Big Dance Theater
"The Other Here"
Doris Duke Studio Theatre
Jacob's Pillow, MA
July 14, 2007

by Lisa Rinehart
copyright © 2007 by Lisa Rinehart

Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson are storytellers with a fondness for irony and a sharp eye for imagery. Their collaborative group, Big Dance Theater, has tackled with zeal the likes of Flaubert, Twain, the Bible, and Tanizaki, creating movement theater saturated in beauty, humor and soul. Their latest effort, "The Other Here," a co-commission by the Japan Society in New York and the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, is no exception. Lazar and Parson interlace modern fables by Japanese writer Masuji Ibuse with traditional Okinawan dance, Japanese pop music, and the pseudo mysticism of a contemporary insurance sales conference. Dance theater and a sales conference? Yes indeed. Lazar and Parson morph one of Ibuse's protagonists into a hawker of life insurance and, taking inspiration from the transcripts of an annual gathering of top life insurance salesmen, probe the hokey underbelly of corporate financed motivational speaking. These are strange bedfellows, but Ibuse's tales of a master's maltreatment of a lazy servant ("Life at Mr. Tange's"), and a friend's guilt over the stewardship of a valued carp ("The Carp"), somehow parallel the irony of pumping up insurance salesmen to sell policies to the unwitting. Lazar and Parson use the prodigious talents of their company, and almost every performing art there is, to make an engaging East meets West riff on mortality.

Critical to the success of "The Other Here" is Takeshi Kata's mutable set, Claudia Stephens' clever western takes on the ukata and kimono, and Jennifer Tipton's delicate lighting design. Each element contributes to what feels like an early 20th Century Japanese silk screen designed for export to the west. Kata uses two long, low tables evocative of the raised floors of Japanese pavilions, but wheels allow the performers to move the tables like hovering tatami stages for dancing, singing and speaking. Kata transforms standing microphones into high tech ikebana by attaching sprays of seasonal leaves and flowers that Tipton highlights in soft, clear light like museum displays. At one point, white painted reed mats descend at the back of the theater, and a ghostly white carp floats by with mysterious calm.

If these images sound as peaceful as a zen rock garden, don't be deceived. Lazar and Parson know how to throw the sand around. The performers enter in a line at the front of the stage, remove their shoes and step into the performing space as though entering a traditional Japanese house, then break into a hip hop tinged dance to the pop sounds of Shoukichi Kina and Rinken. That's just the beginning of the shake up. The company: Jess Barbagallo, Lazar, Molly Hickok, Jennie MaryTai Liu, Chris Giarmo and Heather Christian are required to act, sing, dance, play musical instruments, move scenery, create visual effects with petals and fans, and take questions from the audience. Christian, as a lonely widow, delivers impassioned renditions of what I assume are Japanese torch songs, and these moments alone are worth the price of admission. Barbagallo is relaxed and droll as the Narrator/Emcee endeavoring to show us the spiritual side of insurance sales. She breathes earnestly into the microphone what I can only assume to be a direct quote from the transcripts, "There is so much magic in what we do."

The only weakness of "The Other Here," is the power of one of its strengths. The danced sections choreographed by Parson are so concise that the tenuous correlation between Ibuse's stories and the wonders of the insurance business starts to feel hazy. Consequently, when Barbagallo asks for the lights up on the audience for a second chat on the tao of insurance, one wants to truncate the talk in favor of more dancing. "The Other Here," however, is a fascinating theatrical experience and a delight to watch. The Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival is to be commended for supporting and presenting this unique group of artists (Lazar and Parson have been awarded the first annual Jacob's Pillow Award for Creativity), and one waits in eager anticipation of Big Dance Theater's next offering.

Top: Heather Christian and Jennie Liu in "The Other Here." Photo by Stan Barouh.
Bottom: Heather Christian in "The Other Here." Photo by Stan Barouh.

Volume 5, No. 28
July 16, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Lisa Rinehart

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