Final posting by Body Madness writer-in-residence Ana Isabel Keilson
April 5, 2011
Watching Changes You
Body Madness has come to an end. Eight weeks of performances, and we have seen a lot. The spring season of dance in the city is winding down; while the weather this week indicates otherwise, it is time to look ahead to the summer. But before we do that, it is time to look back at where we’ve been. And as Douglas Dunn’s Buridan’s Asstells us, we’ve taken quite the journey.
This night, this particular journey begins with a pre-show. A large group of dancers in pedestrian clothes perform small tasks with odds and ends of things: cardboard boxes, clothes, egg-crates, junk. Colorful discs of metal hang from fishing-line, and as the dancers move, they clang and clatter like bells or wind-chimes. Tables and chairs are set up in the space; dancers perform tasks on them, with them, to them. Their movement is easy, relaxed. Ten birch-trees (or tree-trunks) are suspended from each of the columns bordering the stage space: the sanctuary of St. Mark’s Church is a haven of performance and nature. There is something calm and focused as a result, and as we enter into this strange haven and take our seats, we become calm, too.
The pre-show ends as David Parker, the curator of this platform, comes onstage and gives his opening remarks. Dunn, dressed in a junk-covered cardboard box and wearing a silver cardboard head-piece, quietly enters, slowly encroaches behind Parker, and upstages him. The real show begins.
Dunn’s bizarre and unsettling costume is a signal to us that where we’re starting from is not where we’re headed: what we experience for the next seventy minutes is a realization that this sanctuary isn’t as safe as we thought it was. Buridan’s Ass is an episodic romp through time, movement, emotion, and space in which we never know what is coming next. There are trios, quartets, dances for women only, dances for men only, dances in which other dancers sit and watch, dances in which other dancers watch and then join in. There are movements that are signals for sections to change. There are sexy dances and dances in which dancers become animals. There is pink lighting, red lighting, blue lighting. There are giant bestial rhythmic group dances in a circle. There is humor.
And there is music. There are folk songs, Scottish reels, Bach inventions, Corsican songs, songs of the Renaissance; there is Motown. There are sections in silence. Dunn solos to Emmylou Harris. Everywhere there is polyphony in sound and movement: from the musical lines of the fifteenth century chansons in one section, to the traditional Corsican lullaby (characterized by its use of polyphony), with breezy floating movements transporting us from the rainy East Village to sundown on a Mediterranean shore. In the sections danced in silence, we see the bodily representation of polyphonic line—the movement of two or more phrases happening simultaneously, contributing to a larger visual texture comprised of separate parts.
In this constant shifting of space, sound, and physicality—not unlike Laurie Berg’s A Different Brand of Chaos—Dunn pulls us into a land that is unpredictable and strange. The juxtaposition of these radically different types of music—pulled from different cultural, temporal, and stylistic moments—creates the impression that we have been transported into some kind of indefinite, warped, suspended moment. Adrienne Truscott’s ha: a solo folds the present with the historical past; Dunn’s work folds the present with the mythic past. “Once upon a time…”
The journey of Buridan’s Ass is one through the fairytale. For some, dance history sirens start blaring; I think the idea of the fairytale is an excellent pairing with Buridan’s Ass. For those of the uninitiated: the writing of German Romantic E.T.A Hoffman (1776-1822) inspired generations of librettists and choreographers, including Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov, George Balanchine, Mark Morris, and David Parker. Their versions and revisions of The Nutcracker—based on Hoffman’s 1816 tale Nußknacker und Mausekönig—are seasonal staples of dance in New York.
Hoffman’s stories also induced terror in generations of small children. One story in particular, der Sandmann (The Sandman, 1815), was in 1870 transformed by French choreographer Arthur Saint-Léon (and later, Petipa), along with composer Léo Delibes, into the much-loved ballet Coppélia. Hoffman’s story is scary—the ballet a little less so. But in both, we see histories of dolls coming to life, instances of automatism, and the battling between nature and the artificial. In the 1994 version of Coppélia by French choreographer Maguy Marin for the Lyon Opera Ballet, the physicality in the beginning of Marin’s version recalls the dynamics and physicality of several group sections in Buridan’s Ass.
More specifically, key themes in Hoffman are found in Dunn’s work: moments when dancers snap from one state quickly to the next, or moments when they are compelled, like soloist Cartier Williams in Michelle Dorrance’s A Petite Suite, to dance by unseen forces greater than themselves. In one section of Buridan’s Ass, four women move in and out of various kinetic states—now slinky, now muscular, now doll-like—only to slump over limp, like puppets, at the end. In a men’s trio, Dunn dances off in the far upstage like a character from Hoffman—Coppélia’s creator, Doctor Cornelius, or (dare I say it?) the Nutcracker’s Drosselmeyer. The choreographer as puppet-master lurking in the background.
Comparisons continue. In a sense, Hoffman’s stories and the ballets based on them are, like Dunn’s work, polyphonic journeys—which in der Sandmann/Coppélia, and Nußknacker und Mausekönig/The Nutcracker takes the form of competing voices between the real (the human) and the unreal (the puppet/doll). In both Hoffman and Dunn, there is the narrative trajectory characteristic of fairytales: a movement away from home (safety, calm) and into darks wood of the unknown. When we finish our journey, we are altered. The tenor of this change, however, is up for grabs. In Coppélia and The Nutcracker, it is happy and positive; in Hoffman’s stories, is it eerie and traumatic. In Buridan’s Ass, it is lighthearted and humorous.
In the end, Buridan’s Ass takes us home safely and gives us a landscape of everything in Rhythm and Humor. There is the absurdity of Berg’s A Different Brand of Chaos, there is the wild and bacchic beauty of Sumbry-Edwards and Dorrance. There are the ruptures of Vandenbroucke’s Untitled. There are the discoveries, lies and truths of Adrienne Truscott’s work. Together, this begs the question: what happened to themes of rhythm and humor—the place we started from? As Buridan’s Ass shows us, where we begin isn’t always where we end; more importantly, the ideas we pick up along the way are just as unpredictable as the route we take to get there.
Rather than a figure from Hoffman, then, Dunn’s role in Buridan’s Ass more closely resembles Shakespeare’s Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: like Puck, Dunn is the swift-footed trickster who speaks to the audience, who informs us that our journey is over, who lets us know that our work (as performers, as viewers) is done. Puck delivers the final lines of Midsummer. Dunn’s own dancing concludes both Buridan’s Ass and Body Madness. Both remind us that in the journey of performance, watching is an experience that changes you. Luckily for us, however, the dancing we’ve seen in Body Madness is not a dream we have to wake up from. It is the very real world we live in.