Wit and talent in SYC’s URINETOWN: THE MUSICAL

Remember that bad drought we were in a few years ago? The lakes dried up, the media promoted the “if it’s yellow” mantra, people were busted for lawn-watering, middle-aged women were spied doing rain dances late at night, and the government started handing out credits for low-flow toilets. Take that scenario to the power of 100, and you have the set-up for Urinetown: The Musical. There is so little water that private toilets have been banned. So has peeing behind a tree. Elimination is allowed only in the public amenities, which are not free—nor publicly run. Owned by an evil charming man and his corporation, the “amenities” are so costly that the people are always in need of a pee. Those who can’t pay are hauled off to Urinetown and summarily executed.

PRC’s Summer Youth Conservatory in URINETOWN:THE MUSICAL. Photo: Andrea Akin.

I know this sounds dreary, but it is actually smart and sassy, biting in a Brechtian sort of way that asserts the need for social change and an unquenchable belief that it can be made to occur. The two-act musical (Greg Kotis and Mark Holloman), as staged by PlayMakers Repertory Company’s Summer Youth Conservatory (through July 22 in the Paul Green Theater), offers both light relief and something sweeter—a renewed hopefulness. These kids could be the ones to slay the corporate dragons and their despicable corrupt legislative minions.

Officer Lockstock (Dylan Goodman) and Little Sally (Olivia Griffin) do a little exposition in URINETOWN. Photo: Andrea Akin.

“These kids” are the talented Chapel Hill-area middle-and high-school students attending the fifth annual Summer Youth Conservatory, where they work with PRC’s professionals in all areas of creating stage productions. This year’s intensive is culminating this weekend with the boisterous Urinetown, cast of 25, some of whom look like they are on their ways to the UNC School of the Arts.

The SYC is a marvelous program, the kind of thing that makes one feel better about the state university that’s been dragging itself through the mud tracked in by “student-athletes” and their enablers. Five years ago, the SYC made its tentative beginnings in collaboration with the Carrboro ArtsCenter, and now the program has gathered support and moved to the PRC’s well-equipped facilities in the UNC Center for Dramatic Art.

50 years ago, its predecessor was in full swing as a residential program for stage-struck high-schoolers from around the state. Run by John Parker at that time, it was called Junior Playmakers, and was my introduction to The Playmakers and its theater (now called the Historic Playmakers Theater) with the corn on its Corinthian columns. My aunt came for it, living in Old East, running back and forth across the street to the theater, and spreading the theater contagion to her niece with her zest for the whole enterprise. Her group performed Eudora Welty’s The Ponder Heart. I am willing to bet that all of the Junior Playmakers remember their experience as vividly as my aunt.

The SYC does not include a residential component, but it does offer an almost matchless opportunity for young theater artists to test and strengthen their skills. From an audience point of view, the SYC provides a high-energy theater experience in what otherwise might be the doldrums of summer. The SYC is the kind of community work, and Urinetown: The Musical the kind of play that would make Paul Green proud. Besides that, it will make you laugh out loud.

Grand finale of the gospel number in URINETOWN. Photo: Andrea Akin.

UNDIVIDED DIVIDED: Shen Wei @ Home with ADF @ NC Museum of Art

A slim man of unusual grace glides silently through the quiet clusters of art-viewers at the North Carolina Museum of Art, pausing here and there to contemplate the work-in-progress spread through galleries filled with artworks that have achieved their ultimate stasis, a safe repose, where they will be seen in the future, and not forgotten to history. In the pristine white galleries of the NCMA’s luminous West Building, among towering modern and contemporary works, among German Expressionist paintings, among ancient Greek marbles and vases, dancers on seven-foot-square tiles mix bright wet paint with their bodies. They revel in it, moving slick color around with increasing abandon, in shocking proximity to the museum artworks.

Shen Wei’s UNDIVIDED DIVIDED at NCMA, 7-17-12. Photo: Grant Halverson, courtesy ADF.

In less than an hour the dancers will be gone, and evidence of their performances eliminated, while the still art will remain.

The man moves in close to the elegantly twisting and folding bodies, then stands completely still, deeply alert. He’s silhouetted by the theatrical lighting, and his neat dark head, close-fitted white shirt, and wide navy linen trousers cropped mid-calf form a tri-toned triangle in the large composition of the gallery. Blue suede shoes, thick-soled and strong, ground the triangle.

It’s Shen Wei–aesthete, thinker, artist, dancemaker, master of visual spectacle–observing the first performance of a new version of his newest work, Undivided Divided, occurring July 17 thanks to a bold collaboration between the NCMA and the American Dance Festival.

Early in the 45-minute work, no music plays, but watching Shen Wei watch his dancers and the small horde of guarders and paint-splatter-wipers near them, a song did play in my head: Bob Dylan’s nasal voice singing “All along the watchtower, princes kept the view/While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.” Later, an electronic score by So Percussion (an experimental quartet) begins. It is so cannily matched to Shen Wei’s style, that it almost seems as if the music responds to the dancers’ movement, as well as drawing movement out of the dancers.

Scaled to fit the NCMA, from the larger version that premiered last winter at New York’s Park Avenue Armory, where Shen Wei had spent a year as artist-in-residence, Undivided Divided goes way past merely breaking the fourth wall beneath the proscenium. Here, the dancers are relatively confined, spatially, but the audience is freed to move among the dancers—or to stand still, as desired.

Maker and mark in UNDIVIDED DIVIDED. Photo: Grant Halverson, courtesy of ADF.

Spaced like sculptures along the wide passages and galleries of the museum, each dancer remains discrete on his or her tile, like a painting on a wall, or sculpture on a pedestal. The occasional short leap by a dancer from tile to tile seems like the mental leap one makes between artworks. These tile-like dance squares march down the long galleries, culminating with either a large acrylic box with a pool of paint, or a large acrylic construction involving a tray of paint and a ramp down to a tile. From the far side of these, a view extends back along the meridian of dancers.

Anyone who has watched any Shen Wei Dance Arts performance knows that these are some of the most wondrous practitioners of the arts of motion and stillness. To be able to stand close to these dancers, to hover over them, to have a slicing arm or whipping foot pass inches from your eye, is an extraordinarily thrilling experience. Even more powerful is the realization that you are within the flow of movement of a Shen Wei dance; your motion, random though it may be, has been provoked by the mind of this artist.

Struggling with blocks in UNDIVIDED DIVIDED. Photo: Glenn Halverson, courtesy of ADF.

It may be the mind of a genius—the MacArthur Foundation has awarded Shen Wei the famous “genius” grant. At any rate, it is a mind that works at many levels simultaneously. Not only does this piece rearrange artist/audience relations, and highlight the ephemerality of dance art, it expresses of the process of creating any art.

During the quiet period at the beginning of the work, dancers enter the galleries carrying clear acrylic cubes, about 12 inches on a side. The bear them like treasures, and set them carefully on the dance squares. Several together are used by one dancer to position or prop another, who balances and rebalances on them through many changes. It looks horribly awkward and at times painful. Gradually the artistic ideas resolve themselves and the blocks clear away. Tentatively, the dancers begin to dab and roll themselves in the pools of waiting paint. Following (or leading) the music, they gradually move with more certainty, and ultimately with ecstatic freedom. (Watching the young man slither and twist in the box of orange made me giddy with pleasure, a pleasure pierced with tenderness for those dips and declivities in the body—the backs of knees, the hollows under the ankle bones, the little basins at throat and clavicle—where no color spread.)

More clearly than in any of the other dances in which Shen Wei has explored the idea of dancer as mark-maker, we can see that the dancer makes the marks, and the dancer receives the marks, the drenching color. While making art, the dancer becomes art. It’s a delicious paradox that this occurs in an art museum, because no edifice can preserve this art, which lives only in temporal bodies.

At the reception after this hyper-intelligent art happening, Shen Wei said he was “so happy” watching his dancers, and so happy with the “direct simplicity” of the color (which of course wasn’t all that simple, having been carefully keyed to nearby paintings), and so happy to be able to present Undivided Divided here. Shen Wei came to ADF as a young Chinese student; he founded his company at ADF in 2000, and has returned with new work many times since. Now a global phenomenon, he’s based in New York, and tours all over the world, but, he says, “summer is time for my North Carolina home.”

Shen Wei’s latest work, at the NC Museum of Art. Photo: Grant Halverson, courtesy of ADF.

Undivided Divided repeats twice each evening, July 18-19, at the North Carolina Museum of Art.

Perpetual Motion for Its Own Sake: Brian Brooks Moving Company at ADF

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 7/17/12 IN THE ARTERY AT INDYWEEK.COM.

From DESCENT. Photo: Christopher Duggan, courtesy of ADF.

Brian Brooks makes a big production out of very little material. He choreographs all of the dances, which initially give the impression of being big and glitzy, for the aptly named Brian Brooks Moving Company. And he does it with a limited vocabulary that depends on virtuosic physical expression for what interest it arouses.

The dancers are supremely fit body-machines, capable of many rapid repetitions without pause. The body and certain aspects of its capabilities (such as, how close can one get to perpetual motion?) seem to be the main area of exploration for Brooks. And aggression. There’s a lot of aggression, playful and not, in the dances in the BBMC program in Reynolds Theater at the American Dance Festival this year.

Big City (2012) opens the program. Seven dancers amid a forest of hanging, articulated shiny metal tubes, perform to a relentless score by Jonathan Pratt. Like rats in a crowded cage, or workers in Manhattan, all seven struggle ceaselessly for dominance, success and survival among the glittering canyons of the sharp-edged city. They do the same things again and again and again, and since those things are not all that interesting, and since the pace changes only to become a little more frenetic, I became very tired of it well before the curtain lowered on the last man moving.

One section stands out, however. Brooks writhes and rolls among the shiny rods, never touching a one, his hands and feet making stepping stones along the path he creates for the diminutive Jo-anne Lee, who treads them, balancing with outspread arms as he turns beneath her.

In the solo I’m Going to Explode (2007), Brooks shows off his muscular skills as a suited white-collar worker having a minor freak-out before putting his jacket back on and trudging back to his job. It’s clever but shallow. Again, the idea runs out before the dance stops.

An early scene from Brooks’ DESCENT. Photo: Christopher Duggan, courtesy of ADF.

Descent (2011) includes more memorable images—as opposed to forgettable blurs of repetitive motion—than any of the other pieces included here. The power of these images was greatly enhanced by the striped lighting designed by Philip Treviño, but there’s nothing in the way of dramatic build. A scene in which dancers cross the dim stage while fanning lengths of colored gossamer cloth aloft into the light seduces the eye; the smoke-like curls of cloth recall the stage smoke puffing into the first scene, in which a walking dancer carries on another angled stiff across his shoulders. As the pair moves slowly through the striped light, they are joined by two more pairs, drifting. Other than that instance, it was not clear how the scenes related to each other.

I had been looking forward to Motor (2010), which received several positive reviews after its performance at the Joyce Theater in New York last year. The set looked fantastic in photos—all reviewers commented on it—and the subject seemed ideal for BBMC. However, in this program, only an excerpt is performed, and there is no set. Brooks and David Scarantino dance a duet. Their hopping abilities are extraordinary. They move around the stage in unison, on one leg each, and the leg-changes are so cleverly managed that one hardly sees them. It’s quite a feat—dancesport—and perhaps it makes sense within the context of the full dance. As it was, it seemed like Mark Dendy or Larry Keigwin Lite. Very Lite. Definitely less filling.

This is the third time I seen Brian Brooks Moving Company perform, and the third time I’ve seen the same tropes and movement sequences repeated throughout the evening, to much the same surface effect. Brooks and company do what they do very well, but they touch no deep chord of emotion, nor do they light up the synapses with syncretic understanding. And the work is not entertaining enough to keep this viewer happy in the shallows of movement for movement’s sake.

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