ADF continued its exploration of the boundary land between dance and theater with its presentation this week of Tense Dave, an hour-long performance of condensed strangeness by the Australian company Chunky Move. On June 22, the third night of its run in Reynolds Theater, the house was packed with an enthusiastic audience, some of whom were repeat viewers.
Tense Dave is the kind of piece that could generate a cult audience. As other reviewers have noted, it has some David Lynch-like qualities. It is dark and weird in a very high production value kind of way, and it is almost hypnotic in its structure. The action takes place on a large turntable which rotates at a set speed throughout, only grinding to a halt –and reversing direction – at the very end. This relentless conveying of the scenes and characters through the unstoppable cycles of time is very effective at communicating the limits of human control over the events of our lives – or the events of our nightmares. We can only move so far on the wheel of life.
That wheel is cunningly evoked by the set design, which consists of moveable spoke-like panels representing walls with doors. During most of the piece, they radiate from a vacant hub, forming wedge-shaped rooms that can be accessed from the center or from the wide open side at the periphery of the turntable. Tense Dave inhabits one room, but he can move through the others. The four other dancers mostly remain in their own spaces when they are on stage, sometimes interacting with Dave and, occasionally, with the others. But everything is in flux. People come and go without warning, entering or dropping off – hidden from view – when the "back" of the turntable is closest to the rear curtains. The panels shift as well, the rooms shrinking and expanding in number and size. All is change.
And pretty much all is angst (although leavened by dark humor). You've got your basic anxiety-generated and anxiety-provoking inability to complete a task; you've got your self-deluding fantasies; you've got your attempted suicides and your cruel efforts at domination. You've got your attacking gangs (doing a marvelous send-up of Star Wars-type fighting, mocking the 'droids and robots) and your outbursts of glitzy entertainment masking the terror. Although there is some talking, mostly you have all these emotions and situations communicated with perfect clarity through motion and body language. It does not require narration (like Urban Bush Women's Walking with Pearl) or supertitles (like Shen Wei's Second Visit to the Empress). It is complete in itself – but what you don't have is much dance.
Tense Dave is an extraordinary artwork. I wouldn't mind seeing it again, though I did think there were a few places it could be further tightened up. The actors performed amazing feats, working against the pull of the turntable. But the few moments when they showed that they were really dancers made me long to see more. I like movement theater, I love idea-packed performances, but at the American Dance Festival, I also like to see dance.
Pure dance is what you see at the Festival of the Feet, which opened June 23 in Page Auditorium and continues through the 25th. (See our calendar for details.) The performances in this show are at the far end of the spectrum of movement from Tense Dave, focusing not on the agonies of the interior life but on the ecstasies of bodies in motion.
The evening opens with the African American Dance Ensemble parading down the aisle and onto the stage, herded by the redoubtable Chuck Davis. Instead of their regular resplendent African garb, the percussionists and dancers all wear workers' clothes – dark pants, white undershirts, yellow bandanas or hardhats, and tall Wellington boots for the premiere of Isicathulo, Zulu Gumboot Dance. Davis' choreography is based on a dockworkers' dance, from the port of Durban, which itself derives from a Zulu men's dance, from the southern part of Natal. Highly rhythmic, the dance is full of good-natured challenge and competition between two groups of workers and between individuals. However good the other dancers are, however, it is hard to compete with the elastic, fantastic Stafford Berry, Jr. Not only does Berry dance superbly but he also has such a good time doing it that your heart soars watching him.
A number of years ago (when Chuck Davis and AADE were seen more regularly on the ADF stage), we saw a version of this dance, much larger and less refined – and less visually pleasing. Isicathulo is very tight, with the visual, aural (thrilling chanting), percussive, and movement elements wonderfully interlocked. I hope this joyful work becomes a regular part of the AADE repertoire.
We segue into the tap section of the program with a short film by Dean Hargrove, Tap Heat, featuring Jason Samuels Smith and Arthur Duncan, who then appear live on the stage. Jason Samuels Smith had been included in last year's Festival of the Feet, and it was a pleasure to see him again, a little more mature and just as mind-blowing in his technique. He has cut off his wonderful long braids, so he does not seem quite as much the whirling dervish, but his unclasped tie flying and flapping does its best to increase the action.
Smith is a little less aggressive in his motions and more elegant than he was a year ago, and this may be attributable to his working with the supremely elegant Arthur Duncan. Duncan not only dances but sings, reminding us what a grand person a "song and dance man" can be – not a con but a superlative entertainer. He's fabulous on his own, with or without music (provided on stage by Elmer Gibson, John Simonetti and John Hanks), but he and Smith dancing together in friendly competition is a great big WOW!
Third on the program are female members of Chicago's Trinity Irish Dance Company. This fascinating company performs traditional Irish dances but goes far beyond them in its repertoire. While maintaining the line dance structure, the twinkle-toes jumps and kicks, and the clogging-like movements inherent to the traditional forms, the company explores styles as far from Irish as the Indian Kathak dance. Music for this section was a mix of recorded sound and on-stage percussion, and the program included a musical interlude in which the drummer became a one-man band, simultaneously pounding out the rhythm and playing mouth instruments like the penny whistle.
Irish dance is performed in either soft ghillies or hard "jig shoes" similar to modern American tap shoes. One difference in the Irish and American styles is that the Irish women go up on their toes in these hard shoes, which creates a very different look. But what was even more interesting were the similarities between the Irish dances and the Zulu. Who would have thought? When the program closed with a three-way challenge among the dancers of the three styles, there were more commonalities than differences on display. And seeing Stafford Berry, Jr., dancing with Jason Samuels Smith is alone worth the price of admission.
Because of the relationships among the styles, this year's Festival of the Feet is a far more satisfying event than last year's version. And because it indulges the audience with a huge helping of happiness, it is a good balance to the earlier part of the week's offerings.