Sunday, March 27, 2011

Marching into Sunlight

When advertising suggests that a dance concert by two university professors-with excellent support and resources-will be of epic proportions, the expectations are high. In this case, professors Robin Becker of Hofstra University and Jin-Wen Yu of the University of Wisconsin-Madison created dances based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "They Marched into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America" by David Maraniss.

These dances were apparently derived from and inspired by the book's topics of the 1967 bombing of Sterling Hall at UW and the Vietnam war--hefty subject matter, which would have been better served in the hands of master choreographers. In this case, a way-too-long performance (clocking in at 2 hours and 30 minutes) came nowhere near expected hype, and to use the word of the audience member next to me, was "offensive".

Becker's piece "Into Sunlight", suffered from dim tiring lighting, designed by Burke Wilmore, and continuous slow sustained movement. The piece began to drag almost immediately, and there were very few moments of relief.

Becker dressed her 15 dancers in 1980's lycra onesies, and for no apparent reason, separated them into two groups--dark clad slow-moving dance company members and lighter clad slow-moving student dancers.

Section after sedate section dragged on and Becker seemed to explore only one emotional side of war---a smooth, nurturing, dated modern dance-looking side. Why she did not explore more of the fire, physicality, and harsh edge to the subject matter, remains a mystery. She clearly had some excellent dancers who would have been up for the task, and the contrast would have enhanced her snail's pace perspective.

To her credit, the piece did have overall compositional structure, and a few highlights. A men's trio, which began as a raw physical fight, evolved into caressing beautifully shifting lifts. And in one duet section, a young man sat stock still as a woman climbed and rolled over him, balanced on him, and in a final moving gesture, placed his arm across her shoulder.

Yu's disappointing "Marching into Sunlight" displayed absolutely no sense of the subject matter whatsoever. His trivial treatment of such a monumental topic felt embarrassing. Painful to watch, Yu seemed to have lost any concept of theatrical form, use of space, and movement invention. Throughout this haphazard dance, the question "why?" constantly surfaced.

In short, with a backdrop of hanging textured fabric on which busy video images were projected, Yu featured a quintet of untrained dancers randomly running around in camouflage pants, executing gymnastic rolls. (Why?) This was followed by a group of young women in lingerie tossing underwear up into the air. (Why?) Then Yu appeared in the piece, clad in suit and tie, descending a rope ladder. (Why?) More of the same continued for way too long, and the women's group appeared again wearing school-girl uniforms and white blouses. (Why?) The group paraded around with plastic army helmets in their hands. (Why?) And the piece concluded with Yu running out onto the stage wearing a baggy white Chinese jacket, and standing on a helmet. (Why?)

It's agonizing dances like this that make audiences scratch their heads, and never return to see modern dance again. Why should they?

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