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As Robbie Robertson might say, take a picture of this: Choreographer Robin Harris, a tall, thin, somewhat gaunt-looking woman, is standing alone, a few feet from the end of a wooden pier.

Severe weather advisory 

In Weather is Very Important, Robin Harris reminds us a storm is coming

click to enlarge The women in the water, from Robin Harris' Weather is Very Important - PHOTO BY STEPHEN AUBUCHON
As Robbie Robertson might say, take a picture of this: Choreographer Robin Harris, a tall, thin, somewhat gaunt-looking woman, is standing alone, a few feet from the end of a wooden pier. She faces us, looking landward, as we stand between her and the shore. Behind her we see a medium-sized inlet, perhaps a kilometer or two across, with a grove of tall trees on the far shore. Also behind her, just now: a massive storm, a cumulonimbus soufflé of epic proportions.

At this distance, we can see that the cloud mass extends for miles, both across and straight up; its meringue-like topping towering above what looks to be an angry iron billow boiling at its base. Just now, a slight breeze disturbs Harris' hair; the gentle first fingerings of the exponentially larger, darker thing behind her.

I wish she weren't so calm. I also wish I didn't know that she did not plan to leave.

Is that an overreaction, I wonder, to Weather Is Very Important, Harris' new work that debuted during the N.C. State Dance Company's spring concert at Stewart Theater? Perhaps. But at times it seems the choreographer embraces the hidden poetry of the Beaufort scale--the 12-stage visual classification system for wind speed--while drastically minimizing the physical reality that scale attempts to represent.

And isn't there something schismatic about this particular pairing of artist and subject from the start? Wind implies weightlessness, a slight or increasing disorder; random, vast and aimless, formless movement; and in its most intense state, chaos and destruction. For all her many admitted strengths, the ordered gravitas of Harris' recent choreography brings none of these qualities particularly to mind.

The number of still images that crowd the far end of the scale are also telling. For a whole gale, at stage 10 out of 12, a woman lies on her side with her arms above her, on a old gray wooden dock that's been erected some four or five feet above the floor of Stewart Theater. Stage 11 storm is represented only by a static, flimsy aluminum beach chair that, after several moments, flies up and off stage on a wire. The visual image for the terminal stage, hurricane, on the Beaufort scale? Five life-preservered bodies lying motionless, face down, in a tell-tale orderly row, among the blue-illuminated pilings at the bottom of the pier.

No, the picture is not the wind. But when this collections of images begins to animate as the dancers reiterate its various stations with increasing speed, the result suggests some flipbook of yesteryear devoted to semaphores. That's when we grasp it's not the pictures Harris is focusing on. It's the human response: the bodies in the wind, and then beneath it.

This is obvious in the middle section, which comprises the ethical as well as physical center to Harris' new piece. After extended slow somersaults and other long passages from the pier into the water, Harris' quintet enacts a slow, roiling mass to Gabriel Faure's stately ordered Pavane. The water now slamdances all the bodies in it--with grace perhaps, but without mercy--here, in extreme slow-motion.

One woman bows, with both arms swept sideways. Another woman is held momentarily, before the force lifts her from the grasp. Another person points their finger at us, in accusation or warning. A woman dives backward and is swallowed in the chaos.

I've thought a lot about this moment since I saw the work. I really don't need an image, or a representation more graphic than this, of what actually happened in New Orleans the night Katrina hit.

The past year has proven to all--except, perhaps, the present government--that warmed water and wind can totally erase the human scale from any map. The hurricane is not concerned with politics or intentions. It does not negotiate or receive petition. It will not wait.

The pointing finger from the woman in the waves is a reminder: We are small. The wind is large. Weather is important. And another storm is always coming.


REVIEWS

****1/2 Three Sisters (On Ice), Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, Manbites Dog Theater--When director/adaptor Jay O'Berski takes considerable liberties with Chekhov's script and Brian Friel's adaptation, the result is an outsized, profane and gleeful descent into emotional slapstick and existential carnival; a show that caroms off the far walls of theatrical chaos and spectacle before landing in fair territory. Katja Hill, Dana Marks and Gigi DeLizza ably embody different thwarted desires as three Moscow chicks, stuck in the sticks, succumbing to the worst case of cabin fever in recorded history. The bizarre at times--but ultimately fitting--symbolism, vivid, original imagery, and intuitive leaps on display contrast the characters' absurd fantasies about relationships with the even more absurd human truth about learned helplessness, before a trippy ending that doesn't leave us--completely--without hope. Take that, Stanislavski. (Through May 13.)

** Sh*tk!cker Monologues, Common Ground Theater--A septet of regional stage veterans and newbies aim to please, but Roger Karshner's monologues are too thin to give this show much by way of connective tissue, and too manipulative after a while for us to keep caring. The mixed abilities in an otherwise genial sing-along string band--and those altered geographical cues in the text that kept us whipping back and forth between the mideastern United States and western Chatham County--didn't help matters. (Through May 14.)

E-mail Byron at bwoods@indyweek.com.

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