Review: Stephen Petronio & Doug Elkins

Two reviews by Patrick Mueller
June 15 & 17, 2012
Reviewing Fräulein Maria by Doug Elkins and Friends and Underland by Stephen Petronio Company at the American Dance Festival, Durham, NC

Question: is fun enough?

Sometimes I wonder whether there’s really much to say about a certain piece of art – whether it demands discourse to fulfill promises of comprehensibility or depth, or if it would rather simply do its thing and be on its way? I don’t see a problem with this – the gut-level satisfaction at, say, a beautiful, impressively executed dance can be plenty to sate the aesthetic appetite, without the interference of heady conceptual considerations or thrilling tastes of edgy newness. But mixed signals I have a harder time dealing with.

Celebrated b-boy and choreographer Doug Elkins has made a name for himself creating in the western concert dance formula, where his distinctly African American street dance vocabulary (is it important to mention that he’s white but apparently has ‘legitimate’ roots in b-boying? Probably…) dubbed him a spicy, irreverent outsider when he entered New York’s downtown (read: avant garde) dance community in the late 80’s.

Twenty-odd years on, it’s difficult to still view hip-hop-where-it-doesn’t-belong as a social or aesthetic transgression. It seems like there needs to be some deeper impulse to a creative exploration at this point than, “Let’s do _________ – but with break-dance!”, right? Actually, no, there doesn’t.

And so, several decades after the innovation, Elkins offers us Fräulein Maria, “a loving deconstruction of The Sound of Music,” according to his biography.

It still gets laughs – every time that Elkins throws in a particularly overt reference toward b-boying and hip-hop culture, whether it’s a power move or ‘gangsta’ gesture or a particularly cocked cap and cocky swagger, the audience responds with pavlovian agreeability. The dancing itself moves the piece at least partially beyond plain camp, with very fine execution of movement that does indeed find its place next to the well-known songs. The choreography delivers regular laugh-lines, and humor seems to be a primary purpose of the piece, in tandem with the campy nostalgia of its conceit.

But in terms of content, the work feels transparent, devoid of purpose or message beyond “these are a few of my favorite songs – and I’m gonna dance to them.” Which is fine, I suppose; but it’s hard not be disappointed. Disappointed in the artist for not taking the difficult road into commentary on and redefinition of the popular songs and story. Disappointed in a community of curators, audiences, and funders who have kept this piece alive for SIX YEARS! and counting, turning it into a minor opus of our contemporary dance canon. Disappointed that this, apparently, is what you need to get a Guggenheim fellowship, a Bessie, and a new lease on life for a company that was only barely active for the five years before this piece premiered. And disappointed at the bitterness I can’t seem to remove from that last comment… my apologies.

But hold on – back to that first question: does this dance piece need discussion and analysis from a somewhat caustic MFA student? More likely not. It’s fun and light and entertaining, and that’s all that it seems to be trying to be. You can start to question whether the show adds up to the Broadway and Vegas hits that claim these entertainment values more unabashedly… but maybe that misses the point as well.

Probably the point is: if your thing is humorous, loving revisions of old classics, this is it.
 

Answer: sometimes it is (for a while)

Something about Stephen Petronio gets me. I don’t jive with a lot of the aesthetic and philosophical underpinnings – I find it thin on content, often flat dynamically (very fast all the time), and more than a little misogynistic. But there’s something in the sharp angularity, the unexpected shifts in direction and flows of movement, and the extraordinarily challenging technique that gives my analytics a rest and allow me to simply enjoy fierce dancing. Honestly, I think it’s pretty badass.

And I think maybe that’s the point. Underland isn’t the best Petronio work I’ve seen, or the worst, and that really isn’t the point – as mentioned, they don’t tend individuate enormously. Underland’s score – a collection of songs by iconic Australian indie musician Nick Cave – fits well to Petronio’s dystopic movement vocabulary and his edgy but pop-y sensibility. As Petronio mentions in the program notes, Cave’s “dark beauty [..] speaks directly to my artistic motor.”

Like many large-company choreographers, Petronio uses casting – the number of people on stage – as a primary slider for dynamic range. By that I mean: instead of varying the tempo of the movement, he varies the number of people doing it to reach his highs and lows of energy output. Even solos and duets usually maintain the relentless speed and rigorous technique. The result is that you rarely get much humanity – personal expression or revelation, emotional depth, narrative or thematic content. I left the performance feeling like I didn’t know the dancers any better than before it started, which is, well, a thin experience in an art form that asks its practitioners to communicate with their entire mental/physical/emotional facility.

But still, he had me entranced, at least through the first half of the show. My willingness to go with the work ran out with “Ship Song,” a quartet that did change the tempo of movement – and fell fairly flat. Still low on content, but with a lyricism that fully exposes the lack of emotional impact. This section also really spiked the misogyny-meter, crystallized in a repeated gesture that I can only interpret as coerced fellatio: a standing dancer holding a kneeling dancers head at waist level and pulling it toward them.

I didn’t loudly and angrily exit the theater at that point, but the pleasant experience of beautiful dance was over, and I returned to the mental space I occupied through much of Doug Elkins’s performance, wondering why someone would exert so much effort – on stage, in an extended creative process – to do/say/offer so little?

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