Dancers balance both order, chaos
By TOM STRINI
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel dance critic
April 15, 2007
David Neumann's way of framing human movement - glorious or mundane, graceful or clunky - reveals its beauty and fascination.
For example: Two dancers in Neumann's Advanced Beginner Group, at Alverno College on Saturday night, burst ahead as if from starting blocks. Still in unison and tilted forward from their momentum, they took their second step in slow motion, then landed awkwardly, in a noisy thumping of feet. In one phrase, they put three things in sharp relief and gave us the pleasure of comparing them. They engaged the body as much as the eye. You could feel the changing weight and thrust.
That was but one moment in "tough, the tough," the intellectually ambitious and often very funny piece that filled the second half. It opened wry and self-referential, with Neumann responding to a Godlike voice-over: "Steve moves to the right, then takes a step ahead. Oh, Steve's lost something, he's looking for it. Maybe he just thinks he's lost something. He's not sure." Neumann mimed even the subtleties of uncertainty legibly and naturally. Sometimes he was a little ahead or behind the voice-over; you had to be awake to spot the relations.
As the other five dancers got into the act, the narrative faded in favor of bits of music and electronic noises. The ensemble's traffic patterns and behavior seemed chaotic at first. (Is he pouring coffee? Is she washing her face?) But the dancers' Zen-like clarity of action made the material arresting. Repetition led to pattern and rhythm, and expanded scale made it easier to see everyday moves as dance.
But "tough, the tough" does not so much make order from chaos as establish a tantalizing balance between order and chaos. Just when you think you have it figured out, something absurd makes you laugh - the stage manager blows a whistle, say, and stops the show. The confetti and balloons failed to fall! Just when you think all this is nuts, confetti turns out to have structural significance.
"Hit the Deck," another ensemble piece, showed the same thinking as "tough, the tough," but with more physical comedy, to funny tangos, waltzes and fox-trots by Stravinsky (of all people).
Neumann is an extraordinary presence - lithe and athletic, clear and forceful, utterly unpretentious. His opening, in-place solo, to Steve Reich's "It's Gonna Rain," was a tour de force of stamina and clarity of gesture, from the manic shaking of the head through the electric waves that rippled from head to toe.
Neumann's dances amaze occasionally, amuse often, and constantly lead us to perceive more attentively and thoroughly. That is, they do the most important thing that dances can do. Neumann and his Advanced Beginners will return to Alverno next season with a new piece. Do pay attention.