“The Phillip Project, Episode 14: just dreaming, just wondering, just remembering to remember”
Green Street Studios, Cambridge Massachusetts
February 28-March 1, 2008
[performance reviewed: March 1 at 7:00 pm]
Like Japanese choreographer Kei Takei, whose epic “Light” appeared in segments produced over many years, since 2001 American choreographer Michael Jahoda has been showing his now 14-part “Phillip Project” as an ongoing dance installed in various venues in Europe and the U.S. This dance began in Amsterdam as a collaborative effort with Finnish video artist Pasi Granqvist. Jahoda is a performer and choreographer of considerable experience and undisputable merit. He won a scholarship to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center in New York in 1986, for seven years performed as a principal dancer with Jennifer Muller/The Works, was guest soloist with Tanz-Forum Köln, and also a principal member of Anouk van Dijk’s innovative ensemble based in The Netherlands. A few years ago he came to Boston to teach at Boston University, and his unique choreography stands out from the local scene for its emphatic style, rich movement vocabulary, and radical approach to the possibilities of even the most mundane space. Like many prior manifestations of “The Phillip Project,” Episode 14 is a collaborative effort, in this instance with the musicians Robbert van Hulzen and Brian Nelson. The history of the project intrigues me as much as the current installment, though I’ve had only the opportunity to see the most recent episode, part 13, subtitled “Un-plugged.”
Jahoda had organized the performance space in the front room of Green Street Studios carefully: there were small groupings of chairs distant from each other, percussion instruments laid out on a blanket in the center, three “disco” mirror balls hanging from the ceiling, a ladder, bare incandescent light bulbs arranged in a pendulous cluster at the back, and a series of long-tube fluorescent lights hung along the walls. The room was nearly dark as Jahoda entered the space and stopped at the first “station” to deliver an elegant monologue about prior manifestations of the “Phillip Project.” He has a distinctly theatrical, charismatic appearance and a soothing baritone voice. For “Episode 14” Jahoda wore camouflage pants and a striped long-sleeved knit shirt. He shaves his head, has a long distinctive nose, compassionate eyes, and a versatile lean body that seems to carve through space as if it were an air bubble trapped in infinite solidness. At times his appearance recalls dramatic pictures of the legendary German modern dancer Harald Kreutzberg. Like Kreutzberg, Jahoda seems to have been born for the stage.
The first monologue had no movement but rather a set of subtle hand gestures that slowly invaded the text. In his ironic introductory speech, Jahoda surveyed the previous manifestations of Phillip, how those environments had smelled and looked, identified Phillip as “a prince, a child, a superhero,” and reminisced that when he “saw Phillip, it was the biggest feeling I ever had.” When he reached the summary of “Episode 13,” which premiered also at Green Street Studios in Cambridge, he described the venue as, “a little sad, a little neglected.” Of course, those of us who have been watching performances there for years might have forgotten that it is certainly a depressing environment and perhaps ill-suited for public events, but Jahoda’s description was delivered in a tone that suggested he intends further to care for the place, simply by dancing in it and inviting others to watch him.
By the time Jahoda reached the second “station” at the opposite wall, the percussionist had initiated a kind of ritualistic improvisation and Jahoda was running in place. He identified the mysterious Phillip as, “a concept and a character, an idea and an ideal.” The running was eventually invaded by certain isolations of the arms, torso and head, set to driving rhythms from the percussionists. While the choreography appears improvised, it is actually extraordinarily disciplined, gaining density and complexity as it moved around the perimeter of the room, in between rows of seated viewers, and finishing among the swinging incandescent light bulbs. In its entirety the movement has a coherent “sweep,” like the continuous line of a melody by Satie or a large drawing by Cocteau.
The dance came to settle like the sea tide going out; one of the musicians was softly plucking a Kalimba. “Despite its shams, drudgery and broken dreams, it’s still a beautiful world,” said Jahoda. The text was delivered in a strangely ironic manner, as if Jahoda was more than aware of how he was manipulating such a textual cliché. In this way, it seems his fragmentation of grand narratives is an ultimate goal of “The Phillip Project.” Jahoda has said that Phillip’s pursuit of freedom is a theme. I would add that the responsibility associated with freedom is also evident in this ongoing, perplexing installation. In the fragments left of Georg Büchner’s “Woyzeck” following his death in 1837, in the opening scene a Doctor asks the title character a disturbingly metaphysical question: “Woyzeck, what will you do with the expanse of time before you?” In other words, what responsibility will you show in light of your own freedom? In the context of Jahoda’s “Phillip Project” the reply to that question might be, “I will dance and I will think, but in mysterious ways, and I accept that not all of my inquiries will meet with necessarily clear answers.” Thus, Episode 15 (and the ones that will follow inevitably) is eagerly anticipated.