DanceView Times, New York edition
Letter from New York
For the past 25 years, Theodora Skipitares has been making award-winning spectacles of puppetry, using techniques from around the world. The several productions of hers that I’ve seen tend to be optically spellbinding and aurally almost unendurable. Her scripts are disorganized and banal, the voices of her actors aren’t very interesting, and the minimalist electronic scores she uses, often for 70 minutes at a stretch, cancel out the delights that come in through the eye. What she really needs, from my perspective, is to present her puppetry in silence, with dialogue streaming electronically somewhere visible.
And yet, when she triumphs, one is knocked out with pleasure. There was one scene in Skipitares’s new production, Odyssey: The Homecoming, which I saw at La MaMa e.t.c. yesterday, that was worth the effort to go. Odyssey: The Homecoming attempts to retell Homer’s story and also to connect it to that of the returning veterans from the Vietnam War. The moment of glory, however, was when Odysseus—a handsomely formed fabric puppet with a wonderful face bearing an expression of open astonishment, who was half life-sized and who, somewhat in the manner of Bunraku, was worked by two hooded puppeteers in black—was recognized by his old nurse on the beach as she washes his body, battered by the waves. The nurse, who is twice the puppet’s size, is played by another puppeteer in black, wearing an outsized mask-head of a withered face. We saw the Odysseus puppet pull himself to a sitting position on a rock, saw his slow reaction of intense feeling as he realized that the nurse had recognized him from a childhood scar, and then saw him extend his hands, the fingers articulated, in a restrained gesture of acceptance and love. To get a puppet to make the simplest, most everyday movement—with the transitions between actions—is a kind of virtuosity that takes away the breath of the most jaded observer. At this moment, in fact, there was choreography of three kinds: that for the puppet, that of the people working the puppet, and that of the nurse. Skipitares has made a career of puppet-plays with strong social and cultural messages: I wish she would let go of the messages and follow the puppetry into dreams.
past weekend, Barnard College and Columbia University hosted a remarkable
program on the music and dance of India: “Contesting Pasts, Performing
Futures: Nationalism, Globalization, and the Performing Arts in Modern
South Asia” (the 2004 Barbara Stoler Miller Conference). I wasn’t
able to get to the live performance; however, the academic session I attended
was passionate and brainy—and filled with people who were agreeing
on disagreeing about the discrepancy between theory and practice. The
paper topics and their presenters are listed below; yet I’d like
to note that the films of Orissi dancing presented by Ratna Roy of Evergreen
State College were among the most amazing dance performances I’ve
seen in New York this year. They included a teenager who tossed off bourrées
on half-toe that were so perfectly matched they seemed to speak; five
boys (ages 9 to 15) trained to dance Orissi using a feminine technique,
who were so good that someone from the audience asked their gender; and
an 86 year-old Orissi diva, who danced while seated, as, according to
Professor Roy, she had a temperature of 102 on the day she was filmed.
Common to all of them was an ease of execution that made their dancing
look as natural as breathing, regardless of the difficulty of the choreography
or its demands on stamina. It’s good to be reminded that there are
still dancers in the world who dance like that.
(Photographs by Chris
Pasts, Performing Futures: Nationalism, Globalization, and the Performing
Arts in Modern South Asia
last updated on January 11, 2004