By Luella Christopher, Ph.D.
Copyright  ©  2014
Washington, D.C.
July 19-20, 2014

“Enervated, Elegiac and Eccentric” describe, respectively, three works of beloved American choreographer Anna Sokolow (1910-2000) presented by Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Company at a stellar performance in the newly renovated theater at Dance Place.  Dakshina, in quasi-messianic fashion, supports the restaging of works from the Sokolow repertoire spanning nearly five decades.  Taken in toto, they demonstrate that biting social commentary – at times veritable mid-twentieth century noir – commands  the power to grip and sadden but also to elevate and soothe.  Martha Graham and Louis Horst-trained Sokolow’s creations are masterful and frequently larger than life.

ENERVATED.  The evening’s first work, “Frida” (1997), pays homage to the gifted but physically and mentally embattled painter Frida Kahlo.  Since a recent hour-long impersonation of Frida at a Montgomery College (Germantown, Maryland) “Chautauqua night” recounted details from the tragic life of the controversial Mexican artist, story-line looms large in the five-part Sokolow work for this writer.  Early in the work (to music of Revueltas) is the spearing of Frida’s body in a harrowing bus accident.  This followed exuberant outbursts of friends who can barely fathom Frida’s burgeoning dilemma.  (The artist had already suffered from childhood polio.)  The role of Frida is danced ebulliently, poignantly and compellingly by Philippine native Melissa Greco Liu, to whom the Dance Place concert was dedicated.

Her life forever changed, a second scene (to music of Carlos Chavez) introduces Frida’s mentor and nemesis, the older and pompous Diego Rivera, who is even more controversial as muralist as well as the predominant artist in this duo.  It’s danced authoritatively by Daniel Phoenix Singh.  Diego assists Frida in relearning how to walk after the accident, but she stumbles past him while he remains self-possessed.  Gongs, xylophone and drums underscore the gravity of Frida’s condition, including miscarriage(s) suffered during their troubled marriage.  All of this occurs under a projection of perhaps the most famous of Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits, lending Sokolow’s work (and its deft restaging by Lorry May) an enduring authenticity.

A fiesta beckons Frida’s friends in a third scene (to traditional Mexican music).  Sokolow’s grounding in Graham technique is patent, characterized by unison jumps in rapid succession, legs together and bent at the knees to the back.  (We could be watching “Appalachian Spring”!)  Soon, however, Frida finds herself floor-bound on a mat or bed, struggling to lift her leg and move her body in the interminable aftermath of the bus accident.  In a fourth scene (to music of Chavela Vargas, a vocal solo), the overhead projection saliently depicts an upside-down Frida, then a double self-portrait.  One of the women may represent Frida’s idealized self, bedecked in a fancy formal dress of pristine white – her persona before the accident and to which she seeks restoration. The other woman, a twin Frida, is adorned in colorful and recognizably ethnic Mexican dress.

In a dramatic fifth section (to music by Joaquin Rodrigo, the inestimable “Asturias”),
two women are intertwined on the floor, legs wrapped around each other.  This makes another seeming reference to the conflating of the diminished Frida with her idealized self.  But now it is impossible to tell if one woman is more beautiful than the other, since both can barely move.  Three more female dancers enter, joining the first two.  Many upward gazes serve to consolidate the story-line.  (Are they seeking help or deliverance?)  Helen Marie Carruthers, Stacey Yvonne Claytor, Heather Conn and Marie Astrid Mence ably comprise the remaining dancers in this ensemble.  The moving tableau eventually veers upstage to a series of self-portraits by Frida.in this splendid union of art, music and drama with dance.

ELEGIAC.  “September Sonnet’ (1995) opens with a woman backing onto the stage (to music by Arvo Part).  The role is mounted by Liu or Carruthers, joined by the male character played by Singh.  Female and male weave around each other without exchanging glances in a dulcet adage (slow duet).  They break apart for the first time as the lighting shifts to blue.  Movements to solo piano music by Rachmaninoff are notably simple: head rolls, swivels in place.  To flute music by Poulenc, the woman mostly keeps hands behind her back and forays along many diagonals.  In a long moment of sheer elegance, she folds one arm over her opposite shoulder.  A final scene features a duet to traditional Catalan music.  The man and woman pause at opposite ends of the diagonal – backing up, circling each other, bypassing – then join together in a seated position.  Sokolow’s exquisite lines throughout the work offer profound testimony to the axiom that sometimes in dance, “less is more”.

ECCENTRIC.  “Magritte, Magritte” (1970), a rarely performed early work of Sokolow that premiered at then-Towson State College in Howard County, Maryland, loomed as the most challenging of the evening’s works to easy comprehension.  A pungent brew of crime, feigned outrage and morose commentary, this restaging by Lorry May with costumes by Judith Hansen, was meticulously rehearsed by Karen Bernstein, Harriet Moncure Fellows and Pamela Mathews.  For those baffled as to the point – if any exists – color reproductions of seven paintings by the Belgian surrealist René Magritte grace the Dance Place playbill.  These paintings name and demarcate the vignettes as well as enrich the overall patina of the work.

The first, “The Lovers” (Helen Marie Carruthers and Daniel Phoenix Singh dancing to music of Alexander Scriabin), mires romance in obfuscation.  This is personified by white sheets covering the faces of the lovers.  The duet is measured at first, then the woman gallops in circles around the stage.  Runs erupt and the two dance arm-in-arm, faces still veiled.  The segment is cynical at worst, sardonic at best – or maybe just “curiouser and curiouser”.

The second vignette, “The Son of Man”, showcases guest artist Scott Parkinson in trim suit and bowler hat.  He already opened the entire work by popping an outsize green balloon in his mouth.  Now he lobs disjointed prose by John White at the audience: “tumble in a summer sky . . sleighbells . . . skies see red . . . all’s well that ends well”.  (By now, one might wish to beat a retreat to the  more familiar and, by comparison, coherent verses of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”.)

Third, “The Reckless Sleeper”(to music of Franz Liszt) is danced by JP Flores.  Beginning with a stage-within-the-stage device remarkably like a starkly lit video projection, it suddenly starts to move.  Mimicking a storage crate, it drifts along the crest of an ocean wave.  The soloist emerges from this theatrical device playing with a chick.  He hoists a bowler hat, then executes multiple rolls on the floor, picks up these and other props and waltzes with them. (Liked this witty boundary-stretching vignette the best.)

Fourth, “The Ideas of an Acrobat” (to music of Hazel Masiello and Erik Satie with the narrated text of Paul Eluard) is danced by Melissa Greco Liu and Scott Parkinson.  “I take ready-made images”, someone says, before the female covers her face with her hand.  The male just displays indifference.  Fifth, “The Month of the Grape Harvest” to text by Edgar Allan Poe (“the mystery which binds me still”) features dancers JP Flores, Scott Parkinson, Daniel Phoenix Singh and Brook Urquhart.

“The Threatened Assassin”, sixth and climactic vignette set to French songs, is initially danced by three of the men from “Acrobat” (without Singh) and Stacey Yvonne Claytor, who sports a brash, gigantic blond wig. Three heads with bowler hats occupy a prominent spot at center stage, as does a vintage Victrola.  One of the men takes a stocking and strangles the woman in their bed.  The other two men interact with the floozy, one with a club.  She revives, claiming that “they’ll never come again” (double entendre, mayhap).  Next, she’s posing and strutting on the bed.

“ANGELS DID ENVY US, WATCHING US PLAY . . .”  This crisp nugget aptly characterizes the entire second half of the concert.  The first man strangles the woman again, followed by shouts of intent by others to capture this murderer.  An iconoclastic moment transpires when the itinerant lover walks to center stage and flips the phonograph record on the Victrola to its other side.  Sacre bleu!  I seem to recall this phrase surfacing repeatedly in our house while my little sister and I attended high school.  Or is it properly Mon dieu?!  (BJ, please launch more malapropisms in my direction; my French also needs refurbishing.)  In any event, Magritte’s mistress-character revives again.  Dancer Singh’s character begins to woo her, tossing off a reference to Pago Pago.  (Does he envisage an ultimate escape to American Samoa?)  Maneuvers accelerate at the end of the vignette to create an unabashed kinetic burst of movement..

The seventh – a final teaser – poses a cryptic afterthought.  It’s “The Red Model” (to text by John White) with dancer Scott Parkinson ruminating about “ancient cobbled avenues . . . crooked, piquant roads . . . Pomeranian days.”  Two sawed-off feet are planted by themselves downstage; this replicates Magritte’s last painting in the playbill’s series.  One emerges from this decidedly offbeat work by Sokolow not necessarily entertained.  More likely, dizzy and somewhat amused, but also contemplative and fairly annoyed.  Is “Magritte, Magritte” a bizarre fantasy, clever satire or veiled social commentary?  Impossible to say; maybe it’s all three.  Incontrovertibly, when combined with the program’s first half, Dakshina delivers a truly ambitious and jam-packed evening of “solemn, ethereal and wicked” dance theater.  Keep SEWING it, Monsieur Singh!

*Copyright  ©  2014  by Luella Christopher, Ph.D.
Published by IsItModern?

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