Abbey Bender's work "Septic Crisis" opened the Yard show on July 24. Photos by Ralph Stewart
Abbey Bender's work "Septic Crisis" opened the Yard show on July 24. Photos by Ralph Stewart

Inventive comedy sparks dances

By Julian Wise - August 10, 2006

A fascinating artistic contrast took place at the Yard during its "Comedy and Classics" evening July 24. From the dramatic force of Jose Limon's masterworks to the surrealist creations of choreographer Abby Bender, the evening provided a stunning blend of drama and whimsy in equal parts.

Ms. Bender, the driving force behind the Triskelion Arts cooperative and the popular annual Built on Stilts festival, opened the show with "Septic Crisis," a clever blend of dance and urban theater. The piece began with classical music that dissolves into urban clatter as the lights reveal toppled garbage cans and black trash bags strewn across the stage. The bags began to stir, then roll and move to music. Appearing like a blend between a blind grub and a lurching mummy, the bags stepped, crouched, and spun to the gypsy music before hands and legs began to emerge from them. As the strains of "Born Free" flood the room, the dancers (Alexis Cohn, Sara K. Edwards, Jeong-min Michelle Lee, Danielle Loustau-Williams, Elizabeth Merida, and Zoe Schieber) engaged in quirky, angular steps. Imagine wind-up toys with slightly defective parts and you can approximate the image. Ms. Bender's work suggests Salvador Dali fused with Jaques Tati, with dancers arm wrestling each other or pouring water over each other's heads. Her work wears surrealism well.

Lauren Naslund in "The End?" The piece was choreographed by Anna Sokolow. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Lauren Naslund in "The End?" The piece was choreographed by Anna Sokolow.

The work of Jose Limon, the late Mexican dancer, continues to resonate today with its accent on drama and power in movement. Choreographer Carla Maxwell paid homage to the dance legend with "Etude," featuring the dancer Ryoko Kudo in a solo piece. Ms. Kudo was resplendent in a crimson dress as she made graceful swirls around the stage. She brought a poised athleticism to the moves and she unveiled reaching, swirling motions. Her precise, passionate performance awed the audience.

Featuring dancer Lauren Naslund, Anna Sokolow's "The End?" challenged the audience with its sharp, jarring tone. As a jagged jazz score prodded the audience's ears, Ms. Naslund made lurching motions in a chair as her fingers waved with electric motion. She emerged from the chair stiff and splay-legged, only to collapse repeatedly on the floor. The rest of the piece featured stiff, angular motions that created a harsh, demanding texture.

Jose Limon's "Chaconne," based on the Spanish dance form, featured dancer Roxane D'Orleans Juste dressed in gallant Spanish garb with black slacks and a black shirt. Her motions seemed to blend tai chi and ballet as she engaged in a series of swift, precise spins and kicks. Her flamenco-style movements were all poised points and graceful leaps. The audience responded with sustained applause at the end.

"The Moor's Pavanne" is the masterwork of famed dancer Jose Limon. Photo by Ralph Stewart
"The Moor's Pavanne" is the masterwork of famed dancer Jose Limon.

"Piqued" returned Ms. Bender's dancers to the stage, this time trading garbage bags for garish tutus around their heads. The dancers suggested candy-colored ballerinas as their feet twitched like malfunctioning androids. Together they engaged in a series of synchronized motions, swimming across the floor and linking arms to make a disjointed chain. The visually arresting spectacle suggested a bizarre variation of Paris' fin de siecle Moulin Rouge cabarets, now updated to incorporate space age lounge and techno music.

Jose Limon's "The Moor's Pavanne," subtitled "Variations on the theme of Othello," captures the passion and force of classic theater. The four dancers (Francisco Ruvalcaba, Kurt Douglas, Ryoko Kudo, Roxane D'Orleans Juste) were dressed in red, white, orange, and crimson in the classic garb of medieval Spain as they enacted a tale of passion and betrayal. The men were graceful yet masculine while the female dancers were poised and powerful. As baroque string music swelled, the dancers whispered, seduced, plotted, and wove webs of deceit. The pathos and passion the dancers evoked earned them an extended standing ovation from the audience.

The evening concluded with "Sleeping Giants," in which Ms. Bender's dancers slept under sheets on the stage floor. They slowly stirred awake in a stupor, making a dreamlike amble around the stage before returning to sleep. Then, the blue lighting turned red as the "Jaws" theme played and the dancers engaged in nightmare motions as a shark mask terrorized them. The light switched to stark white as an alarm sound went off. Rather than return to the normalcy of waking consciousness, the nightgown-clad dances were joined by sharks and monkeys as they all moved together to The Monkees' "Daydream Believer."

The joy of Ms. Bender's work is in allowing oneself to surrender left-brain thinking and enter into the bizarre yet cohesive internal logic of her pieces. In doing so, one joins in celebrating the untrammeled spark of creativity coursing through her work.

Julian Wise, a teaching assistant at the Oak Bluffs School, is a frequent contributor to The Times, specializing in music, film, and performing arts.