Dance creates mood and elaborates emotional and social nuance; it doesn't do plots. Without liner notes, it's hard to say what's going on in the classic story ballet Giselle, for example, beyond the fact that something exciting and then terrible is happening to our heroine, and that a couple of men, often seen milling about, are probably to blame. But it doesn't much matter that we don't know what's causing Giselle's histrionics -- she's still sublime.
Many choreographers want clear stories anyway. Tired of sacrificing the clarity of drama for dance -- magical or not -- they've added words to their choreography. Local choreographer Kimiko Guthrie-Kupers' Miyo in the Middle, at Theater Artaud late last month, works this difficult genre. Guthrie-Kupers' narrative, told by Miyo, the story's protagonist, is spare and understated, with only occasional lapses into the polemic and cliche endemic to texts by choreographers. Her script pushes the plot along while allowing the dancing, accompanied by Bob Frank's sweet yodeling and Monica Pasqual's dirge -- a resonant, multilayered score played on drums and strings -- to unfold mood and conflict.
Miyo in the Middle recounts Miyo's life with her parents -- a two-timing cowboy and a Japanese-American he met while working as a guard at an internment camp. ("Would you talk to me if I put down my rifle?") The father's presence throughout Miyo's childhood is erratic; eventually, he abandons her and her mother for his other family. These events shape her story but also blur it with undigested fury. Yet when Guthrie-Kupers restrains Miyo's anger and sticks to the what and where, she gives the dancing room to deliver compassionate insights into the characters' transgressions.
Miyo's father first sees her mother as she's advancing with two other women in low, fated lunges. When they stand up tall, open their mouths wide, and stretch their arms in a gawky shimmy, you feel the tragic weight of their fun. The mother catches sight of him standing guard in his watchtower, and waves. With a face that dances as much as her body and a body that acts as much as her face, Ching-Chi Yu expresses shocked innocence. When he sidles up to her, she's too happy and scared to breathe or bend. Soon enough, she's pregnant and disowned by her family.
Late in the play, after he leaves her, she shoots herself. Miyo is torn between these two absent parents, and the full ensemble of dancers crowds the stage's diagonals with rolling, tumbling, and falling, amplifying a life -- Miyo's -- crashing toward enormous loss.
-- Apollinaire Scherr
Kvetch. By Steven Berkoff. Starring Robert Mackey, Lol Levy, Priscilla Alden, Eloise B. Chitmon, and David Acevedo. At Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (at Mason), April 16-May 2. Call 602-4387.
The beautiful subtitle scene in Annie Hall, where Annie and Alvy lacquer their mutual anxieties with insipid comments about photography, could have inspired Kvetch. The subtitles in Annie Hall tell you what the characters are feeling; in Kvetch, the dull social protocol freezes to let the characters holler their anxieties at the audience. It's unnerving. (I suppose both are homages as well to O'Neill's rather more serious use of the device in Strange Interlude.) Kvetch ran for several years at the Odyssey Theater in L.A., where I first saw it, and I think the show succeeded mainly because the yelling is so outrageous. It's not because of the story: A Jewish salesman with a nagging mother-in-law invites a lonely business acquaintance over for dinner, and nobody knows how to act. The wife is afraid her meal is no good; the guest isn't even thinking about the food; the mother-in-law keeps farting. Afterward, the husband and wife have sex. Their anxieties are typical household kvetches you read about in magazines, the kind of worries middle-class (especially Jewish) people are supposed to have, and the kind of nonsense most people eventually get over.
The play is appealingly tasteless. During sex, Frank and Donna both talk to the audience; when Donna straddles Frank she says, "I wanna be raped," and details her fantasies about the garbage men who come noisily by in the morning. Her orgasm, which we get to watch, has less to do with Frank than with these phantom garbage men. Then it's Frank's turn. The dinner guest, Hal, makes an uninvited appearance in his fantasy, and Frank's orgasm also has very little to do with his wife. These scenes are shocking and funny; but where they lead is finally disappointing. Donna leaves Frank for another man and tells him she's learned not to worry. "You quit kvetching?" says Frank. "How?" Donna: "By doing what I want and letting the guilt go fuck itself." Not exactly A Doll's House.
Teatro Shalom revived this play; they're a "multi-cultural company" interested in shows producible "without regard to the ethnicity of the actors." Here they also cast Eloise Chitmon across gender lines, though she wasn't entirely convincing as a man. And it has to be said that Robert Mackey sometimes looked more like a square-jawed goy trying to be Jewish rather than a truly panicked schlemiel. Lines like "Suppose the bitch hasn't enough food" can't be delivered matter-of-factly or they risk just sounding offensive.
-- Michael Scott Moore
A Tale of Two Stephens
The Hurdy-Gurdy Man and repertory work. Stephen Pelton Dance Theater. At Brady Street Dance Center, 60 Brady (at Market), April 23-25. Call 241-0111.
Not Garden. Stephen Petronio Company. At Center for the Arts, 701 Mission (at Third Street), April 23-26. Call 978-2787.
Grim pockets of history and the grinding pace of the present inspired local choreographer Stephen Pelton and Manhattan-based choreographer Stephen Petronio to set forth two very different but arresting visions of hell over the course of a weekend. In a fifth-anniversary program featuring five repertory pieces, Pelton presented the world premiere of The Hurdy-Gurdy Man, a solo he created based on the movement of Adolf Hitler, gleaned by Pelton from documentarian Leni Riefenstahl's films. It wasn't an easy piece -- it really couldn't be -- but Pelton applied the lyricism and cerebral bent of his previous work and avoided the pitfalls of making art from such an emotionally loaded topic.
Wearing military dress, Pelton materialized in a long horizontal shaft of light, flanked by two wooden chairs and a red platform, casting a long black shadow behind him -- wisely giving viewers more of a suggestion than a literal re-creation of his subject. Pelton folded emphatic full-armed gestures and a sort of modified goose step into a steady flow of slightly disjointed movement, expanding on the pedestrian and gestural language appropriated by modern dance. As he pivoted around the platform, palming his throat uncomfortably and pounding at his chest with his fist, Pelton embodied a moody, self-absorbed Hitler, by turns insistent, vain, paranoid, and, ultimately, weary. Scratchy recordings of Brahms and Schubert put the man's horrors in sharp relief, and a good lighting design by Matthew Antaky cast Pelton's face in eerie skeletal shadows and bounced light off the platform to create a fiery red glow behind his ears.
In Petronio's Not Garden Hitler was just one of a litany of ills bombarding viewers. Opening with Petronio's sure-footed solo to "Ave Maria," the piece segued into angular, swiftly paced ensemble work and breakaway duets and trios marked by scissoring beats and spiraling turns, set to collaborator David Linton's industrial score. With Dante's Inferno in mind, Petronio invoked varying degrees of misery; famous names, from Hitler and Papa Doc to Andrea Dworkin, were projected onto the back curtain as the dancers jerked each other around, by the crotch or the scruff of the neck, in rough-edged partnering. We also got projections of atomic bomb footage and great white sharks, all of this given only moments of breathless respite, as when a standing dancer dipped into arabesque penche, connected at the head with her reclining partner. The tension slacked in the second half of the piece: There the dancers, careening off one another like charged atomic particles moments before, found pockets of stillness in a decidedly calmer, futuristic atmosphere.
-- Heather Wisner
Hit and Miss
Hoffa Lives and Accidents Happen. By Sabrina Alonso and Beth Doyle. Directed by Doyle. Starring Alonso. At the Jon Sims Center for the Performing Arts, 1519 Mission (at South Van Ness), April 18, 25, and May 2. Call 282-9937.
Sweet Self. By Zay Amsbury. Directed by Josh Costello. Starring Michael Davis, Marin Van Young, Curt Elfenbein, Rachel Schaffran, Joshua Boshnack, and Frank Wortham. Presented by Impact Theater at the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst (at Martin Luther King Jr.), Berkeley, through May 16. Call (510) 464-4468.
Sabrina Alonso's one-woman show, Hoffa Lives, puts six characters onstage in a series of monologues about Hong Kong and Jimmy Hoffa. The characters all come together, fatally, in an airplane crash near a remote island where Hoffa languishes with Chuckie, his love slave. Hoffa never appears as anything but a stuffed figure lying in a heap on the ground, so it isn't absolutely clear that he's still alive; and whatever political point Alonso is driving at by linking an old American labor leader with the newly Communist Chinese city is also a little obscure. But she has a wry, crack-grinned talent for comedy, and some of her scenes are slyly hilarious. The best characters are Jill, a comic who can't make anyone laugh, and Sophia, a taxidermist who's been asked to stuff a goldfish. Introducing each scene is some DIY shadow-puppetry devised from cardboard scraps cavorting on an overhead projector; and if you believe the puppets, the dead goldfish in question croaked after smoking a cigar.
The new show from Impact Theater, Sweet Self, plays at the North Berkeley Senior Center, which may be the worst place on Earth for a work of imagination; the orange chairs, white linoleum, and glaring fluorescence kill any illusion the actors might manage to conjure, and in Sweet Self that isn't very much. The story follows a group of self-consciously Gen-X kids in Santa Cruz after their friend is killed by the Boardwalk Boys for welshing on a heroin deal. One of them, Annie, has gotten pregnant, but she can't remember how -- she just woke up in the woods after a tequila binge, raped. The question of who raped her drives the story, and the answer is intensely unbelievable, because the mystery rests on nothing but failing young memories that revive in scraps, which is either phony or modishly Freudian. Impact Theater seems mired in its own generational identity -- along with the program you get one of those questionnaires that ask where you heard about the show, but in place of "What is your ethnicity?" they want to know "What is your age range?" and the only decent answer to either nosy, tribal marketing question is "None of your damn business."
Anyway, there is one real discovery here, and his name is Michael Davis, a Berkeley student who plays a fringe character in Sweet Self with a riveting, simmering rage.
-- Michael Scott Moore