The Substance of Zero

Natasha Tsakos creates a beguiling universe that feels like a dream

Going from strength to strength in the Light Box Studio, Here & Now 2005 radiates the unmistakable glow of success. Fast on the heels of new works by Octavio Campos and Joanne Barrett came two new pieces unveiled last week: a winning tap-dance fantasy with a hip-hop edge called What?!? by Ico Manzanero, and a perfect jewel of a performance piece billed as Up Wake part II by Natasha Tsakos. Taken together, these co-commissions of the Miami Light Project and the Miami Performing Arts Center are giving Miami audiences some of the edgiest and most exciting theater seen here this season. In the case of Tsakos, they may even have come up with a masterpiece.

Who is Natasha Tsakos? I last saw her playing a fabulous hooker in impossibly high heels boom-chic-a-booming her way through a guerrilla-theater piece perpetrated by Urban Disturbance for Art Basel. She's been spotted around town as a red-nosed creature called Kokoff. She is a circus performer. She is an actress, a playwright, a dancer, and a choreographer, perhaps above all a clown. Not your basic Ronald McDonald, mind you. Elegant and exquisitely graceful, Tsakos is like a female Bill Irwin or like Marcel Marceau on Ecstasy. Her Up Wake part II is only a section of a projected longer work, but already she has created something of value.

It is not exactly linear. Up Wake part II is a crowded solo piece, centered on a Tsakos creation called Zero: a lithe New Wave clown in swell tails and stiff shirt first seen behind a scrim before moving center stage amid a dizzying parade of computer animations. Zero moves to the overamplified creaking of an otherwise silent accordion, peers through a giant peephole that drops down out of nowhere, lovingly carries a small suitcase that suddenly acquires a life of its own, all the while remaining straight-laced as Jeeves the butler but suggesting vast undercurrents of darkness. Zero eventually settles into what looks like office work, all of it maniacally mimed against computer animations.

"The body can function without a brain," she proclaims as other projected phrases follow in Godardian staccato -- an office chair becomes a wheelchair and then perhaps a spaceship, complete with stage fog out of the blue. All through this, Zero keeps on with her virtual typing, filing, reading, and writing, interacting with a world that is so obviously alienating that one's sympathies cannot help but fly to her side. A shower of dollar bills at the end manages to be at once exhilarating and deeply disturbing.

The Marcel Marceau connection is not one to take lightly, and Tsakos' Zero may well prove to be a worthy heir to the great mime's immortal Bip. Like Marceau, Tsakos seems utterly at home in a world that follows no logic but that of a dream. And also like Marceau, she never seems less than real. The more alienating and brutal the facts of life appear, the more Zero's futile rebellion seems heroic. Up Wake part II is a strikingly original, truly existentialist and thus humanist, profoundly moving new play.

The production values, not incidentally, are sterling and deserve mention: Nathan Rausch's sound design and video, together with the 3-D work of Shattered Images Animation Studios; M. Tate Tenorio's magical chair and Carolina Pagani's weirdly cool suitcases; Catherine de Saugny's role as musical advisor, which had Tsakos moving to music ranging from the pillow dance of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet to peels of children's laughter and what sounded like uncredited soundtracks of Italian horror movies. Octavio Campos, billed as choreographer, has succeeded in making Tsakos's every move seem spontaneous. And so with the whole show. I can't wait to see the rest.

Ico Manzanero is a terrific tap dancer now exploring unsuspected affinities between hip-hop and salsa, figuring out connections between the steady thump of hip-hop and the sexy syncopation of salsa. It is tough to tap to a clave beat, and these rhythmic explorations are not without rewards. Manzanero's What?!? attaches a story, autobiographical of course, to the dance. It works up to a point and, if nothing else, it announces the arrival of an immensely likable dance talent. His tapping brings to mind a more butch Ruby Keeler. It was unwise, however, for him to dance in front of projected movies of Charlie Chaplin, Shirley Temple, and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson: That was about as unflattering to Manzanero as, say, a ballet dancer performing in front of a Baryshnikov movie. Also his production values are rough, his storytelling rougher still, his fusion of tap and other dance languages not always persuasive. Spectacles such as the popular Stomp and the irrepressible Tap Dogs have pulled off full-length narrations using a limited dance language. What?!? isn't there yet.

 
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