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Movement is life, ballet is revenge


by Jeff Kuo


February 10, 2005 -- Warner Theatre, Washington, D.C.


Swing dancing, as I recall, threatened to invade the Broadway dance scene a few years ago when Lynne Taylor-Corbett’s “Swing!” and Susan Stroman’s “contact” came out. “Swing!” relied not so much upon a raw nostalgia for the 1940s as much as on its happy go lucky montage of swing-ish moments (Zoot Suits, a USO dance, etc). It wasn't just that swing was trendy - it was fun, too. “contact” was heavier fare. No Savoyard ballrooms or bobbie-soxers in Stroman’s New York: the stuff of 'contact' (book by John Weidman) is the noir-ish material of abusive marriages and suicide attempts.


“contact” starts out lightheartedly enough. In Part I: “Swinging,” the first of the three vignettes that make up the evening, an Aristocrat, his Servant, and a Girl on a swing indulge in erotic role playing where sexuality gets crossed with social station. Inspired by Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting “The Swing,” this section features some fun moments such as a gigantic phallic salami and what is essentially soft core porn on a trapeze, “Swinging” is ultimately about the lure (or luridness) of fantasy. Escape into the world of the imagination becomes the logic that propels the entire evening. Itself essentially Stroman and Weidman’s fantasy story about the Fragonard painting, it is fantasy that drives the Aristocrat and the Girl into erotic role playing. The players were Matthew Steffens, Kurt Gorrell, and Ariel Shepley. 


However, it isn’t until Part II “Did You Move?” that the evening begins in earnest and real dancing starts. Set in an Italian restaurant in the 1950s, “Did You Move?” features the fantasies of an emotionally abused wife. Ignored and stifled into immobility by her domineering husband (“Don’t speak to the waiter, don’t smile at the bus boy, don’t fr*cking move!”), the Wife (Candy Brown) responds by escaping into an imaginary world of dance. For the meek, movement is liberation and ballet is revenge. When the Husband (Leo Nouhan) is absent from the dinner table, the Wife becomes a ballerina pirouetting to Grieg and Bizet, and even having a fling with a hunky ballet beau in the person of the Headwaiter (Eric Lewis Thielman). Living an age in a variation and a lifetime in a pas de deux, the Wife progress from a few tentative steps beside her table to becoming the prima at restaurant centerstage surrounded by her own soloists and corps.  But the implied community of Stroman's choreography is, alas, as illusory as dance itself, and the segment ends with the Wife being ground under the heels of her all too real life.


At the same time that Stroman highlights the almost magical ability of dance to make the soul crushing weight of reality bearable, there is an implied critique of dance.  Is dance a refuge?  Or merely an opiate?  If the Wife is unable to reclaim her life, is that because her moral fiber has been atrophied by constant flight into the utopian world of Terpsichore? Noticing the Wife's fantasies are primarily choreographed in balletic technique, I even wonder if Stroman isn't endorsing modern dance's critique of the (apolitical) ballet as being morally enervating (what with ballet's traditional obsession with ethereal creatures and fairy tale worlds).


Everything so far has been mere preface to the real business of the evening.  Part III: "Contact" is the reward for resisting the temptation to depart at the intermission.  However, it starts unpromisingly enough with the pathetically, botched suicide attempt of a nominally successful but alienated T.V. commercial director, Michael Wiley (James Blanshard).


If "Did You Move?" is Stroman and Weidman's take on James Thurber's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," then Part III: "Contact" draws inspiration from Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge." Formally, however, the "Contact" section stands in the musical theater tradition of the problem solving type of "dream ballet" (e.g. Laurey's dream in "Oklahoma!", "I Used to be Colorblind" in the Astaire and Rogers' film, "Carefree," etc).  Strung out on pills and with the moral stuffing coming out of him in giant handfuls, Wiley stumbles into Vinnies, a Soho pool hall and swing dance purgatory conceived by designer Thomas Lynch as a kind of homage to the Ashcan School of American art. Vinnies is also the habitat of an ensemble of nocturnal swing dancers.


Into Wiley's purgatory redemption arrives in the dazzling person of the Girl in a Yellow Dress (Allie Meixner).  Soon we understand that the fate of Wiley's soul depends upon his gathering up the courage (and skill) to dance with her, a task made not so easy by her distant manner. To the Dion song, "Run Around Sue," she makes it quickly and ball-bustingly apparent to all the eager men panting in her wake that only those with the smartest dance technique need apply. Meixner's demeanor is certainly forbidding enough, but she seems not quite to radiate the testosterone withering aura of the previous tour's endlessly leggy Holly Cruikshank.


Blanshard as Wiley is fine at conveying the depths of  his soul that he must reach to find the last measure of courage to approach the Girl.  But, to Benny Goodman's "Sing Sing Sing," the Girl in the Yellow Dress pulls Wiley into her sirenic gravitational field and they dance together at last.


The lesson that dance enables 'contact' is not lost on Wiley, and when he awakens from Vinnies, he finds himself gifted with a second chance in the form of his neighbor, an angry (and sleep deprived) girl in a yellow bath robe.  Just before the curtain descends, the set dismantles itself as Wiley and his new friend waltz on an empty stage as if Stroman is saying that in the end that's all that matter: two people dancing.


Using the term "dance play" to describe "contact," Stroman is brilliant here in using the swing idiom to convey Wiley’s plight. Balletic technique is capable of almost infinite, emotional nuance, but Wiley's problem is in the last instance social. Social dance forms (as opposed to ritual or theatrical) call individuals into the fold of the group. Wiley’s isolation from the community is repeated as the difference between his tentative steps and the ease of the clubgoers’ ensemble choreography. It’s the difference between the loner Wiley and the nocturnal community of Vinnies, the non-dancer and the dancer, and the outsider and the group. As long as Wiley fumbles on the floor, he stands no chance with the Girl in the Yellow Dress. Wiley does learn to partner; but as Stroman shows, redemption isn’t in winning the Girl in the Yellow Dress, its in the act of dance itself. When the curtains descend on Wiley and the girl in the yellow bath robe whirling through space, Stroman's "dream ballet" is saying that dance can solve real life; and even if it isn't true, that's not because it shouldn't be.


For those who might remember the previous national tour, there are a few differences in this tour with a new cast and original direction recreated by Fergus Logan. The lighting design (Michele Disco based upon Peter Kaczorowski) remains as expressive as ever. However, they've toned down some of the more curious, fetishistic aspects of "Swinging."  In Part II, "Did You Move?" Brown and Thielman’s dancing is uplifting even if not quite as giddy as Meg Howrey and Gary Franco's was on the previous tour.  And, for those of you who remember buffet nights at real neighborhood restaurants, you may be disappointed with the tepid demise of the "f-word" in the current production, though the "3 card monty" sequence remains as hilarious as ever.  In addition there is a running gag about dinner rolls after which you may never again ask for them innocently.


The biggest difference shows in Part III: "Contact."  The ensemble seem much younger now.  The mysterious, sexy, and dangerous clubgoers have been replaced by much younger, somewhat less noir-ish versions of themselves though they collectively look as toned and sexy as any pool hall/swing club hell deserves.  But when Blanshard's forty-something Wiley scouts out Meixner's smooth skinned and fresh Girl, she seems less the Girl in the Yellow Dress than the Jailbait in the Yellow Dress. Yet when Meixner dances, she smokes and makes "Contact" seem as if it might as well all be about the dress. 


A word about the venue:  dating back to the 1920s, the Warner Theatre was originally one of Washington's most beautiful and ornate vaudeville and movie houses (though functioning for a time as a pornographic movie theater) before being revitalized and developed in the 1980s as a legitimate venue for live theater. Its location 1 block from the Metro Center stop on the DC Metro system makes it extremely accessible.




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