Somewhere on both of NASA’s Voyager deep space probes, scientists placed a laser disk and a complimentary player that resembled a wind-up locomotive. The records were designed to send greetings to any life forms out there, and to tell a story about life on Earth. I’ve always thought of Godfrey Reggio’s landmark film Koyaanisqatsi as their cinematic equivalent, a fascinating attempt to imagine what this civilization might look like from the outside.
Granted, Reggio’s vision was a lot more cautionary than the one from the folks who brought us Tang. By juxtaposing time-lapse photography of natural images against sped-up shots of mass transit and technology, the Jesuit first-time filmmaker told a story of a civilization at once in both acceleration and decline.
Doug Varone’s Ballet Mécanique offers a similar overview of industrialization, meaningless labor and the relentless pace of contemporary life. It does so, though, only when you can actually see it, a privilege that, once more, was not uniformly bestowed upon the ADF audiences in Page Auditorium last weekend.
Varone’s difficulties with Page’s dysfunctional sight lines made those of Cloud Gate Dance Theater the week before (see “Soldiering On,” The Independent, July 3) seem almost insignificant by comparison. At the opening of Cloud Gate’s Dance of the Wanderers, they merely deprived downstairs audience members of important information they needed to interpret that work’s first sections. The data missing downstairs in the Page presentation of Varone’s Ballet fundamentally limited our ability to see the work from beginning to end.
Had I settled for Friday’s vantage point in the pricey orchestra section, this review would have described a show where intensive stage-wide image projections frequently barricaded us from the dance itself. Viewed straight on from the main floor, Varone’s performers danced over darkness, repeatedly overwhelmed by moving images that dwarfed the performers and pulled our attention away from them. Since we never saw the ground on which they moved, they made easy prey for superimposed monochromatic pictures that swooped, jerked and panned around, above and in front of them throughout the work.
Within the first two minutes of Saturday night’s performance, I knew I had seen less than half of Ballet Mécanique the night before. And more than likely so had everyone else in Orchestra Left, Right and Center. Viewed from above, the dancers were moving on a clearly lit stage, a stable visual zone that kept them from getting lost, no matter what the images did. We learned that shadow and light grid the floor during the maze-like sections of the work, and that strategic spotlights added drama to the close of several movements. But mainly we learned that, from straight on, those images made a wall to keep the viewer out of much of Ballet Mécanique. Seen from above, they provide entrée and context to it.
In Reynolds Theater, it wouldn’t have been a problem. In Page, it kept half the audience from seeing the work. Which is a shame, given both the robust choreography and the issues Varone and his dancers are mining here.
George Antheil’s chaotic music, from which the work takes its title, is a suitable soundtrack for a critique of the industrial age and its discontents. Its all but relentless barrage of sirens, percussion, jackhammer piano bangs and actual airplane motors form a crude soundscape of mechanical tumult.
In Liz Prince’s blue jumpsuit work uniforms–a pointed allegory to blue-collar labor?–Varone’s septet are interchangeable drones who, for all of their perpetual motions, never seem to get anywhere or achieve anything from their labors, including time to stop, rest or reflect. Considerable energy is being expended here; tellingly, absolutely none of it seems productive. The none-too-veiled point: When work loses all meaning, the workers suffer a similar fate. A veritable bee-hive in a world where technology has removed all flowers, Varone’s mise en scène asks, when all context has been stripped from labor, what’s left to go through but the motions?
After Daniel Charon and Adriane Fang’s jangled opening to chords mildly reminiscent of the Twilight Zone theme, Antheil’s fusillade of sweeping piano chords are paralleled by slinging upper body gestures throughout the ensemble. Wendall K. Harrington’s visuals evoke the arc of stars, chemical processes, and the opening credits of certain 1950s films. Particularly vivid moments evoke a digital cyclone or a blast epicenter; another sequence suggests what a bad acid trip might look like on an old two-story black and white TV.
But spectacle, which this work most definitely is, requires constantly increasing stakes to sustain interest, which is a problem given the length of Antheil’s score, and the relatively narrow dynamic changes of the Music Masters Classics recording. Eddie Taketa’s early solo passages are robust, and comparatively pensive solos by Faye Driscoll and John Beasant III provide relief as they modulate the Ballet‘s middle passages. But later sequences don’t always seem to build convincingly, or justify their length. Ironically, though Varone’s characters are marking time in the most frenetic manner possible, it’s crucial that his choreography never does the same thing with the music.
In the final section of the work, Charon’s and Fang’s increasingly desperate duet echoes their first. It also provides a disturbing update to the drawings that went up on Pioneer 10 and 11, the ones designed to show anything out there what a human man and woman looks like. In them, they’re simply standing. In Ballet Mécanique, they are clearly running for their lives. That’s when the lights go out.
It’s no longer newsworthy–almost. For six weeks, professional companies and professional casts earn their share of accolades at the ADF. Then, on the last week of the festival, after five weeks with an amateur cast and a limited budget, three international choreographers don’t steal the show.
They steal the season. Last year, it was Tatiana Baganova’s Wings at Tea, a lacerating, funny work that suggested what Dorothy Parker might have come to if she’d grown up near the Ural Mountains in the 1970s. The year before, Shen Wei quietly unveiled Near the Terrace, Part One.
Of course, it’s never wise to get one’s hopes too high. And yet, the last time ADF gave her a similar challenge, Brenda Angiel stunned ADF audiences with the vertiginous mind games of South Wall and After, in 1996. These days, Russian satirist Sasha Pepelyaev can’t seem to stop thinking about the Swan Lake ballet, but not for the reasons you might imagine. While tanks crawled down the streets of Moscow, it was the only thing Russian television aired, for days, as the former Soviet Union collapsed. Finally, everyone who caught John Jasperse’s Giant Empty at last year’s festival knows that this man is capable of just about anything. The second best kept secret of the ADF takes the stage next Tuesday and Wednesday. A real dance insider wouldn’t miss it for the world. And make sure you see our words on Trisha Brown in this week’s Best Bets.
Contact Byron Woods at firstname.lastname@example.org