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(Dance Review) ASzURE & ARTISTS

Doris Duke Studio Theatre
July 28-31, 2005

The joys of watching dance are as different as there are dance companies. There is the joy of intellectual challenge, such as was presented earlier this summer by Chunky Move of Australia. There is the joy of brilliantly executed formalism, such as was instilled by the Martha Graham and Alonzo King companies. There is the joyous thrill of watching virtuosity, such as was provided by Rennie Harris Puremovement's hip-hop program. And there is the joy of the finely honed, highly personal artistic vision of a Mark Morris, such that his company instills this week on the Pillow's main stage.

And then there are the plenitude of joys provided by a company such as ASzURE & ARTISTS, not the least of which is the joy of surprise and discovery, given the relative newness of this ensemble, at least to Pillow audiences. In its first fully programmed appearance at the Pillow (previous appearances were confined to the Inside/Out stage), ASzURE & ARTISTS seemed to arrive fully conceived, fully mature, with a strikingly original vision that was at once highly personal, boldly experimental, yet utterly accessible and very entertaining.

All that, and a bunch of great looking dancers, too.

Sometimes I think the true measure of a dance performance is how easily you fall in love with the dancers, or at least some or one of them. If that is a rightful measure, I'm swooning the morning after a dizzying one-night stand with Tina Finkelman, Lesley Kennedy, Charissa Barton, and Banning Roberts.

And I'm totally grooving to choreographer Aszure Barton's musical and artistic sensibility, one that has the expansive brilliance to pair Vivaldi with the futuristic klezmer of the Cracow Klezmer Band, and a potpourri of world music tracks with Paul Simon's delectable obscurity, "Pigs, Sheep and Wolves" (one of his more NON-World music-oriented pieces of late, yet one of his best).

In a program of two lengthy pieces, Barton's ensemble achieved the ever-elusive goal of expressing its personality as a corps while executing vividly personal statements, entertaining scenarios, and, all important, making us laugh.

The first piece, "Lascilo Perdere (A Journey of Letting Go)," is a new work danced mostly to Vivaldi except for the insertion of a bit of Cracow Klezmer Band's "De Profundis" (a remarkable, and telling, juxtaposition, by the way).

Something of a multimedia work, the piece opened with black-clad dancers seated in chairs while on the backdrop a film portrayed a woman seated in a similar chair. After fiddling around with some hand gestures that would later be picked up by the live dancers, the woman in the film got up from her chair and walked through a doorway to nowhere, seemingly plunging the dancers and audience into a different world, the world of letting go, one assumes.

A male dancer then performed a remarkable solo that wasn't really a solo, as he danced with the chairs, trying different ones out, finding different energies and capacities in the chairs that all seemed the same. The vocabulary of his movement consisted of mostly precise arm, leg and hand extensions, emanating as much from the center of gravity of the chairs as from the man hisemlf.

The corps of dancers then executed a deconstruction of a formal ritual social dance, with the clasped hand gesture picked up from the film. The tension in this chapter was derived from the battle for weightlessness, as well as subtle gestures. As we relaxed and got to know the dancers a little better, even their suggestive costumes and alluring hairdos seemed a part of the presentation.

Film images came and went throughout the piece, as movement slowed and picked up, sometimes as if a reverie. There wasn't a lot of fast action; rather, these were dramatic tableaux that took their time to establish mood.

The klezmer chapter, featuring deep bass drones, began with the company all seated, as if in a movie theater. Dancers alternated their moments (literal and figurative) in the spotlights, each having his or her own experience, mini dramas that were often sensual or sexual, pained or impassioned, some kind of internal ecstasy.
The dance climaxed, so to speak, with a stunning display of masterly control that featured a four-minute duet between a male and female dancer who clenched his tongue in her mouth the entire time, through twirls, somersaults, and rolls. No blood seemed to have been drawn in this ecstatic portrayal of 'letting go.'

A bit lighter but no less spectacular was the evening's second piece, "Mais We," which consisted of many quick-change scenarios. The individual dancers really got to strut their stuff in this piece, which featured a vast variety of music, including jazz, pop, chant, recitation, Gypsy, and vocalese. The piece began on a lightly humorous note with some post-Weill style French cabaret powering a funny male solo, very jazz dance.

Traditional chants seemed to possess dancers, fully inhabiting them, and their dancing was the response. Some of them came equipped with the ability to express the chant; others, purposely and humorously, didn't know what to make of their dybbuks, and merely shook clumsily or feverishly.

The "Pigs, Sheep and Wolves" segment was rendered pretty literally and narratively acting out Simon's song of herd mentality and "animal behavior" that seems a thinly disguised version of intense media scrutiny.

In all, "Mais We" was intensely colorful and enjoyable, an entertaining suggestion of where modern dance might be heading after it has integrated influences from across the dance map as well as from other media and art forms. Aszure Barton comes across as a hyperactively intelligent director with a clear sense of form and how to use it to express what she wants while allowing her carefully chosen dancers to be themselves.

In sum, it was the most memorable performance at the Pillow so far this season.

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