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Choreo, Justice and golden Voices

Analyze this 

Choreo, Justice and golden Voices

Sure, arts criticism can reveal as much about the critic as about the works considered. But if you really want to force a critic's hand, give him insufficient space to put it in. Some psychometrists still believe a forced choice gives the sharpest sense of a subject's true views and values. My forced choices this week involve a considerable backlog: one theater festival and two shows--Theatre Or's commendable quintet of contemporary Israeli plays Voices from the Holy Land , Justice Theater Project's Nickel & Dimed and Choreo Collective's fall invitational concert Cause & Effect. Though all three will have closed by the time you read this, the continuing impact of each on the region's live arts mandates substantive coverage and commentary. (A similar backlog prevented their coverage last week, while Voices and Nickel & Dimed were still running.)

These vie for space here with the significant openings of the week just passed: the fine acting in Duke Drama's Hapgood (which, despite Tom Stoppard's convoluted script, remains a must-see for anyone who loves spy thrillers); the similarly robust work (but considerably more problematic script) of Wordshed Productions and Ghost and Spice's Taking Sides ; and the mixed material witnessed in Meredith Dance Theatre 's 20th anniversary concert.

If we can't get to them this time, maybe next week--as always, space permitting.

It well may be a role Choreo Collective had no interest in assuming seven years ago, when the company was formed as an alternative to the individual and company structures in place at the time. Still, the fortunes of modern dance (and perhaps its ironies as well) have increasingly thrust this refreshingly unconventional group into a position of artistic leadership in recent years.

Even if no other factors were in play, the decline in the number of solo choreographers and presenters would inevitably place the work of the survivors in higher contrast. As the quantity of showcases has dramatically decreased this season, the quality of those remaining has taken on increasing importance.

Whether they've sought this out or not, Choreo Collective's fall showcases in reality have joined the handful of yearly concerts that help define regional dance--and the presently endangered species of independent regional dance in particular.

Did this year's programming choices reflect the state of the art in the region? And is that reflection necessarily all that flattering? The answers are mixed.

Give points for an opening act that took most of the modern dance audience straight to terra incognita--ballroom dance, enacted in varying degrees of competency by Duke's Ballroom Performance Team. Cotillion flashbacks ensued as six couples, immaculately dressed in formal wear, waltzed, fox-trotted and tangoed chastely, while a malfunctioning sound system, audio engineer or company dub tape made painful sonic hash of their light classical and lounge music accompaniment.

I'm understandably quite reluctant to critique a performance by a dancer coming back from an injury, and it's tempting to say it was good to see Dan Schmidt on stage in any capacity after his reversals over the past year or two. His untitled weight-sharing improv with Joe Tranquillo (in which both were accompanied by Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck--and two 40-ounce bottles of suspicious beverage in plain brown wrappers) indicated the road remaining as clearly as the landmarks already surpassed in recovery.

At this point Schmidt is hungry on stage; taking more risks, committing and extending himself further than we've seen him do in years, all to the good. Reach regularly exceeded grasp that afternoon, in sweaty but not always focused contact with newcomer Tranquillo. Reach has to, if growth is underway. Though the work we saw still belonged more in a studio than a showcase, the not-completely-cooked batter tasted quite intriguing.

We praised Nancy Simpson Carter's On Fire, reprised from the N.C. Dance Alliance, in last week's column. And we repeat: Carter's sharp stage writing for a speaking dancer demands an equally sharp theatrical director to develop a character to match her choreography.

The show's strongest works? Courtney Greer and Allison Waddell's pensive Don't Hold Your Breath, and Laura Thomasson's gutsy solo improv piece, Here and There. As implied in the title, Breath returned repeatedly to the breathing of both dancers--and their partner's acts of counting the seconds between them. With Greer and Waddell focused so compellingly on one another, their work implied a couple literally counting on one another, carrying each other--though at times in something suggesting a chokehold.

In Here and There, Thomasson confronted the issues of being an aging performer with her trademark humor--and sudden, chilling poignance. To the accordion and violin of the Neopolitan Cafe, her character smiles her way through a number of moments that demonstrate what the character's body may still do and not do. In the end, the character proudly gestures to the audience in a familiar solicitation of applause.

When that ovation apparently does not come, the woman gathers the shreds of her dignity about her, her lowered eyes and nodding head indicating abashed acceptance of the verdict of the crowd. These moments define some of the strongest work we've seen from Thomasson in years--but also a clear path for further development.

Given the extreme commitment levels demonstrated by a number of their guests, we were baffled by the varying degrees to which Choreo Collective company members sloughed through the reiterated, Muybridge-like opening movements of Loose Canon. But if that beginning dwelled too long in the comfort zone, the group got to interesting places when its members finally got off leash in its closing controlled improvisations. There, the parts--the individual physical dialects, freely explored--clearly outweighed the earlier sum. And not a moment too soon.

We rarely evaluate high school student groups in this column, because that work usually hasn't yet achieved the minimum standards for public critical consideration. But this year's third public presentation by Riverside Dance Ensemble in showcases either by Choreo Collective or artists affiliated with that group necessitates a response.

In Eternity, Kathy Berberian's choreography shows marked improvement over her earlier works. Unfortunately, the student company this Choreo Collective member teaches at Riverside High doesn't.

In this weakest of three showings, Riverside company members giggled in mid-performance, looking to each other and the audience for cues. Ensemble work was close at best, sloppy at worst.

These behaviors and standards don't belong in a high school recital, much less a regional dance showcase. They have no place on a stage with adult and professional dancers, in front of a paying audience expecting accomplished dance.

Riverside's repeated inclusion in similar concerts calls into question, once again, Choreo Collective's editorial standards in the work it sees fit to stage.

Theater, at its best, reduces the distance between people. It raises the visibility of those eclipsed by distance or cultural edict, by economic or social segregation, and by the simultaneous hyperfocus and selective astigmatism of the professional media.

Theater places issues in bodies. Then it places both in front of us. Make no mistake: This is an act of confrontation--but an act calculated to help a community articulate and slowly work its way through the difficulties and crises that face and threaten it.

Which is why we must applaud Theatre Or's Voices from the Holy Land Festival of new staged readings from Israel and Justice Theater Project's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America .

In the four festival showings I could attend, I was struck by the courage of Israeli playwrights Misha Shulman, Elisheva Greenbaum, Ilan Hatsor and Naomi Ragen, the courage required to speak to the major issues of this time. I was struck by the degree to which Israeli issues parallel some of those America faces in this time of religious and political terror.

But I was singularly struck by the passion, the intensity and the fruitful labor of the cast and audience discussions that followed each performance. In each of the Theatre Or shows, a group of people had clearly convened--on stage and in the audience--to wrestle with conscience, with ethics, and with the conflicting demands at times of duties to country, religion, family, fellow humans and self.

Given the primacy of such labor--and the overwhelming need for it, particularly at this hour--any technical considerations border on the gratuitous. But I must acknowledge the work of directors Joseph Megel, Jerome Davis and John Feltch, and the excellent work of so many more actors than I can begin to name here.

Without that (should I call it sacred?) work, no theater would have let us all begin the work so needed in this hour.

Similarly, the accomplished ensemble in Nickel and Dimed brought into sharper focus the world of the working poor. They're all around us, tellingly in nearly every major supermarket, chain store and restaurant we frequent. Food for thought the next time you tip your waiter, or cop an attitude with the cashier: Where do they go home at night? What's left when they get there?

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