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Friday, January 2, 2015

Dance review: A brutal, moving Brother Brother in its U.S. premiere

Posted by on Fri, Jan 2, 2015 at 3:18 PM

click to enlarge Tommy Noonan feels out the walls of the Carrack, where important parts of Brother Brother take place. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • Tommy Noonan feels out the walls of the Carrack, where important parts of Brother Brother take place.
Tommy Noonan and Clint Lutes
Brother Brother
The Carrack Modern Art, Dec. 20, 8 p.m.


Tommy Noonan and Clint Lutes emerged from a closet wearing white terrycloth bathrobes, then stripped down to black briefs and tennis shoes. They stood side by side, an arm’s length away from the audience, staring at us. Their almost affectless expressions held a subtle challenge, which slackened into what has to be described as malevolent stupidity. Then they started cracking up. Their doltish laughter kept resurfacing during Brother Brother, their 50-minute duet of brutality and tenderness, and gradually gave way to screams of raw animal pain.

Lutes lives in Europe, and Noonan was based there for several years before moving to Saxapahaw, where he cofounded the artist-support organization Culture Mill last year. Though it has been performed dozens of times overseas, Brother Brother just had its U.S. premiere at the Carrack as a part of Durham Independent Dance Artists first season. The shows DIDA promotes are developed independently, which makes their thematic unity to date almost eerie, especially because Brother Brother was created in Germany in 2009. Nevertheless, it seems to build on themes from the first two DIDA shows, real.live.people.durham’s it’s not me it’s you and Justin Tornow’s The Weights. It also has the rough polish, emotional intimacy and committed energy we are quickly coming to expect from DIDA’s imprimatur.

As much sport as dance, Brother Brother is full of feats of strength, agility and endurance—for both protracted exertion and bodily injury. Noonan and Lutes are constantly running and jogging, lifting and slamming, panting and grunting, their exertions punctuated by random screams and pathetic whimpers. It has elements of the marathon, the gladiatorial contest, the playground slap fight, the pro wrestling cage match. The context of masculine fraternity and pugnacity has a subtext of vulnerability—of a thwarted impulse for gentleness. The contestants battle a primitive undertow as much as each other. They portray brutish creatures experiencing moments of kindness they don’t know how to process, and their efforts to work together keep regressing into atavistic conflict.

Raggedly synchronized locomotion dominates a hypnotic first half. The Carrack’s floor thrummed dangerously, as if the gallery had become an engine. Locked on purgatorial tracks, Noonan and Lutes resorted to vocalizations for variety and detail, and an abrupt scream unleashed at the far wall startled me from a trance. In a small space, with the dancers and audience on the same plane, interactivity was a given. At one point, Lutes briefly sat on a wide-eyed spectator’s lap.

At first, the action was often funny, even slapstick. Noonan dragged out a metal desk that held a tray, two glasses of water and a bag of dried peas, then tried to handle them all with frantic ineptitude. Lutes reclined on a towel and offered no help, looking faintly impatient. So Noonan foisted the tray of peas onto a front-row spectator, who swayed it back and forth to make a silky, trickling sound, like a rainstick. Noonan and Lutes jogged in place, suspended in Carl Faber’s stark lighting, vocally parodying the sound. They made zooming traffic noises, as if nearly being hit by speeding cars, swatted at invisible flies, barked like dogs. Lutes mimed stepping in shit. The audience laughed plenty of times.

But physical comedy soon turned to combat and, eventually, pathos. In this final show of the three-day run, Noonan and Lutes could make one last physical push without worrying about keeping something back for the next show. You could feel limits being tested. Noonan received one particularly serious, WWF-caliber body slam that made me gasp in sympathy. They both tried to climb up each other to the ceiling, muttering encouragements, failing. Their sorties on unreachable frontiers became more desperate, as in a breathtaking moment when Noonan hoisted Lutes to run along the wall like Spider-Man. There was an escalating violent joy when they pushed each other into walls, but there was fear, too; Lutes leaped into Noonan’s arms for an infant’s embrace. As the lifts grew increasingly awkward, the performers deflated. In a corner, Lutes stood on Noonan, first on his bowed back, then on his buttocks as he crumpled down.

Then Noonan gave the lone speech amid all the inarticulate bellowing. In a casual, everyday tone, he described dreaming of being with Lutes on an island made of LEGO. They were laughing about wearing underpants and sneakers. But their laughter changed to screaming, because they were in pain, and vomiting everywhere. This was worrisome, as the dream had so far been coming true. Noonan invoked Zeno’s Paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise (though not by name) to describe he and Lutes drawing nearer and nearer each other, as if about to kiss, but never touching. So they settled for touching their own sharp shadows on the white wall, adding monastic, dying hums to sinuous recorded music. They closed with a coda where, thankfully, they refrained from vomiting, producing bird sounds with water and straws instead.

This dynamic between two muttering men, jockeying for weak and dominant positions, reminded me of Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor’s recreation of Two Room Apartment at the Nasher at ADF this year. But really, this was a unique, visceral dance that felt shorter than 50 minutes and resonated for much longer. DIDA season opener it’s not me it’s you dealt, in part, with the frictions of friendship and collaboration, and second show The Weights was noted by Chris Vitiello for its territorial qualities. Brother Brother transcends its innate themes and hooks into timely regional ones, in an area rife with busy younger dancemakers who are understandably alive to the fine line between competition and cooperation.

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