America Hurrah: period piece



John Henry Faulk Living Theatre,
through May 16

In the 1960s, Jean-Claude van Itallie and the highly influential Open Theatre teamed up to create dynamic, groundbreaking social theatre, presented with as much attention to the physical as to the verbal. Led by Joseph Chaikin and greatly influenced by Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook (for whom theatrical performance transcended other, more staid, contemporary presentations), the Open Theatre espoused the ensemble: a trained, dedicated group of performers who put the play before any quest for personal fame.

New local company bent spectacles has taken this ensemble ethic to heart with its presentation of van Itallie's America Hurrah, three one-act plays that attempt to skewer through satire three aspects of life in this great nation of ours, updated to increase their relevance. But what was razor-sharp social satire in the Sixties is just blunt today: the overriding innocence within the writing betrays its dated feel: How can van Itallie's parody TV compare with last week's on-the-air suicide on a California freeway for sardonic nightmare? How does the pain of Interview reflect Austin's well-deep job market? This political theatre is benign, self-defeating.

The three pieces have their moments of humor at the few places that still connect with life in the Nineties, but all seem interminable, in spite of the good work by the energetic ensemble cast. Interview begins as a Kafka-esque series of questions by the powers-that-be who hover over four job seekers, then dissolves into the equally Kafka-esque investigation of day-to-day life in the Big City. TV pits three flawed humans against a monstrously large television screen on which they must watch the perverse and the banal of everyday broadcasts that seem to intersect, if only tangentially, with their sorry lives. Motel, the darkest of the three plays, and the least substantive, attempts to take van Itallie's material into the 1990s, advocating an online motel.

If the material seems to lack heart, the eight performers in the ensemble more than make up for it with plenty of their own. Young artists with a clear understanding of and sympathy with the text, they create believable bewilderment in Interview and precise television stereotypes in TV. The ensemble's physical work in these one-acts deserves mention, too: sharp and disciplined, the often intricate movement of these short pieces is practically acrobatic.

Director Eric Love hasn't really figured out when and how to control the simultaneity of dialogue: it's precise, but confusing; a sense of randomness and lack of focus prevails. David Sebastian Boone's sets and lights are sloppy: Interview takes place under the theatre's fluorescent lighting, adding to the difficulty in following the cascading stories; the television screen for TV is bulky and rough, and steals the focus of Motel during its absurdly staged dismantling. In spite of the modern trappings, America Hurrah plays more like a nostalgic period piece than cutting-edge social satire.—Robi Polgar


Pan-American Hillside Stage,
May 1 & 2

Imagine this: "Getting down" to the floor with a rapid, slashing, circular scan with your sneakered feet. Supporting your body's weight with your hands while your head and torso revolve at a slower speed, a kind of syncopated, sunken pirouette, resembling a helicopter. Then, springing back to verticality with the swipe, a flip of the weight from hands to feet that also involves a twist in the body's direction.

You have just experienced Fly's movement vocabulary, a pop-manifesto of street dance, house, hip-hop, and breakdancing. Whirling on their hands, backs, shoulders, and heads, the members of this all-male dance group from Houston progress from one move to the next — the windmill, the float, the hand glide — their acrobatic feats enhanced by pantomime and slow motion gestures that are accentuated by the freeze, in which a pose is held or frozen.

Under the artistic direction of Cathy Wood, Fly fuses hip-hop with every available dance genre. They combine street moves with ballet, modern, tap, jazz dance, and contact improvisation, and orchestrate it to a mixed bill of musical fare that includes Vivaldi, Beethoven, James Brown, Nat King Cole, and Michael Jackson. The four dancers typify one of the many new generation of performers fusing various styles of dance with a flagrant content of all sorts. Their dances are an eclectic amalgam of street dance phrases infused with contemporary dance styles that are sporadically out of context. A wonderful flash of versatility, virtuosity, and variety to complement Ballet East Dance Theatre's last performance of the season, Cinco de Mayo Under The Stars!!

In honor of Cinco de Mayo, Rodolfo Mendez's Ballet East paid homage to a variety of dance cultures. Performances ranged from Fly's pop culture dances to Ballet Folklorico's register of traditional dance culture to the melding of classical and contemporary forms of dance by various local choreographers. Ballet Folklorico celebrated their cultural identity with colorful traditional costumes and folk steps such as the polka and schottische from the northern region of Juarez and the complex footwork of the southern region of Veracruz. The ever-popular El Jarabe Tapatio, Mexico's national dance, especially made for a delightful visual lore of Mexico's dance heritage.

Ballet East's continuing commitment to expanding artistic opportunities to local choreographers was represented by the featured works of Melissa Villarreal, Stephen Mills, Shanon Leyrer, and Toni Bravo. The bustling phrases of the energetic, witty, diverse off-balance movement in Stephen Mills' Bruises and Regina Larkin's Quiet City, a choreographic structure that challenged the dancer's ethereal reverence of movement, complemented the virtuosic range of Ballet East's company dancers. Melissa Villarreal's Moments in Love, a collaboration of ballet, jazz, and modern, embodied sensuous, graceful, strong defined movements. Shannon Leyrer's On the Corner portrayed intricacies of complex phrases embellished by the engaging Zoot Suit era. Toni Bravo's solo By the Night captured the audience with its sudden extensions and articulated gestures which punctuated the fluidity of her choreography.

From traditional to contemporary forms of dance, theinterlinking of dance forms offered the evening's viewers a cornucopia of visual delight. Ballet East's Cinco de Mayo celebration was not only entertaining but alsoa fitting way to use dance as a site where cultural experience and knowledge was applauded.
—Barbejoy A. Ponzio


Dougherty Arts Center,
April 18

With work ranging from snappy and presentational-style Broadway choreography to fluid and contemplative modern dance, Ballet East Dance Theatre's spring concert provided an impressive showcase of the company members' versatility. The participation of various guest choreographers — Regina Larkin, artistic director of New York's Joyce Trisler Danscompany; Stephen Mills, former resident choreographer of Ballet Austin; Shannon Leyrer, member of Cardona Dance Company; Melissa Villareal, assistant artistic director of Ballet East; and Toni Bravo, artistic director of KINESIS Dance Theatre — contributed to the show's diversity.

In Larkin's Quiet City, two dancers mimicked the buildings projected behind them with reaching movements, stretching their bodies to cover as much space as possible. Throughout the piece, the dancers seemed alienated, occasionally occupying the same space but never making contact until the piece's end, with one perching on the other as they stared beyond the audience. Larkin also performed a striking solo draped in white. Embodying the sculptural beauty of a statue awakening, she utilized her impressive seasoned stage presence, strength, and flexibility to perform the supple choreography. Lighting difficulties dampened the effect of her strong upstage exit but did not diminish the piece as a whole.

Both Mills' and Leyrer's pieces featured company members dressed as men, energetically performing athletic pieces reminiscent of the idealized movie musicals of the late Forties and early Fifties. It was during these pieces that Ballet East's dancers truly shone. They played to the audience, smiling with each other and enjoying the performance experience by allowing their personalities to show through the choreography. Particularly moving was the solo with a hat stand. Dancer Angelique Smith adroitly manipulated the hat stand as a dance partner and a reluctant lover, deciding finally to join the others in a rousing finale. The ensemble's zoot suits (complete with hats and chains) silhouetted against the backdrop was a memorable image that typified the jovial mood of the evening. Villareal's balletic quartet combined lyrical modern movement with jazz precision work to create a piece that filled the stage with circular after-images. Similarly, Bravo's fluid solo swept over the stage with a quietly celebratory energy.

Ballet East is very good at what it does. Not only are its dancers well-rehearsed and entertaining to watch, they are dedicated to producing a professional performance. Which made it dismaying to see so much flash photography throughout the show. Camera flashes are disturbing for the audience and disorienting for the performers. While it may be difficult to secure a permanent record of a dance performance — video tends to flatten dance's three-dimensional nature, and still cameras can be hindered by the darkness in theatres — flash photography during a show is not a suitable solution. The performers deserve the opportunity to do their best and the audience to watch them do their best without distraction. —Dawn Davis

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