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Sam Beckett's Argentinian fling 

Grupo Krapp's existential laugher Mendiolaza follows missed steps at Russian Festival

Medical woes, trouble in transit and mid-performance fire drills made for a week of obstacles at American Dance Festival--one in which one company alone would emerge from the gauntlet unscathed: Argentina's Grupo Krapp.

By the time the fire alarms went off in Bryan Center on Monday night, the South American dance theater group had fully earned their existential moniker in the strong opening of their performance piece, Mendiolaza. What followed the group's unscheduled intermission just before the show's halfway point only sealed the deal with the opening night audience, which gave the troupe the season's most enthusiastic ovation thus far.

It's easy to see what the fuss is about. Choreographers Agustina Sario, Luciana Acuna and Luis Biasotto's dingy little dance hall, ostensibly set in the mountain village that gives the work its name, is a place where nothing's doin' and nobody's doin' it, on what can only be the saddest small-town Saturday night in recorded history. You can almost see Sam Beckett himself sitting in the corner chair, tapping his feet to the scuzzy accordion of Fernando Tur, or the later atrocities he and Gabriel Almendros commit upon the music of George Harrison in an increasingly desperate quest for entertainment. Such fruitless onstage searches only had the opposite effect for the audience looking in.

There is dancing, of course, as the company of six has its various characters explore the dead ends of companionship. Sario's character is vividly imagined as a streetwalker by the males who are present, but her mating dances with Biasotto owe more to championship wrestling than they do to the gentler terpsichorean forms. Her trios with Biasotto and Acuna seem endurance matches whose victory goes to their survivor.

These tender smackdowns and frank sexual negotiations are irregularly interrupted in a totalitarian state by a loud buzzer that cues all members to line up and face the wall, and by non-sequitur announcements from a cheap speaker posed just above the door. Such interruptions only added to the confusion on Monday night for audience members and performers who first thought the Bryan Center fire alarms were a part of the performance.

Though Mendiolaza's characters search for suitable companionship, the evening is destined to end in beery tears as two unsuitable males bewail a former love, one Miss Tonga. By that point the audience was in stitches, with reason. Though the misogyny of the men is only surpassed by their cluelessness, this work plays for laughs machismo and other gender-based ills of South American culture--and ours--by demonstrating their absurdity. All of which made Mendiolaza the funniest nothing-happening evening I've had in quite some time. Edgy theater, dance and comedy fans should get their tickets now.

By the grueling end of Kinetic's Mixed Doubles at ADF's Russian Festival performance Saturday night, the crowd had blood in their eyes. (Though ADF billed the work as a world premiere, the company's Web site detailed a Moscow March premiere followed by three June dates in various Russian cities.)

At this point it's tempting to dismiss the work's American debut as a formless filibuster, a technical indulgence that combined a handful of low-grade stage magic tricks with obscure, computer-generated animation resembling Terry Gilliam's classic Monty Python shorts after a digital upgrade.

But in fairness, there's no knowing what ADF audiences might have seen had choreographer Sasha Pepalyaev's full six-member company been permitted to present the work as originally conceived. When illness prevented dancer Daria Buzovkina from traveling from Russia, visiting choreographer Olga Pona stepped in at the last minute to take her place in the enigmatic role of the woman with the red umbrella. Pona, a choreographer with the Chelyabinsk Theatre of Contemporary Dance who is participating in ADF's International Choreographers Commissioning Program this summer, said she had one day to learn her part in the 45-minute work. Yet to be determined: what effect that time away will ultimately have on Pona's own world premiere, which bows when ICCP performs in Reynolds Theater next Monday through Wednesday.

Nor was Buzovkina's the only absence noted during the Russians' three-day run. Delayed entry into the United States for two performers from Provincial Dances Theatre forced the cancellation of choreographer Tatiana Baganova's Maple Garden on Thursday's program. This was particularly regrettable since this eerie meditation on how mythology shapes relationships was, going away, the best work of the evening and one of the stronger works of the summer.

Maple Garden opens with the haunting sound of a single loon in the distance, before lighting designer Andrey Pleshakov's simulated lightning strikes begin to disclose a remote heath, populated only by a leafless tree and a woman with a red lantern who at first appears to be suspended in its branches.

But this spooky, nocturnal copse is more than just a trysting place. It's something of a garden of good and evil as well--where women and men come to learn their fate when paired with others. A woman with hedge clippers frees a woman to swing across the stage, before unsuccessfully attempting to sever the tie that binds another man and woman: a ribbon the man plucks from the woman's dress with his teeth and then pulls across the empty space between them.

These and other interactions have the air of folktale and myth about them even when they disclose romantic realities more close to present-day. Men and women obsessively position the other's body parts around themselves in embraces that sometimes hold, sometimes don't. Both lift and drop potential suitors into various positions with varying degrees of grace, and to different outcomes. On this pagan ground, villagers appear to change from human to bird or mammal and back again--at least when they are given a humanizing touch.

On Baganova's enchanted ground, men use clothespins to attach women by their long strands of hair to a leafless tree, and lovers consummate their union by chewing their way to togetherness from opposite ends of a carrot. These are the images of dreams or nightmares--family legends about how great-great-grandpapa wooed his sweetheart in the old country. Baganova's triumph is to present them as lyric, metaphor and fact at the same time.

By the end, we're convinced: The garden where you lose--and find--your heart by night actually exists. It's somewhere on this planet. All one has to do, it seems, is follow the loons.

Next week: The ICCP, the perennial dark horse of the festival, doesn't get the lion's share of public attention, though dance insiders know that the summer's most exciting work is regularly found there. Its contributions to the dance world in recent years have included Baganova's Wings at Tea and Shen Wei's Near the Terrace, both works that astounded audiences here before taking on the rest of the world.

Olga Pona, along with Argentinian Miguel Robles and Toru Shimazaki of Japan, will present new works generated during the past six weeks with the advanced dancers of the ADF school. What new discoveries await in this year's edition? We find out, first, next week. EndBlock

  • Grupo Krapp's existential laugher Mendiolaza follows missed steps at Russian Festival

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