Friday, January 09, 2009



Tonight I saw an extraordinary piece of theater. Parsons, the dance company, collaborated with musical group EVOC (East Village Opera Company) to create a piece titled "Remember Me" which fuses modern dance and rock opera. Favorites like "Che Gelida Manina" and "O Mio Babino Caro" are given a makeover and set to electric guitar and bass and used to convey general moods on the themes of love and betrayal. You could feel the expectation in the theater before the performance began (late, with tech guys wandering around looking concerned) because all around me, people seemed to be getting into arguments over seating. This was a show that people wanted to see.

The plot of "Remember Me" is constructed around a love triangle and features a woman named Marie (ha!) and her two would be suitors, Artemis and Gintus. In what must be one of the most amazing expressions of ecstatic love, Marie is suspended from a harness, spins through the air, and flies--but this is not Peter Pan. The choreography is exhilarating and frightening, like the risk of love itself. Two singers give the dancers their "voices." It can be strange to watch voiceless dancers acting out parts, with no human voice added to music. In Remember Me, that artifice is removed, and the singers carefully integrated; it can be tricky to pair non-dancers with the lithe, but Parsons managed to fuse the two. I was completely captivated, particularly by the male singer, Tyley Ross.

In another scene, Gintus drags Marie off the stage in a fit of possessive jealousy. Behind, other dancers mirror her plight as they too are yanked across the floor. And though the effect is of people struggling--a really graphic display of what wrestling and possessiveness feel like--the choreography and timing are so seamless, I was just left with an impression of terror. I want to see the show again to see how it was done. And that's how much of the program made me feel as an audience member; I was so busy being dazzled, I couldn't see how anything was done, which is a relief after having watched so many programs which make me think: aha. It's that move again.

There isn't a norm to how Parsons does anything; there is no needless repetition. In one piece, dancers hurl themselves at each other so you feel what it is like to collide with another personality. It's very, very hard to do (said the dilettante dancer who needs to go back to class pronto), but it looks effortless. And no motion is wasted. Sometimes this season at the Joyce, I saw companies whose dancers were certainly beautiful and proficient . . . but the choreography was verbose. Not so with Parsons.

Also, Parsons seems to have a flawless understanding of how to mix theatricality with dance; the lighting, the use of curtains, the way in which men in black crept up and "stole" Marie, hoisting her up under a stark white light while she trembled, would have seemed like cheap tricks if they hadn't been so effortlessly integrated. How, I thought, is it that one group can use so many of what is known in theater as "specials," and make it work? That's genius. In another segment, Marie is trapped in a jail and a chorus of dancers lock arms, forming a chain or perhaps more accurately, prison bars. Their image is then filmed and projected on the back wall and as they undulate, the real and celluloid dancers fuse, and you have the feeling that Marie is trapped inside the music itself and that you are watching its rhythms.

I could nitpick. The lead female dancer had perhaps two facial expressions, and didn't project, but she's young and in time will mature. (I thought that the rival, Gintus, was gorgeous and why the hell didn't Marie pick him? He was a hell of a lot more interesting than the hero. But I would have chosen Mercutio over Romeo). I wasn't crazy about the text/poetry flashing on the back wall. I liked the ideas--didn't like the language. A piece like this could have benefited from stronger writing. But because the work overall is just so strong, I didn't care about any of the weaknesses.

At home, I couldn't wait to see what The New York Times had written about Remember Me. Surely we would agree. How else to explain all the anticipation in the audience? As it turns out, the reviewer and I disagree on nearly every point. I guess it happens. A purist might not like rock opera. Unsubtle emotions might seem trite. To some. I absolutely loved Remember Me and was floored by how well collaboration can work between artists when done well. I'm hoping to go again.

Edited to add: The negative review in the Times continued to bother me and so I decided to look up the reviewer in question. I am not the only one put off by her cynical and cold view of dance, which in many ways is the warmest of the arts.

In this post, Paul Ben-Itzak refers to Gia Kourlas' criticism as: "ignorant, vindictive, spiteful and above all cynical ravings."

He then goes on with this anecdote:

"As we all know by now, Kourlas does not confine her ignorant disrespect to entire art forms; what fun would that be? What she truly relishes is personal attacks which have no relation to legitimate, informed, and qualified criticism. In April, reviewing the group program "E-Moves," the target of her locker-room dagger was Flamenco artist Nelida Tirado who, Kourlas said, "seemed to have trouble remembering that she was sharing a program. As sharp as her footwork was, Ms. Tirado tested the patience of the hilariously vocal audience with a false ending or two in '37 anos.' One man, practically pleading, said, 'Work it out, work it out.'" Set aside that she seems to be the only person on the planet who doesn't know that in audience lingo "work it out" is the English translation of "Olé!," Gia Kourlas -- and by implication the once august journal that employs her -- seems to have trouble remembering, if indeed she ever knew, that jealous sniping is not criticism, but its inverse because it trades not in high art but base envies."

An apparent certainty in judgment--a bad review--can be misinterpreted as the truth. Young girls battling it out in cliques know all about this. I worry when a reviewer with no love for an art form begins to make judgments; there are those who will listen to her. But watching the reaction from the audience on Friday night, I'm pleased to see that New York is still a city full of people able to think for--and enjoy--themselves when presented with something so original and compelling.

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