London's DV8 Physical Theater, at Center for the Arts three weeks ago, created a momentary lapse in the usual catatonic response to art here. Though you hear an occasional "Wow" or other mumbling from some forgetful bohemian, most of the time people closet their responses to an art experience, as if speaking about it would dislodge it from their hearts. When DV8's Enter Achilles, its bar full of men passing time in a purgatory of brutality and macho innocence, got people talking, you knew it had done something huge. Artistic Director Lloyd Newson and company bring to dance what the Method brought to drama: It's not what they did but how. DV8 loosened the protocol of silence surrounding art, particularly "high" art, by clarifying its own form, dance-theater.
Huckabay McAllister Dance's Erratic Eroticism, which ran two weekends at ODC Theater, reminds me of DV8. The local company's eight short pieces find desire in odd places: a kitschy trailer park, a demented and delectable Victorian tea party, an incest-bound nest of Brontës, etc. Choreographers Jenny McAllister and Emma Lou Huckabay share DV8's tendency to generate drama out of setting and character, rather than music or movement. And, as in most of DV8's show, the characters don't talk; their bodies do. At their most compelling, the dances in Erratic Eroticism speak the dialect of common interaction, distending or stripping down recognizable gesture to reveal obscured meanings.
In McAllister's "Tastes Like Chicken (Just Another Afternoon at the Trailer Park)," four dancers (Knute, Blane Ashby, Gary Grisham, and Erin Mei-Ling Stuart) stake territory by lounging -- riding rival deck chairs with chests puffed out. When the two women sidle up to tongue each other's face and neck and melt their chests together like honey, their intimacy still has traces of competitive hostility. "You want luscious?" they seem to demand. "I'll give you luscious." Returning to their chairs, they pull the backs forward with a hard yank and shudder.
The choreographers' keen sense of behavioral gesture, however, is competing with other strengths -- their love of the motion and emotion in music and of certain kinds of movement. Sometimes the music, perfectly calibrating the tone of each piece, directs them; sometimes it's the desire to swoop largely through space -- arms splayed like wings, torsos keening. Musical sensitivity and kinetic pleasure serve often and well as dance's core. But when they're forced to compete with common experience and gesture as the movement's driving force, you get a muddle. In "Brontë," a dancer shifts suddenly from a torso-spiraling pirouette to a plain old walk upstage, where he does another fancy-dancy spin. What's motivating the action? A tower of Babel -- too many languages at once -- sounds loud but feels empty. We can assimilate only so many idioms; choosing the ones that most engage us, we wait through the rest.
DV8's recent visit made clear that a hyphenated art, like dance-theater, requires just as narrow-minded an intent as "purer" forms. Dance-theater is not a muddled hybrid; it binds its two disciplines in precise relation. DV8's work takes its shape from theater and uses movement as its language. The company's dramas settle in a pedestrian and common world; their dance-language, then, is necessarily colloquial. Partial and repetitive, full of elision, omission, and ambiguity, DV8's movement speaks etymologies like it's no big deal -- illuminating what we are rooted in and what is rooted in us. Huckabay McAllister Dance has abundant gifts; it has yet to choose between them. I hope it does choose -- absorbing itself in what compels it the most and subordinating everything else. It won't look like DV8, but it could share the cutting purity that drew audiences out of themselves earlier this month.
-- Apollinaire Scherr
The Age of Calculation
The Heiress. Adapted by Ruth and Augustus Goetz from Henry James' Washington Square. Directed by David Wheeler. Starring Ken Ruta, Katherine Conklin, Anne Torsiglieri, and Robert Parsons. At Berkeley Repertory Theater, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck) in Berkeley, through Jan. 2. Call (510) 845-4700.
Henry James failed as a playwright, probably because his storytelling habits were long-winded and subtle rather than brisk and direct. The movie version out now of his short novel Washington Square sprawls the way his narrative does, leaving itself time for several layers of the original story; but the play The Heiress is an adaptation of the same book written with a taut feeling for suspense. (It opened on Broadway in 1947; the Olivia de Havilland movie came two years later.) It changes the story, which explains the different title, and it doesn't let you relax with the idea that you know what's going to happen until the final second.
All of The Heiress takes place in the parlor of Dr. Austin Sloper's expensive and fashionable New York town house -- Washington Square in the 1850s wasn't a heroin market, as it is now. His daughter Catherine is an overprotected daddy's girl about 20 years old, nervous and trusting, held back in "the age of innocence," as her father puts it, and not ready for "the age of calculation" -- or, in her father's mind, men either. In the new movie this exposition is pasted artlessly on the screen, but at the Berkeley Rep it's just there, plainly, in the way Ken Ruta and Anne Torsiglieri play Dr. Sloper and Catherine. Ruta struts around in his waistcoat and jutting beard with pure 19th-century authority; even though Sloper becomes a villain, he's not an unsympathetic man. You understand his impatience because Catherine is so awkward, and Torsiglieri does the awkwardness so perfectly you want to shake Sloper for not seeing that she's daddy-struck because of the way he acts.
She falls in love, of course, and her father suspects that the man is a rootless gold-digger who wants Catherine for the family money. It can't be for Catherine's charm, in his harsh opinion, and when this opinion slips out, Catherine finally begins to mature. What's left uncertain in the play is whether Morris Townsend is really after Catherine's money -- the script gives this a new suspense -- and whether Catherine will take him back after a long separation that gives her father a chance to die. Robert Parsons, as Townsend, is the only clumsy actor on the stage, but since his character is so selfishly brash, the effect doesn't seem out of place. The show belongs to Torsiglieri, though, who works out the change in Catherine's character with a careful, natural conviction, seeming just as unconsciously charming as a daddy-bound girl as she does as a cold grown woman, hurt but wise, heiress to her father's cruelty.