Making a Splash
The Miami Project at WAX
David Neumann at PS 122
“Hell is other people.” So goes the iconic existential adage proclaimed by Garcin in Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. Yet for choreographers Katie Workum and Leigh Garrett, hell is not only other people, but other people in a Miami condominium complex. Such is the premise of The Miami Project, a new collaborative experimental dance and performance piece presented in February at the Williamsburg Art Nexus (WAX). Bronzed sunbathers, terry-clothed go-go dancers, a hip-swiveling tennis player, and a Romeo from Brooklyn named Jerry Debruglio-uglio (my best stab at the spelling) are just some of the characters to be seen in this hilarious, absurd, but very smart work loosely adapted from Sartre’s famed existential play. Think Sartre meets Esther Williams at the Copacabana.
A spotlight introduces each character while the others roll and toil about as if they had just been shaken out of a paper bag. After these first moments of chaos, the dancers take their respective seats on eight “poolside” reclining lawn chairs. Thus begins our journey into the private hell of the condominium community. The sun beats down and the hours tick along. A leg crosses. Someone lights a cigarette. A woman holds a silver sun reflector under her face. A man sleeps. Movements here are lackadaisical and apathetic, evoking sun-induced dehydration. Then comes a synchronized bit with the chairs: adjusting the incline, inching the chairs to ensure direct sun exposure. Someone says, "You’re blocking my sun." In white polo shirts and camp counselor khakis, two demonic, sexually enthused—to say the least— wardens torment the eight inhabitants with their whistle blowing and strict commands.
As we delve deeper into this odd little world, the tension of being trapped in this stultifying environment has its effects. Soon personality battles, unrequited love affairs, and philosophical musings ensue. The movement in this existential farce is fittingly anxious and spastic. Clad in terry-cloth jump suits and Bermuda shorts, dancers have a sort of haggard athleticism and are on the verge of insanity. It’s in the paranoid way the dancers go-go bop across the stage, or clutch onto each other in partnering sequences, and it’s in the forced smiles that border on a kind of hysteria (Katie Workum has got this down!). In short, existential dread underlies all the movements. And while each section here provides ample chaos and confusion to take in, the particularly inventive and hysterically funny sections involve gross parodies of the Esther Williams/Busby Berkeley water movie spectacles of the 1940s and ’50s.
Perhaps the most memorable moment in this work is when the group dives into the “pool”—a quite inventive use of the stage space: a blue tarp with slits in it is placed on the floor; the dancers stand in the slits, and in one big “splash”, the tarp is raised up and the lights dim, creating the illusion of being underwater. The dancers synchronize swim, and these bathing beauties—men and women alike—paddle prettily.
The dancers in this work—Felicia Bellos, Terry Dean Bartlett, Nicole Berger, Nathan Phillips, Will Rawls, Steven Rishard, Garrett, and Workum—are all versatile performers able to cha-cha one moment and croon the next. Even if some sections of this work were scrambled and at times cluttered, the moments of clarity made up for the intermittent murkiness. What is sad to note, however, is that Garrett will soon be moving to Los Angeles and leaving the New York experimental performance scene. The prospect of future collaborations between Garrett and Workum will certainly be missed, but in the words of one French existentialist playwright, "Well, well, let’s go on with it."
And on with it we go, crossing the bridge into Manhattan where David Neumann’s Sentence had a three-week run at P.S.122. Thematically based on Donald Barthelme’s eight-page postmodern prose-poem, “Sentence,” Neumann’s latest work of the same name is a witty, humorous, multidisciplinary work, merging dance, theatrics, and text. Sentence fragments, parenthetical phrases, asides, introductory clauses, and run-ons abound in this work. Dance phrases begin and end, fragments of speech are spoken and just as quickly retracted, and, purposefully, nothing quite fits.
This is a fun, experimental romp which lightheartedly explores the relationship between dance and text and writing and choreography. It draws parallels between the blank space and the blank page, phrases of text and phrases of movement, all the while pointing to the ephemeral nature of thought, speech, dance, and, most of all, performance.
Neumann has chosen a superb group of artists with which to collaborate, namely the playwright Will Eno, whose idiosyncratic text shares a certain affinity with Neumann’s equally quirky choreography. Watching “Sentence” is a bit like reading an Italo Calvino novel—we begin with one instance and start over at another, ever reminded that we are indeed engaged in the act of artifice, at the mercy of the author’s, or in this case choreographer’s, whimsy.
Underlining this nonlinear work is its superb, fractured soundscape, arranged by Neumann, Andy Russ, Flloyd Chambers, and Justin Kawashima. A security guard monitors the space, keys clanking, his radio emitting random voices. Dancers begin to appear in primary-colored gym shorts, knee-high socks, and T-shirts or zip-up sweatsuit jackets. (They could just as easily be showing up for a soccer match.) Neumann has created an easy, fluid style. It’s cool and loose quotidian movement executed with a certain sort of aplomb and sophistication. A TV monitor films the traffic and passers-by on First Avenue. A woman comes up and buzzes the door of PS 122. Random! Suddenly, we’ve moved from the park—where overzealous, Walkman-listening meanderers groove out to a tune we cannot hear—to a swanky lounge act. The “singers” fumble with an unruly microphone. Stacy Dawson in a big black wig coyl looks at the audience as she awkwardly feigns the role of lounge-singer seductress. She’s an infectious performer, with her smoldering, yet oddly quizzical look. It’s as if she has a secret she’s holding from us. A woman in a pink velour sweat suit rides a blue bike through the dancers and begins to dirty-dance with a man in a camouflage get-up. Adrienne Truscott leads her “students” from the Brightness School of Sadness and Dance to survey the scene as she interprets their dancing as a “modern thing.” All of this random-chance activity is like several thoughts strung together—basically, stream of consciousness chock full of asides and parenthetical phrases.
A true highlight of this piece is the duet Neumann has created for himself and Erin Wilson. It’s serene and fluid, and riffs on salsa and club dancing. Neumann and Wilson feed off each other playfully; this is the most seamless section of the evening, but before we get too complacent and absorbed in this lovely bit of pure dance, it ends in a messy knot—literally. Wilson takes Neumann’s jacket off and he gets all tangled up in it. It’s like listening to someone reciting a Shakespeare sonnet and then, in the next breath, using bad grammar. It shakes things up, destroys the illusion of performance. Neumann clearly has a hell of a lot of fun with this sort of thing—a characteristic that makes him such a singular performer.
Another particularly compelling moment, which seems fundamental to this piece, is when Neumann, with back to the audience, sits at a desk situated on a raised platform. As the voice-over muses about the nature of writing, Neumann gesticulates as if lecturing, hands flying here and there. Yet the fact that his back is turned to us is a sly, rhetorical touch. The voice-over tells us to worry and then in the next instance, “Or don’t worry. What do I know?” As the piece reaches its understated conclusion, chairs are brought out and placed in rows as the dancers turn to the would-be spectators and sit slowly down, eyeing the audience with complicit pleasure. Now we are the ones to be looked at.
I hesitate to come to any largely drawn, neat conclusions about Sentence. To do so would seem to defeat the purpose of Neumann’s work, which rallies against any easy, neat summation. Meanings are conveyed here and then just as easily taken back—things are spoken and then retracted. A movement begins and breaks off. For every action there is a reaction that spins off in an unexpected direction. Nothing can be expected in this world. It’s absurd. It’s how we think, speak, move, live our lives, and, in this way, Sentence resonates with, and most especially pokes fun at, the messy, untidy, absurd, and hilarious aspects of life. And while the notion of dance and text might sound very high-minded or overly academic, what is so pleasurable about this piece is that no hardcore theorizing is going on here. No dogma or agenda is being force-fed to the audience. Rather, Sentence both establishes connections between dance and text and affects the audience through humor and pure, unabashed fun.
In addition to Dawson (who, sadly, will also be leaving New York for the West Coast), Dinwiddie, Neumann, Truscott, and Wilson, Ruthie Epstein, Karinne Keithley, John Peruzzi, Michelle Rosenfield, Jenny Seastone Stern, Chris Yon, and Robin Yost rounded out this cast of commanding performers.
VANESSA MANKO was the former Dance Editor for the Brooklyn Rail.