writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

A Companionable Double Header

Maxine Moerman Dancetheatre and
Alma Esperanza Cunningham and Dancers
Double Header Project
Dance Mission Theater
San Francisco, California
May 21
, 2004

By Rita Felciano
Copyright © 2004 by Rita Felciano
published 24 May 2004

Double headers are still in at baseball games; in movie theaters they have been out for probably over twenty years. However, there is something attractive about a two-for-one. You feel you get a bargain, and more of a good thing is better, right? I find myself often tempted by those ubiquitous grocery store offers even if the second item might sit in our pantry well beyond its useful shelf life.

Choreographers Alma Esperanza Cunningham and Maxine Moerman came up with their own double header project. For a slightly higher than single admission ticket, audiences got to see a 7 PM and 9 PM show, with the companies taking turns in the early and late slots. The idea was to share audiences, theater rental and advertising costs, but keep the revenue flow separate.

They also avoided the difficulty of curating a single show with vastly different perspectives.

The two choreographers actually make pretty good companions. Though Cunningham is less inclined to narrative, both take a distinct but un-preachy approach towards looking at the world through feminist eyes. Theirs is a perspective which is as bemused as it is gently ironic.

From an audience’s perspective, this experiment was moderately successful. With an hour break between the shows—snacks were served and beverages made available—the evening, at three hours, however, turned to be a very long one. There was—from what I could tell—some overlap of audiences, but not a lot. The 7 PM show that I attended had a much smaller audience than the one a 9 PM.

Cunningham’s is one of the Bay Area’s newest refreshingly independent voices. She works from a high-centered ballet base with fast and incisive attacks and an almost geometrically planned sense of space. At the same her choreography exhales an insouciant quirkiness that imbues her moves with a pretend mechanicalness that is both formally attractive and disarmingly casual.

PILEdriver, set to an eponymous score made from sounds collected at the local dump, gave Cunningham the steady beat for a furiously paced duet for Kate Filbert and Ryan T. Smith. An egalitarian affair, the works opens with Filbert rubbing her hands in a “let’s go” gesture. Her trajectory sends her careening in hops and leaps and jetés, looking side to side but without any particular sense of expectation. Slow walks pull her into herself; at point she simply stands in a stiff-legged tight fifth position. When Smith enters, the choreography becomes more sharply sculptural, some of it quasi-traditional in the way he supports her. But even the more acrobatic sections, flips and such, look unforced and wonderfully integrated. A central section has a quasi sleep-walking quality to it in which the two of them seem very much in tune with each. One particularly charming moment had Filbert hop in supported arabesque, accompanied by the tinkling sound of a toy piano, probably also found at the dump.

The Hello Show, an ensemble piece for five women and two men, opens with a set of posing instructions, as they might be given to a photographer’s model. Constructed on top of a collage of music that ranges from Patty Smith to Steve Reich and Psychadelic Furs to Journey, Hello’s various episodes mix images from pop culture—teen magazines, TV, fashion spreads—and dissolves them both straightforwardly and with a cheeky wit. A mostly spoken duet for two men in blond wigs, involving the arduous task of pulling on panty hose, also serves as an autobiographical account for a choreographer who is considering making a feminist version of The Red Shoes. It’s an unlikely muddle that, however, had its moments of wit. The piece as whole, however, was more interesting in the way Cunningham shifted her perspective between what might be called found movement and her ability to refocus it, than as an unity in itself. A premiere, Hello Show deserves some rethinking.

The program concluded with Run. Set to Steve Reich’s propulsive electric guitar, it was originally done outdoors, and looked at the permutations possible with four dancers. A good piece, it kept me wondering about its title. There didn’t seem to be much running involved.

In addition to Custom Alteration, for which composer Daniel Konhauser mixed a section from Anais Nin’s “Children of the Albatross” with music and video, he also create a quite wonderfully idiosyncratic score for Maxine Moerman Dancetheatre’s Tremor. A premiere for four dancers, foremost among the wondrous Christy Funsch who manages a look of milk-toast innocence even when she is fierce. Moerman, who in the past has created elaborate theatrical environments into which she folded her dancers, here relied on what her dancers could bring to her task.

Tremor is an oddly shaped work in which the individual dancers seem to veer from positions of trust to a kind of blank-faced numbness to quasi-violent yankings and confrontations. It’s a work without an emotional center except for a sense of stasis, of waiting for what will happen next on this constantly shifting ground. At one point one of the dancers literally examined the floor, scratching with her fingers on it. At times the dancers seem to be listening to something inaudible, but quite present to us. Some of the piece is even performed to silence.

Moerman’s vocabulary is not particularly inventive but in Tremor she used fairly standard choreographic methods—counterpoints of duo relationships, shifting between highlighting individuality and commonality—to good effect.

I think that by prefacing her 2002 Djuna’s Dream: Interruptions Along the Way with a Luis Bunuel quote which says that “if the work you are about to see seems puzzling or even disturbing, it so because frequently so is life itself,” Moerman set a trap for herself. Bunuel went on to say that “the best explanation of this work is that, from the standpoint of reason, there is no explanation.”

That doesn’t mean that a work does not need coherence, an emotional logic that creates a kind of trajectory—a reason for its being there—that may challenge rational explanations but has a logic of their own. In fact, Bunuel is dead wrong. His works are not at all like life. They are infinitely crafted constructs of his imagination.

Granted that I saw the quite lengthy Djuna at the end of a long, dance-filled evening, in retrospect I am still not sure whether Moerman’s dreamy, loosely sequenced episodes accumulate into the kind of emotional logic that she probably envisioned. The program doesn’t say so, but the title Djuna—and some of the text used—suggest that the work is a response to the stream of consciousness novel “Nightwood” by experimental writer and poet Djuna Barnes who re-emerged—after her death of course—as something of a cult figure in the 80s. In that case, Merlin Coleman, an extraordinarily talented singer, diseuse and composer of the score, who was clad in a diaphanous blue gown, might have functioned as the writer’s fictionalized stand in. Coleman’s vocal ability even stole the show from the porcelain doe that was lovingly carried or pulled across the stage by one dancer and another. The excellent lighting was by Max, costumes for the dancers—ruffled, feminine blouses and pants—by Lisa Claybaugh and Meagan Nicely. This is another work that bears another viewing.

First:  Alma Esperanza Cunningham and Dancers in hello show.  Photo by Liz Payne.
Second:  Maxine Moerman Dancetheatre. Photo by Andy Mogg.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 19
24 May 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Rita Felciano




Back Issues

Index of Reviews
Back Issues
About Us
Contact Us

Sister Sites:
Ballet Alert! Online
Ballet Talk
Ballet Blogs



Rita Felciano
Alison Garcia
Ann Murphy
Paul Parish


This site is the online supplement to DanceView, a quarterly review of dance published since 1979.

DanceView is available by subscription ONLY. Don't miss it. It's a good read.  Black and white, 48 pages, no ads. Subscribe today!


Copyright ©2003 by by DanceView
last updated on April 11, 2004 -->