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Really Altogether Different

How DanceOff! is changing the face of the nation...well, at least modern dance

by Jenai Cutcher

In some ways, the New York modern dance scene is like the Democrats and their many presidential hopefuls: stagnating in a virtual slump, but desperately needing to combat the stale, conservative rule. Re-re-recycled movement and what seems like an unceasing tribute to Balanchine continue to draw the masses uptown, and last month’s Altogether Different season at The Joyce has once again failed to introduce anyone even remotely deviant from the norm. Yet just like the politicians, most modern dancers are milling around at random, saying essentially the same things in the same places.

But while the Dems have to deal with Kerry, Dean, and the rest, we’ve got Terry Dean on the scene and he’s emerging as a very capable leader of a movement’s movement. In 1999, Terry Dean Bartlett and fellow STREB action hero Lisa LeAnn Dalton created Lisa LeAnn and Terry Dean put on a DANCESHOW, a cabaret-type dance showcase at Galapagos in Williamsburg which caused quite a stir in the performance world and attracted much attention from the press. Following Lisa LeAnn’s departure for the greener pastures of bareback bronco riding, Terry Dean joined forces with Katie Workum to expand on the ideals DANCESHOW set forth.

They had grown tired of the all the “angsty, suicidal modern dance” out there and wanted to present an alternative to both performers and audience members. DanceOff! hit the city last summer with a lively, eclectic show at Joe’s Pub, an accommodating venue for such an endeavor. It’s already known as a hip place to hear live music, and its bar and cozy seating make seeing dance a much more informal, relaxed experience than normal.

“We want the audience to leave the theatre having seen something fun,” Workum explains. At its most basic level, DanceOff! can simply be described as an informal showcase-style performance spoofing the vibe of suburban high school talent shows. Participants are limited to seven minutes of stage time, thus keeping the stories succinct and the pace moving. Often times, says Bartlett, newcomers to modern dance leave a long, intense performance feeling like they didn’t get it. “It makes them feel stupid and people don’t like to feel stupid, so they won’t come back.” The DanceOff! formula introduces dance in small doses, sneaking the more modern of the modern dance in amongst a collection of singing, acting, storytelling, lip synching, and a vast array of unusual hijinks.

The DanceOff! talent is a mix of the fresh and familiar. The debut at Joe’s Pub included Workum and Bartlett, Bessie winner Cynthia Hopkins, burlesque goddess Julie Atlas Muz, and modern dance poster boy Paul Matteson. Tap dance, comedy, acrobatics, provocative costumes… nothing is off-limits. Following their second appearance at Joe’s in November (which included performances by Lawrence Goldhuber, Leigh Garrett, and Sara Sweet Rabidoux), Bartlett and Workum took their gig uptown for a show at Symphony Space’s Thalia Theater, again expanding their production potential and hopefully their audience. This “best-of” show featured several regulars along with first time, but highly qualified participants.

Being extremely talented and involved in several aspects of the New York performance scene, not to mention all-around likeable people, the two producers have had no trouble filling the DanceOff! line-ups, but Bartlett says they are now trying to reach beyond their peer base. This desire to expand, coupled with their openness to any sort of crazy performance idea, makes DanceOff! a wonderful catalyst for establishing a type of community that’s seriously lacking in the modern dance realm.

“In the ‘90s, there was no community to speak of. Now the community is growing, but there’s nowhere to go,” observes Bartlett . He and Workum are changing that through their collaborations and individual projects; he is now the Associate Artistic Director of STREB and she is working with about 80 different people and performing all over the city. While there is not currently a physical place to go, Bartlett and Workum have essentially become the Kevin Bacon in the six-degrees-of-separation-modern-dance web which actually only needs two or three degrees. They are conscious of developing a sort of “cross-breeding think tank,” but are just beginning to realize how beneficial this has already been to the dance community and what great potential there is for extending this phenomenon.

If anyone can do it, they can. Whether discussing dance, performing it, or producing it, Bartlett and Workum both have an uncanny knack for communicating honest, straightforward opinions with charm and a manner so angelic they could sell you a three-dollar bill. What’s most endearing about their approach is that they are as fair and even-handed as possible. They are not “anti-“anything, but maintain there is room for everything and simply add what they do to the mix. As producers, they make tech rehearsals, scheduling, and other logistical situations run as smoothly as possible. They front most the money for each DanceOff! production and split the profits evenly between every performer, including themselves. They perform in every show, but no more or less than anyone else.

Not that anyone would really complain if they did. In the past six months, Bartlett has battled the time clock woes of a 9 to 5-er, ridiculed Dubya’s stance on gay marriage with the help of Dolly Parton and cowboy boots, and performed with a video projection of his 6th grade jazz-dancing self. Workum has paired up with Leigh Garrett to sing and dance their way through a parody of modern dance choreographers and found love in an elevator with Nathan Phillips. Amidst several other skilled performers, her clever work always stands out and her versatility as a performer makes each of her appearances onstage interesting and unique. 

DanceOff! can certainly be taken at face value and enjoyed every time, but it is a multi-faceted concept that deserves a deeper examination. For those interested in studying the aesthetics, sociology, philosophy, and theory shaping concert dance today, its contribution should not be overlooked. Much of the material challenges current issues of all sorts in a clear, concise manner. Popular fodder is the microcosm of dance itself: dance about dance, the dance scene, dancers, concert atmospheres, and more. Leigh Garrett’s audition piece not only satirizes common personality traits of dancers, but also tackles the whole American Idol-esque culture that has made itself prevalent in our society.

Besides serving as a great introductory model for a novice dance viewer, DanceOff! provides a refreshing alternative to those who frequent venues like The Joyce Theatre, DTW, and The Kitchen. Trends come and go in modern dance. As seen in many other showcases, especially those featuring emerging artists, choreographers appear to recognize what these traits are and attempt to build their work around them. Dry humor, irony, reliance on props, collaborations with some flavor-of-the-month designer, ridiculous theatrics, and the standard vacant modern dance expression are hot like Manolo Blahniks, but just because you know that and sport a pair, it doesn’t mean they look good on you.

There’s a difference between making something work for you and making work that is something of you. DanceOff! is hip because it just is. Bartlett, Workum, and their crew make absurd and ridiculous and fun work because they are absurd and ridiculous and fun. No vacant stares, no pretension, no affectation, just sincere offerings of genuine ideas. It’s homegrown all the way, a real interactive, grassroots effort. The honest, personal community of DanceOff! is an oasis in the desert of simulations of reality that extend from our televisions and computers to our government. So much for New York modern dance… maybe Terry Dean and Katie should run for office. The world would be a much better place if all disputes were settled with a nice, friendly DanceOff! competition, don’t you think?

Edited by Azlan Ezaddin

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