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How I've helped kill modern dance 

A kick in the ... feet ... for the NC Dance Alliance

To the Annual Gathering of the North Carolina Dance Alliance: Welcome to the Triangle--a region where modern dance has been in decline in the previous year. Though a number of people share the responsibility for this, permit me to be the only one to greet you, openly and warmly, as one of the guiltiest parties involved. Here's the situation. And if any part of it sounds similar to your region, then prepare.

A number of strong--and habitually undersupported--programs continue to grace the region's universities and colleges, including your hosts at Duke. Since their works, along with those created by the area's independent choreographers and dancers, are inefficiently produced and promoted, they remain largely invisible to the public eye.

So much, as they say, for the good news. Since you last convened, six major dance groups and presenters here have drastically reduced or ceased local production. This number includes the 5 Chick Posse and Independent Dancemakers, two of what had been the region's four top independent presenter/producers of modern dance.

The number does not include the third of the four, Choreo Collective, a group whose increasingly mixed concerts, showcases and affiliated performances in the past year have embodied this credo, sent in a recent company e-mail: "We have never had and never intend to have artistic editorial standards."

Perhaps in response to these developments, a larger than usual number of promising young dancers and independent choreographers--some of our best--left the Triangle in 2003-2004.

As I wrote earlier this year, I can count on one hand the number of regional choreographers working in forms longer than the eight to 15 minutes requested by showcases like the North Carolina Dance Festival and the concert you'll present on Friday night. Such showcases have become the only mode of modern dance presentation here in recent years--to at least the partial detriment of the form (see "Critic's Notebook: A Shrinking Harvest?" at www.indyweek.com/durham/2004-05-05/ae2.html).

The number of individual choreographers here who actually generate enough of these smaller works to fill a yearly full-length concert can be counted on the same hand--with fingers still left over.

Ten years ago it was not thus, but it is now.

How have I helped kill local modern dance?

Arguably, by ceasing to function as its publicist and resuming work as its critic instead.

I am a critic (to those just now meeting), one whose insights on dance have been solicited, published or honored by this newspaper, several national magazines and at least one prominent foundation.

Still, in recent years, I'd largely served regional dance as a publicist instead.

Since all the modern dance artists and companies here only did one- or two-night showings, once or maybe twice a year, I reasoned several years ago that my duty was to write about as many works as possible in advance--to help "generate audience," and tip my readers about a show before it ran.

I was wrong. In retrospect, my real duty was to tell these dance companies the unfortunate truth: they had no hope of generating a significant audience by doing poorly promoted and produced one- or two-night showings, once or maybe twice a year. While the dance faithful might show, few to none would be added to their number.

My choice also disadvantaged critical coverage, since I was invariably witnessing and writing about rehearsals anywhere from a day to a week before opening night.

Instead, in some ways I'd have to say I was--to borrow a term from pop psychology--an enabler: the "friend at the paper" who tried to promote the large majority of dance artists who seemingly lacked a fundamental survival skill to do so for themselves.

Perhaps since I kept doing that (instead of providing decent critique, as I did for guest artists at American Dance Festival), the locals never learned to do it for themselves. And though the widespread artistic excellence in the community when I began let me rationalize my mode of coverage, in the absence of substantive critique, artistic standards here gradually began to decline. Things limped along. Until they limped no longer.

See? My fault. Along, of course, with several others.

Having covered theater and dance in this region for the past 10 years, I know both are speculative fields.

But in that time, theater has flourished, largely because its practitioners have been learning, one by one, how to effectively and professionally produce and promote their offerings. They are learning the company infrastructure--and minimum funding levels--required for artists to create their work with integrity, and then communicate that work to the community with the same integrity.

They are learning that a creative community must have professional criticism and publicity, and that those who provide one service cannot provide the other. Both are as mission-critical as professional producers, technicians and artistic support: A creative community cannot thrive without them.

Dance largely hasn't learned this yet. It is presently in decline because it hasn't.

Welcome to the Triangle. Please, learn from our mistakes. And, if possible, help us learn how we may do better. In all likelihood the future of our art form, at least in this region, is at stake.

Rebecca Gilman's Boy Gets Girl demonstrates that a tool can be imperfect and still remain indispensable. In exploring the effects of a stalker on a New York magazine reporter, Gilman presents a story many people need to see, about how an embryonic relationship turns to something frequently mistaken for love.

In this unabashed issue play, Tony conflates a blind date and a half into a lifetime commitment, with substantial penalties for early withdrawal. Gilman arguably telescopes the opening of a largely imagined relationship to get at how issues about control can devolve into terror, violence and death.

None of which excuses the degree of posturing and forced character choices we see here--a situation also present in Spinning Into Butter, Gilman's belated 1998 exploration of academic racism.

In fairness, the stalkee, Theresa Bedell, is a robust, fully-developed character--and Sherida McMullan does a wonderful job in the role. Theresa makes the point that even smart women can get in trouble before they realize it--and that women who make all the right choices still can be victimized.

But Gilman's men never achieve such dimensionality. Instead they're used to portray different positions--and problems.

Dating's contemporary nuances frequently don't scan with the old-school ways of senior editor Howard. Meanwhile, after a single women's studies class, her colleague Mercer proceeds to begin an article on stalking based on Theresa's experiences--against her wishes.

There's the stalker himself, Tony--given a creepy reading here by Jason Lord--a character first introduced and then kept at a decided distance--literally off-stage--for the rest of the play. Significantly, he's explored only in terms of his effect, and never his cause.

Then there's Les, a character clearly based on exploitation film director Russ Meyer--who Theresa conveniently has to interview for a story.

Take 'em or leave 'em: They're the only men available in Gilman's world. What's worse: Mercer and Howard's fake guy talk, which includes one nearly laughable confession. At its worst, Gilman hasn't written dialogue so much as positions here, the thoughts we all should think.

Guest director Hope Hynes effectively builds suspense, taking us into skin-crawl territory from the first date forward. Her work with central McMullan is particularly sharp.

Gilman serves when demonstrating how people trying to assist can still reinforce victimage and helplessness for someone being stalked. But in nearly demonizing Tony--through narrative choices that guarantee everyone's psychology will be explored except his--Boy Gets Girl stops at least one necessary empathic leap short of a quest for true understanding.

The result is a necessary--and quite imperfect--script, in a strong production by Deep Dish Theater.

Reviews
****1/2 The Producers , Broadway Series South--No, they're not Broderick and Lane (or Wilder and Mostel, who starred in the 1968 feature film version). But Alan Ruck and Lewis J. Stadlin still go to the head of the class in Mel Brooks' winning dissertation on the history of comedy. Were there an Olympics for nostril flaring, mustache twitching and pained looks of distaste, Stadlen would take bronze, silver and gold respectively as incompetent Broadway producer Max Bialystock; Ruck is solid as his Milquetoast co-conspirator, accountant Leo Bloom.

Susan Stroman's choreography and direction are clearly a cut above, while celebrated costume designer William Ivey Long goes unhinged during that fateful musical-within-a-musical, Springtime for Hitler.

Film fans may be disappointed that Dick Shawn's role has been cut, along with most of Springtime's interior. Still, the way this show explores the rest of Brooks' world--in priceless musical numbers in Bloom's accounting office, over-the-top director Roger De Bris' townhouse and elsewhere--make it a must for old-school comedy fans and anyone who loved the original. Spend the money. And stay for the curtain call. (Broadway Series South. Through Nov. 7. $83-$34. 834-4000.)

  • A kick in the ... feet ... for the NC Dance Alliance

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