Pia Catton is a writer and editor covering the performing arts. In 2017, she launched Dance.com as editor in chief. From 2010 to 2016, she was a reporter at the Wall Street Journal covering Broadway, dance and nonprofits arts institutions. She has served as features editor of POLITICO and culture editor of the New York Sun newspaper. In her six years at the Sun, she served as a reporter and dance critic before editing the arts coverage. She has written for numerous publications including Playbill, Biography.com, the New York Post, ArtNews, City Journal, and the Weekly Standard.
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Lunar New Year brings celebratory Chinese dragons, drums and dance to the streets and stage. But throughout the year, Chinese dance-theater productions have become a frequent presence on American stages. In New York City, the visits are so regular the Chinese seem to outpace dance from much closer nations.
Behind the frequency is a cultural-diplomacy effort designed to increase trust and understanding. What's unclear, though, is whether or not contemporary Chinese creative output is actually reaching a diverse group of Americans. Ironically, the New York-based dissent group Shen Yun may be reaching a broader audience—with a message opposed to the Chinese regime.
Creating movement for non-dancers presents certain challenges. But even tougher is creating movement for a band of musicians, all with instruments behind pesky microphone stands.
What's the first step? Listening to their music and watching how they already move, says choreographer Sonya Tayeh. Her latest work is the off-Broadway musical Hundred Days, starring Abigail and Shaun Bengson, founders of the indie-rock band The Bengsons.
The Judgment of Paris
Duo Theater, NYC
January 8–February 1, 2009
Reviewed by Pia Catton
Photo by Steven Schreiber. Laura Careless, Yeva Glover,
and Davon Rainey
of Company XIV.
There aren’t many productions in which the goddess Aphrodite’s alter ego turns out to be a Russian madam wearing a corset and feather boa. But such is the case in Company XIV’s The Judgment of Paris. Conceived, directed, and choreographed by Austin McCormick, the one-hour show is both dance and theater––and just a touch burlesque.
A convivial tone is set early. Narrator Seth Numrich hangs around the lobby greeting guests, while the dancers mill about (in character) on a stage without a curtain. When the lights go down, however, the casual mood ceases and Numrich commands attention. By way of an introduction, he announces, “The Judgment of Paris, a dramatic entertainment, after the manner of the ancient Greeks and Romans, as it was performed at the Theatre Royale.”
At which point, a can-can begins. The choreography incorporates the dancers’ long, ruffled skirts to tease the audience. The heavy yards of silk fabric are lifted, swished, and bunched up for a round of the traditional kicks. The silk corsets on the dancers’ waists keep the movement elongated and the bosoms prominent (though the women are also wearing bras).
The ancient story of The Judgment of Paris is then told in movement and spoken word––with the narrator and the dancers acting out the tale together. A peroxide-blonde vixen, Aphrodite (Gioia Marchese) ultimately delivers Helen (Elyssa Dole), the most beautiful woman in the world, to Paris (Numrich). The Trojan War provides a high point: Dancers in bodysuits and helmets grasp each other and appear to wrestle or torture each other with deliberate, slow motions.
After the war, Helen winds up dazed and rejected––and working as a stripper who needs to be taught the moves. The dancers bat their eyes while opening their knock-knees as they would open a door or wave to the audience through a raised, bent leg. Numrich then takes a back seat and the magnetic Marchese presides. In a heavy Russian accent, she goads the audience to enjoy the fall of the once-proud Helen.
McCormick studied Baroque dance and incorporates it into his work. But this influence is subtle. What’s immediately clear is the range of dance that he has deftly woven together with concise spoken word and poignant music, from Arvo Pärt to Marlene Dietrich to Vivaldi. McCormick has a gift for understanding what captivates an audience––so much so that the show has a cinematic feel. That said, this piece is far better than a night at the movies.
See it for yourself at dancemedia.com!
Click here to watch excerpts from The Judgment of Paris.