All the World's a Dance

The genre of dance theater is taking over local stages

The forms of entertainment competing with live theater seem to grow every year, from IMAXes to e-books to women's basketball. And now there's even a new form onstage. “The spirit of creation is the spirit of contradiction,” wrote Jean Cocteau, and South Florida, being the capital of contradiction and fertile ground for anything that could use a hyphen, is producing some intriguing dance theater. Some might scoff -- is this just another excuse for Belkys Nerey and her crew to scarf down all the grub at some new chichi South Beach event? No, says Jorge Guerra, dean of theater at the New World School of the Arts: “Dance theater has developed as a very specific genre. It is neither dance nor theater as those disciplines are understood traditionally. It's a form that explores different ways of telling stories. That's the theater part of it; notions of character, action, and circumstance are incorporated into the world of dance, which is a world free of realistic attachments.” After all, what phenomenon is not derived from the inventive mixing of genres? Look at Broadway and rock and roll. Take Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, for chrissakes.

Like many artistic innovations in the United States, dance theater is not really innovative: They've been doing it in Asia for 1000 years, in Europe for more than 100 years, and in Latin America for 50. German dance-theater pioneer Pina Bausch's late-Seventies work Rite of Spring was groundbreaking and has influenced choreographers on an international level. The Germans even have a word for the hybrid artist: A darsteller is a performer who could be an actor with impressive movement skills or a dancer with strong interpretive skills. In the United States, popular companies such as Alvin Ailey could certainly be considered dance theater, as well as more experimental artists like Meredith Monk.

By appropriating many art forms and adhering to none, dance theater casts a wide net and as Susan Caraballo, executive director of Artemis Performing Network, points out: “Art in general is taking a multidisciplinarian approach, and dance theater is a natural result of that. Many people shy away from theater thinking it's too lofty and intellectual. Dance can also leave you saying, “That was beautiful, but what did it mean?' Dance theater has enough of both elements to hold the audience's interest, and it's a chance to see something truly original.” So for those who have grown weary of counting the ribs on emaciated dancers or deciphering long-winded soliloquies, there may be an alternative to TV. The stage still has something that technology can't replicate: real flesh, a pulse, human energy. Dance theater capitalizes on this and has begun to flourish in South Florida. For the past two years, a dance-theater piece has been the bridge between the ending of the International Hispanic Theatre Festival and beginning of the Florida Dance Festival.

Are you experienced? Helena Thevenot of Blu wants you to be
Are you experienced? Helena Thevenot of Blu wants you to be
Both performances will take place at 8:00 p.m. at the Colony Theater, 1040 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 305-674-1026.

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This year Primeiro Ato, a Brazilian-based group, performed to a full house at the Colony Theater on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach. In a series of vignettes, the dancers dramatized certain situations through movement as much as dance. In one memorable scene, three women inhale and exhale deeply, contracting and expanding their stomach muscles and transforming their bodies into organic, almost amphibious organisms. In another scene dancers performed a frenzied and at times gawky samba, not to illustrate technical precision but as a parody of what audiences expect from Brazilian dancers. In September two South Florida-based dance theater companies, Akropolis and Blu, also will perform at the Colony.

The Akropolis studio off Biscayne Boulevard is a cavernous garage space painted shamrock green. With chairs placed in a row facing the rehearsal space, it's reminiscent of a drive-in movie. For artistic director Giovanni Luquini, aesthetically speaking, that's not far off. “I am fascinated by the cinema,” explains Luquini. “Not the special effects and explosions,” he says as he waves his hands wildly, making spontaneous-combustion sound effects. “What fascinates me about cinema is the possibility to change the mood very quickly. This is something I strive for in my work.” The dancers stand off to the side mimicking with their hands what their feet should do in the next scene. Others look on as rap and folk artist Mahogany, skateboard in hand, moves fluidly through a solo. Dressed in baggy pants and a T-shirt, Mahogany's controlled aggression and slippery movements have a very urban feel. Although never actually skating, the movement is continuous like the wheels of a skateboard, giving the viewer a roller coaster experience. Although Luquini and some cast members are trained dancers, other performers come from musical and theatrical backgrounds, as did Mahogany and Jennylin Duany, a trained actress whose regal narration and voluptuous shape added an incantatory presence in the company's 1999 production of Wrong Clue.

Usurping the power of creation from the writer, dance theater's strength relies on sound, situation, and movement more than text, meaning, and dialogue. “Giovanni tries to bring more gestures to the stage -- not so that it imitates real life, but it allows you to focus more on the character than the movement. So the observations that come from a dance-theater performance may not be about how high an arabesque is but rather the poignancy of a particular moment,” explains codirector Elizabeth Doud. Doud has written the text for a love letter that will be read in Akropolis's upcoming production of Flagrante Delicto, the second piece in an urban-based dance-theater trilogy. The first piece was Wrong Clue, which exposed audience members to street life from a shifting perspective. Flagrante Delicto penetrates the asphalt and scaffolding, pulling the audience inside random spaces and the lives of their inhabitants.

An intense fascination with the visual image seems to be a common element in dance-theater artists. Butoh-based choreographer and performer Helena Thevenot of Blu also works within the dance-theater genre but in a radically different way. One of Thevenot's recent pieces, Strewn Flowers, was inspired by young girls prostituting themselves in an upper-class Falls-like mall in Nicaragua, her native land. “Certain images haunt me. I am interested in images that speak to the subconscious; I am not interested in telling stories.”

Butoh, an avant-garde Japanese form, emerged in the 1950s as a way to express the trauma and devastation of the war. The movements are concentrated and slow and the lines contract often, evoking primal shapes. “Some might say that what I do with butoh is not dance, but I can't do anything but dance. That's my training. You don't throw away what you have learned; you just use it differently. I am doing dance. It's just not a form that is recognizable and socially acceptable,” says Thevenot.

In her next performance, The Anatomy of Desire/Relics, Thevenot will collaborate with experimental composer Gustavo Matamoros and filmmaker Dinorah de Jesus Rodriguez. The drama will be expressed not through story but anatomy. The shin, shoulder, forearm -- each body part is explored. Thevenot continues to delve into the internal workings of female sexuality and desire, from the innocent to the bizarre. Layers of images will be projected on the set and on Thevenot's body in conjunction with the deconstructed sound score. One medium she will use to examine the “layers” that often confine us in contemporary society is plastic wrap. “Handi-Wrap,” she qualifies, “will actually be part of my costume at one point.”

Matamoros and Thevenot have been collaborating for two years. Like Thevenot, the composer sees his art as an investigation. “In the past sound has been secondary,” he says. “You could write music and play it on the violin or guitar or banjo. In my work sound is primary, and every sound is valid, so the challenge is how to organize these sounds.” Based on the idea that Thevenot might be hanging at some point during the performance, Matamoros has been working with pendulumlike sounds, moving back and forth like ropes and swings.

Luquini's Akropolis and Thevenot's Blu span a vast spectrum of what can be considered dance theater. Unlike more traditional performance forms, these events are shrouded in a bit of mystery. “I ask that the audience be very present and go through this experience with me. The audience is invited on a journey of big questions and small questions,” says Thevenot. Audience members at Flagrante Delicto also can look for a unique experience. “Don't expect to find villains and heroes in our work,” she adds. “It is like a photo album of snapshots. When you open the book on your own, the images you encounter might surprise you.”

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