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Decrypting war and dreams 

Harris and Rogoff probe different dreams, while Heather Grayson returns home to relive the first Iraqi war in After the Storm

If I use the term dreamlike, I'm afraid you're going to get the wrong idea about the latest works from the N.C. State Dance Company.

By now it's become one of the hoariest cliches in dance writing: a convenient--if unimaginative--term usually used to describe a flock of anorectic sylphs, gauzily swathed in pastel purple and pink, mincing about like storks in an airy (and at least quasi-balletic) ecstacy.

The only problem with calling such confections dreamlike? I don't know about you, but my dreams are nothing like this. Ever.

But the term--if more carefully applied--still fits Songs, Robin Harris' new suite of works set to the lieder of Richard Strauss, and guest choreographer Tamar Rogoff's The Birth Day, two of the highlights from last weekend's spring concert.

As we do in dreams, Harris uses familiar and striking visual icons and gestures to construct an alternate symbolism through Songs' five sections. While even the most surreal details seem dictated by an enigmatic inner logic, the specific meanings of the sequences remain both allusive and elusive. There's the accompanying feeling that all we're seeing is about to make perfect sense--but never fully does.

Open, empty mouths, pointed fingers and things that appear to be cakes are seen repeatedly throughout Songs--symbols that remain open to broad interpretation. Though at first it merely seems they're singing, the dancers' mouths (which remain open throughout the entire work) ultimately appear to convey a number of different things: disenchantment and delight, dismay and surprise--with perhaps a yawn at times.

In the second movement, Lauren Scott manipulates a cake around her body and over her head, while eight other dancers, seated in a tight three-by-three grid, conclude the sequence with a stylized gesture that might suggest a mimicry of eating. In the last movement, five dancers hold five cakes, but this time each dessert is decorated with an orchid. Similarly, Megan Marvel's cupped breast in the third section is replicated, repeatedly, by all dancers in the final movement of the piece.

Striking, yes, but what does it all mean?

The translations of Strauss' German lyrics provide at best a point of departure for audience members. The elegiac text of Befreit (Released) provides some grounding for the somber deliberations of the final movement.

But Marvel's movements seem almost a satire on the words of the middle Zueignung (Dedication), while the movements in the opening Morgen (Tomorrow) seem at possibly ironic contrast to Von John Henry Mackay's idealistic lyrics of a time when the singer united with the singular or plural subjects of his song. True, a spiritual air infiltrates Morgen's opening, before certain couples in the onstage quartet tenderly embrace and others just as significantly do not.

It can hardly be an accident that one particular image is repeated in Morgen. Four dancers stand side by side on stage, their legs apart, their hands by their sides, gazing upward. The first time we see the image, at the beginning, their hands are open, palms facing us. The second time we see it, after various groups do and do not tenderly embrace, the dancers' hands are clenched into fists.

Such subtle shifts characterize a visual and symbolic rebus, one whose carefully crafted surfaces first invite, and then defy easy translation.

By comparison, Rogoff's Birth Day gives up at least some of its secrets more readily. This delightfully surreal work impressed audiences last month at our region's edition of the American College Dance Festival. Ennio Morricone's eerie, ethereal soundtrack music from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, provides the backdrop for what could be interpreted as the dreamlike hallucinations of a woman about to give birth under anesthesia.

In its opening section, a very pregnant Katie Ryan is wheeled about the Stewart Theatre stage on a stainless steel gurney by a phalanx of orderlies in surgical scrubs and facemasks. At first the choreography suggests a disturbing riff on June Taylor or Busby Berkeley, as Ryan's character steps along the edge of the moving gurney like someone walking on the edge of a high building. Elsewhere, she strikes a pose similar to one from Harris' 30 and 73, seemingly standing on the deck of a ship, looking backward, being taken away.

All of which comes before things really get strange. In another sequence, Ryan's impressive two-story white wedding dress gives birth to a tap dance couple, a ballerina and two brides who appear to be at war with their wedding dresses. There is a birth, of sorts, just as surreal as what has come before.

But perhaps the most affecting sequence in the work comes when the six interns stand in a row, looking at us. One after another, each lifts the stethoscope they're wearing, and places it on the chest of the person standing next to them. After a few moments, one smiles. Then the next. Then the one after that, on down the line. A simple moment for a simple joy perhaps--but in its impact, quite profound.

Simply put, actor, playwright and Desert Storm veteran Heather Grayson has a message for the gods of war: Enough, already.

After the Storm, the one-person show that details Grayson's coming of age before, during and after Operation Desert Storm, plays Chapel Hill this week. For Grayson, it's not just a return to the program where she earned her MFA in theater in 1997, it's also a return to the place where she originated the show she's now performed in New York, in Europe and throughout the United States. The first version of After the Storm was her thesis performance at UNC, and she first performed it at Old Playmakers' Theater in December 1996.

After graduation, she moved to New York to pursue a career as a screen and stage actor. After establishing herself, she returned to the script she started in North Carolina, completing it with a professional director, dramaturge and design team.

Finally, her Desert Storm memoir premiered in New York City. It opened Sept. 7, 2001--four days before the demolition of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. Since her Canal Street theater was in the off-limits zone after the blast, the show stayed in limbo for several weeks.

Grayson remembers that when it resumed, her audiences did something different with it.

"The first change was the laughter," she said when we spoke last week. "It certainly didn't stop. At least the first half of the show is funny. At times there was more laughter than ever. They needed it; we all needed the release. But the laughter came in completely different places.

"But I do remember feeling that before Sept. 11, I was 'the performer' and they were 'the audience.' After Sept. 11, it was more like we were all in it together. We were all sort of sharing the story. When I talked about death, how it made me feel and dealing with it afterward, we were all sort of nodding together."

After the Storm details Grayson's misadventures as a young and somewhat naive English major from Vanderbilt, who winds up in charge of an ordinance disposal group in Kuwait in the early '90s. One day, three of the soldiers under her command were killed while defusing a missile. The Army subsequently tried to prosecute her for the deaths.

"At first, I was very helpful to them because I thought they were only trying to figure out what went wrong. By the end of the interrogation, a lawyer in the room was saying that I shouldn't answer their questions without counsel. That hit me over the head."

Grayson's fateful encounter with the hidden agendas in a chain of command is certainly the stuff of drama. (Those interested can see a clip of it on the Web, at www.offoffoff.com/realaudio/theater/afterthestorm_320x240.ra.)

Still, it's had some improbable audiences. Grayson played West Point last November.

"Somebody asked me on a dare, and so I called them," Grayson says. "The show doesn't have a political agenda, and the West Pointers loved it. Where the cadets are taught for four years that things are either black or white, and you have to make them black or white, suddenly this said there was a gray area.

"The instructors e-mailed me after to say they thought it was wonderful to show that you can do everything right and still get stuck, that there are circumstances beyond your control."

It's still a bit early to determine how the latest Iraqi war has influenced the audiences for this tale. On hiatus since January, Grayson's tour resumed last week with performances in Florida and upstate New York.

"Last night," she tells me, "people were horrified at the youth of it all, the power we give the youth in the military. They were astonished at how much I was responsible for at that age."

"Some of them had military children. They came up to me afterward and said "You have to tell this story. People have to know how young we're sending these people out to do these huge, huge things.'"

Grayson relives her trial by fire tonight through Sunday at UNC's Center for Dramatic Art. EndBlock

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