writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Lightbulbs and Picket Fences

The Lightbulb Theory/Impending Joy
David Dorfman Dance
92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Project at the Duke on 42nd Street
New York, NY
March 24, 2004

by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2004 by Leigh Witchel
published 11 April 2004

Do you think it’s better if a lightbulb flickers or if it just goes out?

David Dorfman and his dancers posed this question over and over in a theme and variations on death, dying and loss. Dorfman opened Lightbulb Theory with a brief and improvisatory solo, the only time he danced that evening. Wearing plain pants, a winter overcoat and a green silk shirt with a middle button carelessly unbuttoned, his outfit was his concession to being costumed. The solo ended with his arms revolving like propellers as the lights slowly extinguished. He spoke after, a monologue on fathers, sons and a memorial: “May he rest in peace.”

The lights came up on the catwalk above the dance floor to reveal Dorfman’s dancers. They started as a relentlessly cheerful quartet of nearly synchronized backup dancers, semaphoring to “A Kind of A Hush”, then disappeared from the railing as Dorfman crossed the stage. The Duke is a black box theater; Dorman opted to use the space bare with no curtain or wings. He opened a glowing door at the back and they reentered the stage.

Dorfman’s dancers, Paul Matteson, Heather McArdle, Jennifer Nugent and Joseph Poulson are skilled in the liquid vocabulary of his choreography, which included risky partnering involving every part of the body as a possible area of support. Dorfman often pairs them off into double duets and the genders get equal work; Nugent impressively lifts Matteson repeatedly on to her shoulder.

The work gathered steam as it went, with the lightbulb question first posed as a Borscht Belt shtick (“Did you hear the one about the two lightbulbs?”) and a deliberate confusion between the words “light” and “life”. The dancers repeated and varied the query until Nugent turned it into a crazy hepcat fugue at the apex of the work.

Lightbulb Theory is clear, well structured and poignant, but like many things that are poignant, veers riskily towards the obvious. You’ve heard this wordplay before, but these themes are universal. It’s still moving and you accept it.

The scenery for the second dance, Impending Joy, was a curled mass of white wooden pickets and wire flimsily held together to form a disintegrating fence. As the audience entered the theater, they were handed more pickets and asked to write on them with markers, finishing the sentence, “This is where. . .” The pickets were gathered during the intermission for use in the second dance. Impending Joy began with Poulson on one side of the stage and the rest on the other doing a slashing trio. After its completion they loaded him down with pickets and sent him tottering off on a journey of dubious purpose and destination. It’s as if he were a simpleton, someone they put up with. They’re just trying to figure out how to get rid of him, and they’re lousy liars. “Joe! You look great, so things might be fine!”

Both works mixed dance with theater, but paradoxically Impending Joy had a stronger dance design and a weaker structure. It could have been an opening night glitch but the idea behind the pickets never coalesced. It never became entirely clear how the dancers would use the ones with writing. Nugent may have been reciting their texts at the ending, but you couldn’t tell from the music’s volume. The lights came down and that was the end, catching us completely unaware.

Chris Peck’s music for Impending Joy, electronic percussive sludge, provided a strong rhythmic floor for the dancing, but was also loud enough to pulverize your fillings. Michael Wall’s score for Lightbulb Theory was more discreet. Mostly piano with some singing at points, there seemed to be a snatch of "Send in the Clowns" but the reminders became overtly funny as he quoted "Moon River" at length.

Heather McArdle’s costume designs for Lightbulb Theory were barely-found objects from rummage sales; Naoko Nagata’s costumes were still simple, but built more for dancing than McArdle’s. It looked like she was given a budget, and McArdle wasn’t. Josh Epstein’s ingenious lighting, including simple clip-on lamps at the railing the dancers turned off themselves, made the limits and austerity of the space theatrical.

Photos of the David Dorfman Dance Company, ©Julie Lemberger, 2004.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 13
April 12, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Leigh Witchel



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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on April 12, 2004