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April 21–May 2, 2010
Reviewed by Clare Croft
Molly Hickok (foreground) and Tymberly Canale in Big Dance Theater's Comme Toujours Here I Stand. Photo by Doug Davis, Courtesy Fusebox.
Only in Texas would an experimental performance festival begin with two-stepping at the state capitol. Austin’s Fusebox Festival, now in its sixth year, eschews the avant garde’s haughtiness, as well as disciplinary boundaries. For 10 days each spring, curator Ron Berry, with assistance from local arts commissioning fund testperformancetest, presents local, national, and international artists who create interdisciplinary work. Rock bands play onstage with dancers. Dancers talk more than they move. And country-western musicians, new music aficionados, and choreographers invade the capitol in the name of the two-step.
Fusebox has grown over the last two years, though thanks to Berry’s wide-ranging aesthetic tastes, its artistic chops have always been high. Berry excels at following developments in performance (and visual art) as artists pull from multiple genres.
This year’s festival struck a balance between local and global, accessible and complex. In T is for Two-Step Austin-based choreographer Allison Orr continued to relish bringing dance to public spaces. The piece, commissioned by Fusebox as a collaboration between Orr and local composer Graham Reynolds, was smaller in scale than the pair’s usual creations, but it still blurred the divide between those who claim “professional dancer” status and those who move beautifully every weekend in Texas dance halls. Reynolds led Texas country-western musicians through arrangements of swing classics and jokes, including the theme from the television show Dallas, as brightly dressed dance hall kings and queens transformed the capitol’s veranda into a dance floor. Eventually much of the audience started singing along, then dancing with the guidance of Texas music star Dale Watson’s soothing chant, “Quick, quick, slow, slow.”
Everything about Big Dance Theater, from the company’s name to its blend of dance’s physicality with theatre’s linguistic battles, positions the New York ensemble as an ideal fit for Fusebox. Their recent work Comme Toujours Here I Stand takes genre-blurring even further, using theater to comment on film and vice versa. The piece is several narratives in one. It tells the story of Agnes Varda’s French New Wave film Cleo from 5 to 7, which follows a pop star awaiting biopsy results, but it also tells the story of the making of the film. Though there are moments in the piece that could easily be labeled “dance”—quirky numbers that have the feel of go-go parodies—seeing Comme in Fusebox highlights artistic directors Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar’s facility with setting an entire stage into motion. The cast repeatedly rearranges the pieces of Joanne Howard’s set—rolling panels, cinematic lights, a giant set of stairs—keeping the context and location shifting. Is this the story of the diva in the film (played spectacularly by Molly Hickok)? Or is it the story of the woman on the film crew fighting with her boyfriend over the phone? The precise, often funny reassemblages give the final moments poignancy. With little scenery remaining, we, like the camera’s eye, zoom in on Hickok as she settles with surreal comfort into her fate.
Fusebox has always featured a range of American and European (usually British) artists. Recently co-presentations with testperformancetest have allowed the festival greater international reach. This year those collaborations included Montreal’s Gravelworks, a dance company led by Frédérick Gravel, and solo Japanese artist Kaiji Moriyama. Gravel’s Sex (Some) Rock Beer and Fries at first seemed merely to make fun of dance, but the piece evolved after half the dancers transformed briefly into a rock band to bang out a PJ Harvey tune. Among the many vignettes that followed, the most striking was a creepy duet for a man and woman. She stood expressionless as he came breath-on-her-neck close and slowly slid his hand between her legs, and then lifted her. Sometimes she did not move, only allowed herself to be lifted. Other times she pointed forward or to the side, and he would follow her direction. The dancers’ blank stares gave the piece a sinister tone that seemed to comment on the politics of touch between men and women in dance.
Moriyama’s butoh-esque performance followed Orr’s two-steppers on the festival’s opening night, a pairing that immediately thrust festival goers into Fusebox’s breadth. Moriyama has the kind of intense presence that captures an audience. After the first portion of his The Velvet Suite, which involved so much flinging of his long red hair that it looked more Bret Michaels than butoh, the piece arrived at a gorgeously agonizing pace. Joined by violinist Koichiro Muroya and a slowly descending orb of red flowers, Moriyama alternated between walking, squatting, and crawling, often while tearing at his bare chest.