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Robert Abrams
Dance New Amsterdam
United States
New York City
New York
New York, NY

Drastic Action – Line of Descent

by Robert Abrams
March 13, 2008
Dance New Amsterdam
280 Broadway, 2nd floor
(Entrance on Chambers Street)
New York, NY 10007
(212) 625-8369
Some dance performances are difficult to review. In these situations there are often reasons to go very negative. Such reviews are difficult to write because purely going negative is almost always the easy way out (unless the dance company has done something that has the potential to physically harm the audience, which I have only seen once).

Drastic Action's Line of Descent, presented at Dance New Amsterdam, is just such a difficult show to review. The announcements for the work indicated that Aviva Geismar, the choreographer, motivated by her experience as the child of a Holocaust survivor and her experience during a residency in Germany where she had a chance to speak to other such children, had conducted interviews with people from around the world who had survived political and ethnic violence. The announcements stated that Line of Descent used these interviews as raw material from which the choreography was created. For someone like me, a person with a passion for both dance and research methods who is also partial to works of dance that try to say something important, Line of Descent was a show that I had to see.

I thought that Line of Descent was disappointing, but I didn't hate it either. There was something in the show that leads me to think that Drastic Action should not be written off, that they should take another crack at developing this show. The challenge is finding a way to say that, while being both fair and supportive.

I usually do not read other critics' reviews before I write my own because I do not want to be unduly influenced, or accidentally copy their phrasing. On the other hand, writing a review is not like writing a typical school paper where collaboration of any kind is verboten. When the terrain becomes especially difficult, I turn to colleagues for an honest evaluation of my evaluation of the dance (in a Toastmasters meeting, that role is filled by the General Evaluator; for my Vishneva review, Mindy Aloff, who I met through the Dance Critics Association, was immensely helpful). In the case of Line of Descent, I turned to Gia Kourlas' review ("Tracing the Ripples That Flow From Violence", Gia Kourlas, New York Times, 3/15/2008, p. B14), mostly because I was sitting next to her during the performance.

Ms. Kourlas' review is mostly negative, and for the most part I think her assessment is accurate and fair. However, to be fair to Drastic Action, I think there is more that can be said. And to be fair to Ms. Kourlas, she was writing for a printed newspaper, which is a kind of publication that has been devoting less and less space to dance over the recent decades. At most, she could have squeezed another nine words into the space she was given. And to be fair to the New York Times, I think the paper's staff does an excellent job, which is why I read the Times almost every day.

Ms. Kourlas thought that "the lack of conviction among the dancers in delivering the [spoken] text [was] most problematic." I agree with this view, but I also thought that, at least part of the time, the dancing itself could have been described as lacking conviction.

Now that Ms. Kourlas and I have ripped the show apart, I can find ways to build it back up.

From my seat, I saw three elements in the show: Holocaust/violence, self-reference to the conventions of dance, and the dancing itself. I would hypothesize that these elements were getting in the way of each other. Drastic Action might still be able to combine them in a new version of the show, but to find that new show, they need to break each element out and work on it separately.

Let's start with the Holocaust/violence theme. There were arresting images. Dancers growling like dogs. A mother blindfolding a daughter. Contrasts between groups communicated both in the emotional character of the movement as well as in the physical placement of the dancers (in this case, horizontal versus vertical). Placing hands over another's eyes. Scrubbing a body with a sander, perhaps forced scrubbing. Making a dancer touch her belly button. I suspect that if they took the boldest images in the show and pushed them harder and farther, they might have something. As we used to say in high school when we published using an electronic typewriter, "Be Bold. Press Bold."

Part of the show was all about self-referencing the conventions of dance. Dancers referred to each other by their actual names. They would comment on the dancing, such as "my brain is turned off when not talking", which is a reasonably accurate description of some moments in dance. And not necessarily a bad thing, either. The dancers talked about repeating sections of the choreography, or moving sections out of order because they wanted to, or not wanting to do certain sections. It gave a feeling of lightness and fun to the show. If I had been led to believe this was a light dance show about the process of dance itself, this might have been fine, but since this was supposed to be a show about political violence and other issues, I didn't see how it fit.

Finally, we need to talk about the dancing. When the five women got going, the dancing was good. There were nice sweeping motions and interesting groupings. The dancing in other sections, though, needed work. Maybe they are just young. Maybe the other themes, which often lent themselves to relatively static movement concepts, got in the way. Either way, it is not a negative criticism to suggest that the dancers should go back to the studio and keep rehearsing. Dancers keep working on their craft after performances go perfectly and after not so perfect performances. My suggestion is that the dancers go back to rehearsal, and at least for the purposes of rehearsal, drop all of the themes and just dance. Once the floorboards are warped from their sweat, they can then go back to their themes (which they would have been working on separately), and reintegrate them into a new show.

Another aspect of the show, that Ms. Kourlas neglected to mention, was the costumes by Jennifer Smith Lee. I rather liked the costumes. I thought their sophisticated and stylish cut, achieved in part through the use of interesting mesh fabrics, contrasted with their grey and brown palette, creating an effect that suggested the Holocaust/violence theme, without actually being prison garb. The more I think about it, the more I think that this is an entirely plausible choice for an abstracted portrayal of the children of survivors. Drastic Action might be able to profitably play further with the concepts underlying the costumes, perhaps by extrapolating both up and down so that there would also be costumes closer to prison garb and costumes closer to couture. And then the dancers could comment on the costumes in some fashion.

Despite the negative comments that I have made about this show, I think I saw enough positive flashes to believe it still has potential. To put it another way, some dances are like a bit of doggerel, while other dances are like a dissertation. I think that what Drastic Action is attempting with Line of Descent is more like a dissertation. You have to refine the focus question, develop research methods, collect the data, analyze the data, write it up, revise it endlessly, add twenty pages for every advisor on your committee, and then defend it in public. None of this is easy and every step takes a great deal of work. Drastic Action should be commended just for attempting this project.

I would love to read Ms. Geismar's interview transcripts. Regardless what I or anyone else thought of the performance, I think there might be a very good research methods paper that could be written based on the experience of creating the show. Such a paper has the potential to be a very valuable contribution to the development of future dance, including but not limited to Drastic Action's next show.

I should note that Dance New Amsterdam hosted a very nice free reception with food and drink before the opening night performance started. I think they should try moving such receptions to after the performance, which might encourage audience members to discuss the show. Such receptions are held on a semi-regular basis at the Joyce Theater and often get a good turn out there. Plus, this is New York City where everyone works too much, so it is usually better to err on the side of having an event go too late than starting too early.

Choreography: Aviva Geismar in collaboration with the performers
Dancers: Sophie Bortolussi, Alessandra Larson, Cara Liguori, Miranda Lyon, Kathy Wasik
Music: Annabelle Chvostek
Costumes: Jennifer Smith Lee
Vocal Coaching and Directorial Consulting: Beverly Redman
Cara Liguori and Kathy Wasik in Drastic Action's Line of Descent

Cara Liguori and Kathy Wasik in Drastic Action's Line of Descent

Photo © & courtesy of Steven Schreiber

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