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Wednesday, Dec 17 1997
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Page 2 of 3

-- Michael Scott Moore

The Stethoscoped Heart
Broken Open. Choreography by Anne Bluethenthal and Dancers. Original score by Marc Ream. At Brady Street Dance Center, 60 Brady (at Market), Dec. 5-7. Call 558-9355.

The dance-poem "Chambers 2 and 3," which Anne Bluethenthal and Dancers presented this month at Brady Street Dance Center, envisions a love as enveloping as snow. Bluethenthal has created a densely layered work by situating each element -- word, score, and choreography -- in a different relation to love's enwrap-tures. The actors' and dancers' words confront head-on the heart's physical nature and the metaphors it evokes; underneath "noons of dryness," as Auden called the daily reality of a loveless life, the music hollows out a warm, moist cavity; and the dancing occupies this muscled interior, depicting its force and effect.

Marc Ream's luminous and propulsive score sets the stage for "Chambers." Its bass line, a fast electronic tick opening into a warped wallow, conveys the accelerated thump and wet slosh of a stethoscoped heart. Working from the inside, the score widens into melodies that evoke open space and voicelike harmonies before contracting back to its initial tick and thump.

The score sets the dancers (Margrete Helgeby, Debby Kajiyama, Nancy Ng, and a captivating Laura Elaine Ellis) in pregnant, vibrant space: When they cluster and spin in clean patterns, they resemble blood cells in a heart; when they move off from the group in solo forays into space (in particular, Ellis' opening scat, her breath another percussive element in the score), each dancer stands immersed in love, the way you'd stand at the bottom of the sea. The dancers don't depict persons in love, they make metaphors for a state of being in love. Being in love is the reverberation of a sword just pulled from heavy wood, suggests one duet. Another, where one dancer traces a straight line down the other's expectant sternum, marks out an intimate surgery. Bluethenthal manages to touch us directly by sidestepping the stock moves of dancey-love, the undulations and contractions that have come to mean "I am overcome with emotion."

Carefully woven into the dance so as not to bombard us with stimuli, the dramatic dimension of "Chambers" consists of three archetypal characters -- a heart surgeon (Laurie Dingler), a lovelorn gal (Bluethenthal), and a love shaman (Amara Tabor-Smith). The women expound what professional training, personal experience, and metaphysical expertise have taught them about the heart. Their language works best when, like the dancing, it uses indirection -- the expansive elusiveness of metaphor and double-entendre. One character observes, "When the heart stops, there are four minutes before brain activity, deprived of oxygen, diminishes its functioning," and another counters, "My brain never fully regained its functioning after that." This obvious but charming leap between speakers enters the provenance of love language, with its sudden skips between the physical and the emotional.

Of the three, the matter-of-fact heart surgeon speaks most evocatively. "Chest pain has its own particular geography," she tells us. "It is territorial, rising in the center of the body." Grounded by necessity in the physical, her language avoids the barren excesses of conventional love poesy or its New Age equivalent. The shaman isn't so lucky, intoning lines like "The pathways of the universe, the world, and love all meet in the heart." In the work's weakest moments, the characters blur together, each stepping up to mouth sham-guru sentiments. When the characters' individual voices mishmash, the double meanings in their words don't spark. Their preachiness pulls us outside the warm myriad ways this dance has worked with love, promoting, instead, a single preferred Vision. But the dance's deeply believable layers of experience and impression offer greater insight; it doesn't need a shaman.

-- Apollinaire Scherr

Sand Box
Dear Master. By Dorothy Bryant. Directed by Richard Rossi. Starring Barbara Oliver and Owen Murphy. Presented by the Aurora Theater Company at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant (at Ellsworth), Berkeley, Nov. 28-Dec. 14. Call (510) 843-4822.

Gustave Flaubert is immortalized as a sculpture in Rouen, a city he hated. He thought the French were silly, fussing, dangerously stupid people, and it isn't clear that he would have been happier in any other part of the world. Some of his problem was that his readers didn't receive his books very well; but one who did was George Sand, a woman 20 years older and a writer who influenced him as a young man. When she wrote him a letter praising a novel panned by the critics, they started a lively relationship in letters that lasted until Sand died, in 1876.

Dear Master is about that relationship, and you might think a play based on a long series of letters by fusty novelists from another century would be mortally bland -- all pompous phrasing and no action -- and it's true that a few people were heard snoring at the Berkeley City Club during Dear Master's opening week. But the play isn't boring, partly because Sand and Flaubert weren't fusty. Sand was a spirited and brilliant woman, full of the optimism Flaubert lacked; and their conversation in Dear Master is accessible even if you're not especially interested in writers or the history of Europe. It's carried along by the story of France itself, which rose up against the vestiges of monarchy in 1848 and went to war with Prussia in 1870, and it becomes a self-standing duet between the two writers' outlooks, cheerfully idealistic vs. misanthropic and sour.

Since Sand was a woman with a male pen name, and since "Dear Master" is how Flaubert addressed her in his letters, the play could have turned on feminism and gender roles; but it doesn't, and focusing on their temperaments feels both deeper and more dramatic. Sand is an object lesson in female independence anyway; she doesn't need explanation. Barbara Oliver plays her gracefully, managing by turns to seem sweet, impertinent, and bullheaded; novelist Dorothy Bryant actually wrote the role for her in 1991. And Owen Murphy plays Flaubert as a large and blustering man. At first he seems too overbearing, maybe because I've always pictured Flaubert as more quiet than loud, but when the play settles into its groove you forget about the acting altogether. The unlikeliness of finding such a word-bound play absorbing reminds me of something I think a New Yorker critic recently wrote: Good dialogue is action. "Compared to most of what goes on between men and women," Flaubert says at one point, "I think prostitution is an honest transaction." And says Sand, near the end of her life, even after the Franco-Prussian War shows her "a world of hypocrites and criminals": "Hope, my friend, is not a delusion. It is a necessity."

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