even more exciting than anything that was recorded and has come down to us. The play of mind wit, imagination, and emotion as idea yielded to idea, and new ones rose to challenge those already present, must have been electrifying.

I think this modern prejudice is tied to the facts of mechanical reproduction; as the possibilities of recording multiply through technological "advances," the possibilities of spreading an artist's fame increase exponentially, and as fame drives out all other forms of immortality, measures of ultimate value tend to fall in line with what most people have heard of or can experience for themselves. But the single unrepeatable act of the imagination is itself the great thing; if there's a record of it, well, that's better than nothing, a whole lot better than nothing, but still, it's only a shadow of a shadow. As Plato said so long ago of the art of writing, it is NOT an aid to memory, but to forgetfulness. "Most ingenious Theuth [inventor of letters], you have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are in fact for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear to be wise."

I never saw Elliott Donnelly on that stage dance with the truly freakish ideas that pour from him regularly on the dance floor, where his imagination rivals Robin Williams's or Jonathan Winter's. He's nearly six-foot-six, so you can't miss him anywhere, but his neck looked frozen and locked in "Quest," whereas I remember him dancing like a wild man to "Bad Moon Rising"—like a skeleton slapping his knees—on a Halloween night some years ago, winning the dance-off hands-down. He was completely inspired by the music—I believe his partner was Claudine Co. Whoever it was was unafraid, completely with him, and dancing at his level. By the end of it, we were all in awe.

The dancers' names are Stephen Barlow, Sarah Bieber, Heide Cannon, Claudine CO, Rye Crowen, Elliott Donnelly, Mark Gonzales, Josh Hoover, Sterling Larrimore, Sandy lee, Nora McMahon, Laura Mans, Jeanine Walters; David Graybill swelled the ranks of a lindy-hop scene, and Catrine Ljunggren added a tap solo. Loose Change is co-directed by Elliott and Owen Donnelly, and Eric Fenn, who are co-founders of the company, along with Jason Christodoulou. Choreographers are Owen Donnelly and Eric Fenn.

"I see the bad moon arising.
I see trouble on the way.
I see earthquakes and lightnin'.
I see bad times today.

Don't go around tonight,
Well, it's bound to take your life,
There's a bad moon on the rise.

I hear hurricanes ablowing.
I know the end is coming soon.
I fear rivers over flowing.
I hear the voice of rage and ruin.

All right!

Hope you got your things together.
Hope you are quite prepared to die.
Looks like we're in for nasty weather.
One eye is taken for an eye.

--Creedence Clearwater Revival

Volume 3, No. 26
July 4, 2005

copyright ©2005 Paul Parish



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last updated on July 4, 2005