Dance-theater–I’m never quite sure about this hybrid form. Often, I want performances with both text and dance to be pushed in one direction or another, dance or text, and usually dance, since that’s what I prefer to see. Primarily dance-based performances which incorporate text often end up relying on text to carry meaning and change, so that dance becomes a mere illustration to the text. Because dance is harder for audiences to “ understand” than text, the audience begins to rely on text as well, so that the dance sections become orphans–the choreographers/directors are no longer relying on the dance to carry anything and the audience is no longer trying to understand or follow the dance. Imagine a poet who occasionally lapses into prose in a long poem and you’ll get the idea. It’s not that text is inherently less intricate than dance, but that dance-texts tend to be less intricate–no surprise, since they’re written by dancers, not writers.
Deja Donne’s “ In Bella Copia” gave me a familiar sense of frustration, then. Such interesting dancing (on which more later) getting lost in such forgettable theater–it’s as if a child were cartwheeling across the stage’s apron during a ballet: you can’t not watch the child, and as you watch the cartwheels you become attuned to cartwheels, so that when you turn back to look at the ballet you can’t follow it or appreciate it. I found myself trying to ratchet my attention back up for the dance, and failing. The opening wish-fulfillment scene, the stripping, the kissing, the mock rape, the mock-beating, the stripping–dance it, I wanted to say, because if you don’t dance it it’s not new, it’s not heightened. Delivered as theater, these scenes are all mock-, and as such they don’t implicate me, don’t involve me.
Some of the theatrical elements worked for me. Take the ending: the dancers chase one man up onto a light-stand; they push him around, chasing him with all the stage equipment (which is all on stage and controlled by the dancers throughout); finally he’s cornered and another man beats on the stand with a piece of metal; the man beating takes off his clothes, down to his underwear, shouting at the other man to do the same, beating on the stand all the time. With the costume rack and the lights behind them it’s a bright, colorful scene; a man in tighty whities beating on a pole is funny; yet the underlying threat, the violence of metal on metal, unhinges the moment. Am I laughing at the downfall of civilization? This refusal to fix on one meaning, this slippage, is a crucial element of good art, I believe. Most of the time, Deja Donne’s theater isn’t complex enough to slip meaning.
The dance–every description I read said something about kicking and slapping moves. This gives you some idea of the problem of describing dance movement literally. I didn’t see anyone actually slap–a slap is a lasso, a loose swing transferring energy to the one slapped–even if some arm movements used the shape a slap begins in. Likewise with the kicking. Rather than the release these two verbs promise, I saw restraint: fire unable to escape a complex system of physical rules. I saw partnering as in professional wrestling: you fall when I touch you here, even though I’ve given you no impetus. This fakery isn’t a failure of technique, but part of the madness for rules governing the entire performance. Four people dance around each other in strict patterns; collisions are staged. The characters on stage are savage, so they rely on laws which they think will keep them in line. They play a mad children’s game; to a soundtrack of heartbeats and airplanes they trade moves, a beat for you and a beat for me. This is dancing like chess. Here is the complexity of the performance. This is what I wanted to concentrate on, what I wanted to stay with.