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In Search of a Goddess: Inspirations of the Divine Enchantress Ruth St. Denis

by Robert Abrams
June 11, 2004
The Duke Theatre
229 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036

In Search of a Goddess: Inspirations of the Divine Enchantress Ruth St. Denis

presented at
The Duke
229 West 42nd Street
New York, NY
Performances: June 10-20, 2004

www.insearchofagoddess.com

Robert Abrams
June 11, 2004

This Goddess tells the story of Ruth St. Denis' evolution as a dancer and choreographer, and along the way presents dances from across the world as seen through her eyes - both traditional ethnic dances and original choreography inspired by those traditional forms. The show combines dance and acting, as well as a fair bit of whimsy, including a time-traveling subway car.

Using this performance as the base of evidence, I think it is fair to say that there is a duality of potential and pitfalls that Western dancers face when taking on dance forms from other cultures, even when, as is the case here, both the intentions and the implementation honor those forms. First the potential: it is entirely worthy to seek dance forms that bring out a woman's strength while also enabling her sensuality. It is also conceivable, as the Ruth St. Denis character in this show asserts, to find the common symbols of such strength in many cultures, and in joining them, dance to create unity. The pitfall lies in the ways that each such specific dance form is tied to its culture. For example, it just looks wrong when a white girl dances a traditional Indian dance, even if she is dancing it relatively well (although part of this, as the rest of this review will discuss in more detail, has more to do with our own expectations than actually being wrong in fact). Moreover, each form has its own specific technique. More often than not, a generalist can not expect to have the same level of technique as someone who specializes in that form. Thus, while I thought the presentation of the various ethnic dances within this work were consistently enjoyable, and had heart as well as style, I also thought that they were sometimes ever so slightly less powerful than if they had been danced each by a specialist in the form (and by specialist, I mean dancers on the order of the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble).

This is a very difficult show to critique because, while the above is true, it is also true that the manner in which the ethnic dances were danced in this show is likely an accurate interpretation of how Ruth St. Denis might have danced them, she being a native of New Jersey who was schooled in the popular stage dance forms of her day (early 1900s) before being inspired by the dance forms of the East. From this alternate perspective, the show was presented exactly as it should be.

All of the dancers really shone when they were dancing choreography that was true to their selves, and which allowed them to be fully expressive. In this regard, I especially liked the Salome number. It was modern. During their one leg holds, the dancers showed nice stillness, which is always an indicator of good technique. They played with long colored scarves as they ran through the air. The dancers' movement quality was appealing, and served as a base for multiple configurations of the dancers. In addition to the free flowing patterns described above, they formed a circle around one male dancer (playing King Herod). He looked like he was inside a flower shown in a time lapse movie, or perhaps more appropriately given the show's emphasis on strength and power, inside a sea anemone: beautiful, but capable of stinging.

The Egypta sequence of dances at the end of the show was also quite powerful. It offered proof that an artist can originate in New Jersey and also embrace the values in other cultures' art forms to ultimately create art that is respectful of those forms while also being true to oneself and that is boldly original. This final number is full of expression, including gold and silver fans that cover the dancer's entire body. Sometimes the fan hid the dancer, and sometimes, when the light hit it from the right angle, the fan became translucent, partially revealing the dancer. Sometimes the fan moved like the wings of a bird. Sometimes the fan was used to envelop the dancer in the vertical and then encompass the stage in the horizontal. The fans, and the dancers wielding them, had an uncanny ability to create layered patterns in four dimensions. This section was quite the spectacle. When all five dancers with fans were on stage, their combined movement looked like a cross between a whirling dervish and a swarm of butterflies.

The dance then moved into new section with faster, African inflected movements that would not have looked out of place in a hip hop routine. There were drums and summersaults, among other elements, all leading up to a dramatic finish.

Above all else, the show was a very effective introduction to Ruth St. Denis. With its mix of acting and dance, combined with a slightly offbeat and whimsical concept, the show lets the essence of her person and her art shine through without ever being didactic. In Search of A Goddess is a show worth seeing: you are certain to learn something about history and philosophy while also being entertained. A show, such as this one, that manages to be beautiful while also making you think is to be commended.

Featuring: Dalia Carella and the Dalia Carella Dance Collective (Mashala, Sigrid Aarons, Gina Bergamini, Elizabeth Maria Jossick, Ava Meris, Cammi Vance, Nyota Nayo, Arianna al Tiye)
Glenna Forster-Jones, Catherine Zambri, Fiona Jones, McCready Baker, Clyde Kelley, Jinn Kim, Bridgett Ann Lawrence, Brian Karim, Lex Woutas
Light Design: Chris Dallos
Set design: Maruti Evans
Silk Backdrop: David Ludwig
Sound Design: Drew Bellware
Stage manager: Brandi Lynne Peck
Costumes by: Richard Cruz, Elsa Olivers, Ayshe, LRoseDesigns, Barbara Kleger, Elizabeth Maria Jossick
Written by: Andrew Frank and Fran Kirmser
Directed by: Andrew Frank
Produced and developed by: Fran Kirmser

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