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Robert Abrams
Performance Reviews
Tribeca Performing Arts Center @ BMCC
United States
New York City
New York
New York, NY

dre.dance - beyond.words - a dance performance with a movement vocabulary based on Autism

by Robert Abrams
April 4, 2009
Tribeca Performing Arts Center @ BMCC
199 Chambers Street
New York, NY 10007
Dancers turning in darkness. The lights come up. A young boy in white slaps the floor and everything stops. So begins "beyond.words", the attempt by Andrew Palermo and Taye Diggs, dre.dance's artistic directors, to translate the inner and outer experience of autism into dance.

Autism is characterized by social difficulties, communication difficulties, and repetitive behaviors. It is not that difficult to imitate people who are different from us, to make a kind of entertainment by making the other look funny. It is very difficult to take a condition like autism, which many if not most people view as an affliction, and use it as the source material for a genuine work of art, expressing beauty. Mr. Palermo and Mr. Diggs have taken up this difficult challenge and have succeeded.

Repetitive behaviors are used repeatedly throughout "beyond.words". These include a slow shifting motion, arm slapping, and odd hand movements. And yet, while the movement vocabulary is unusual, the dancers do not seem odd. The dancers are poised with good stillness. The movements are clean, even when they are repetitive. In one repetitive movement that I particularly liked, the dancers seem to be carefully defining their space: their forearms are both held parallel to the floor as they move them down, and down again to the side. This movement seemed believable in both a dance and an autism context. View this video of James, an autistic child who displays repetitive behavior. Do you see James' negative difference or his excitement and interest? I believe that after having watched "beyond.words", you will likely see James' excitement and interest. (Also, it should be noted that while the movement vocabulary was unusual, in other respects the dance was rooted in the modern dance tradition, such as use of lines and offsets to create shapes on the stage.)

"beyond.words" also did a good job of capturing the social difficulties experienced by autistic people. In the first two sections of the dance, there was very little interaction or partnering between the dancers (other than one short passage in the first section where the boy in white goes over to several other dancers to be hugged). This lack of interaction is highlighted by the third and final section, which is very different. In the third section, a man in white (all of the other dancers wear a light peach or tan colored costume) comes on who seems to represent the grown self of the little boy in the first section. There is some aggressive oppositional partnering, with the dancers locked in a hold like wrestlers. A woman starts to observe the man in white. Before this, the dancers never made eye contact with each other or even looked directly at another dancer. More dancers observe the man in white. The man in white starts to interact with the woman. The interactions increase until finally there is direct contact. The man in white, who in previous interactions was helped by others, goes further and appears to be helping others deal with their own issues, as represented by shaking. The man in white seems to have broken out of what ever had been confining him. He seems happy to have done so. I was left with the distinct impression that he had the desire to communicate and interact all along. This is consistent with some views of autism. This interactive choreography in the third section also made me think "Yes, this dance works as an integrated whole." Before this part of the third section, it had seemed that the choreography did a good job in each passage individually, but it didn't seem to be progressing across the whole work. The last section made me appreciate the first two sections even more in retrospect than I had on first watching them.

Even though the man in white has broken out and interacted with other dancers, later on he goes back into his own world. He may have become transformed, but he is still also who he was before. In the program notes, the artistic directors Palermo and Diggs state that they want to challenge the "common misconceptions that the 'afflicted' want and need to be cured." I think this point can be argued, but they have certainly accomplished their other objective: "to shed light on the beauty and spirit" of people with autism. In fact, having read their objectives in the program notes, I was expecting the dance to be a polemic. Instead, "beyond.words" proved to be a well-executed, beautiful and thought-provoking work of abstract dance.

At the very end of the dance, all of the dancers shift in place as they reach up. I thought it was a fitting image with which to end: autistic people have beauty as they are, but also have the potential to reach and grow.

As a follow-up point, I have a hunch that it takes superior dancers to make this autism-based movement vocabulary work. You can tell that dre.dance has superior dancers in those moments that call for reaching and crisp extension. Every time I looked for such masterful extensions, the dancers always delivered. In lesser hands (or legs), the movements might look mocking, even if such was not intended.

I also liked the costumes by Renea Goforth. The costumes were simple white or pale peach/tan (depending on the lighting) shirts and pants. The costumes suggested both purity and patient. They allowed the form of the body to be seen while also amplifying the body's movement to some extent. I thought the costumes fit the dance well.

The music, which was unusual, also fit the dance well. For instance, one song featured a singer who recited numbers repeatedly.

While I enjoyed "beyond.words" very much, it wasn't perfect. I thought it was a little too long. Some judicious editing in the second section might make it hang together better. There was nothing wrong with any individual passage - the quality of the dancing was strong enough to sustain interest even when there didn't seem to be progression, there was ample creativity and variation; and the energy in the first section built with a nice progression, the second section slowed things down, and the third section started with a great deal of active movement across the stage, so there was variation across the whole work - but it still seemed to drag a little after a while in the middle. "beyond.words" has a strong finish. If the dance reached the finish slightly sooner, the whole work would be stronger. But this is a relatively minor criticism, and different people have different senses of appropriate time, so other people might be quite happy with the work's current length.

Also, it was not entirely clear what the relationship between the boy/man in white and the rest of the dancers was supposed to be. Perhaps the boy/man in white was the autistic individual and the other seven dancers were extensions of his thoughts, or perhaps other autistic individuals. It was a little confusing that the boy in white did not appear in the second section. Since "beyond.words" is an abstract dance, this wasn't a huge issue (and perhaps autistic individuals sometimes experience life with a clear focal point, represented by when the boy/man in white was present, and sometimes experience life without a clear focal point, when the boy/man in white was not present) because all of the dancers contributed to our understanding of autism. But the boy/man in white was clearly a character in a way that the other dancers were not, and I was left wanting to know more about him.

"beyond.words" does not literally tell the audience how autistic people experience the world, but I think it could add to the discourse about autism, and in that respect, "beyond.words" is worth seeing, beyond its value as a terrific work of art. In fact, I think that the movement vocabulary that Mr. Palermo and Mr. Diggs have developed is worth exploring in more than one work: I hope they find more stories to tell. I thoroughly enjoyed "beyond.words". I look forward to dre.dance's next performance.

Artistic Directors: Andrew Palermo, Taye Diggs
Concept/Direction: Andrew Palermo
Choreography: Andrew Palermo, Taye Diggs

dre.dance Company:
Janelle Abbott, Christina Black, Vince DeGeorge, Colby Lindeman, Kyle Mullins, Susan Philipp, Tommy Scrivens, Joshua Shutkind, Lindsay Wood

Music: Nico Muhly ('Honest Music', 'Keep in Touch', 'Farewell Photography', 'Mothertongue' - TV), ('You Could Be Love' - On the Radio)
Lighting Design: Adrianna Durantt
Text Design: Andrew Palermo
Costume Design: Renea Goforth
Stage Management: Susan Manikas
Wardrobe Supervision: Phillip Rolfe
The little boy in white dre.dance's beyond.words

The little boy in white
dre.dance's beyond.words

Photo © & courtesy of Dre.dance

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