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Return to a strange village 

Wings at Tea adds--a bit too much--to the brilliant original

We begin with a correction to last week's report. In a paragraph on the quality of mainstage programming at the American Dance Festival, the following sentence appeared: "In reaching for the cutting edge, the festival has seen its reputation cut in recent years by programming emerging artists of uncertain artistic development."

Due to an editing error, this debatable point replaced my original observation: that the ADF's reputation has been compromised in recent years when "promoting from within"--programming young, emerging artists who, despite long associations with the festival, were still unready to take the mainstage.

click to enlarge Out for a fling: the fantastic women of Wings at Tea - PHOTO BY QINZHENG TIAN, ADF
  • Photo by Qinzheng Tian, ADF
  • Out for a fling: the fantastic women of Wings at Tea

Anticipation--mixed with dread in some circles--accompanied the Monday night opening of Russia's Provincial Dances Theatre performing Tatiana Baganova's Wings at Tea.

The 2001 world premiere of this work at ADF gave Durham audiences a concise index of disastrous courtship rituals between the women and men of a small foreign village. Those who had seen Baganova's earlier works (including the mysterious arbor of good and evil in Maple Garden) were prepared to note that, despite the occasionally grubby behavior of these unsuitable suitors, Wings at Tea still held something of the fantastic about it, a sarcastic, ironic and slightly otherworldly folk tale about relationships between the sexes. At the time, I wrote that if Dorothy Parker had repeatedly gotten pawed while growing up somewhere near the Urals in the 1970s, the result probably would have looked a lot like what we saw.

The sharpness of Baganova's stage images and her insights into human foibles, the achievement of her choreography and the original sound score juxtaposing daemon cellist Chris Lancaster with Yma Sumac and the vintage cabaret of German chanteuse Zarah Leander all gave Wings' premiere savor. The economy with which these elements were combined easily made a work placed on ADF students during the International Choreographers Commissioning Project concert--and not the professional dancers of other mainstage shows--the best new work of the 2001 season, and one of the strongest dance pieces to come from ADF in recent years.

But word that Baganova had subsequently doubled the length of Wings at Tea by the time of its 2003 Kennedy Center premiere gave us significant pause. In recent years, too long a list of choreographers unsatisfied with mere perfection--including David Grenke and Shen Wei--have pushed their luck by pushing works that dazzled on first arrival into extra innings.

When the subsequent second part of works like Humpty Dumpty and Near the Terrace did not duplicate the quantum leaps of their originating counterparts, ADF audiences have been left with a puzzling sense of anticlimax more often than ecstasy at a work's "completion." (Indeed, it's happened so frequently at ADF that we dubbed the phenomenon "Matrix Syndrome" last year.)

Thus the dread of longtime dancegoers returning this week to ADF. Had Baganova ruined a masterpiece? Or had she managed to cheat the odds--and audience expectations--in further explorations of her idiosyncratic world?

The truth lay somewhere in between on Monday night.

As in 2001, men and women more committed to their cigarettes than to one another scrutinized members of the opposite sex at length before engaging in the twisted, hunched-over waltzes of the early sections of the work. As before, these duets--and other interactions on stage--indicated varying degrees of desire, willingness and good taste on the parts of prospective lovers who repeatedly seemed inclined to cut their losses and run from the not-so-terribly tender embraces of their partner.

Once again, men danced women on and off the stage with all the grace of longshoremen wrestling crates of merchandise. Women, for their part, acquiesced, before turning the theme in sequences of open mockery.

As before, Baganova's stage imagery remains metaphorical and striking. Olga Sevostyanova portrays a woman trapped in a white wedding dress, suspended by ropes that could be pulled within a wooden frame. At one point she is manipulated when dancer Oleg Veniev pulls the strings. In another place, she is rendered a feeding station for a line of feral men who hungrily devour grapes hanging from her ears while groping her. She turns the tables later in a sequence when she roughly maneuvers the man standing in front of her into a tabletop from which she can take a drink and watch the passing show. But in the end, after women use their long wet hair as flagellants for the men attending them, Sevostyanova's bride collapses behind the dress, in a wedding processional that is tellingly never consummated.

With the new sections, the work plateaus, repeatedly, in a way the original did not. A number of additions seemed vague or dilatory. But at evening's end, I was glad to return to this strange little village--our village, in a number of ways--even if the trip this time seemed a bit overlong.

E-mail Byron Woods at bwoods@indyweek.com.

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