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Jack Anderson

Deganit Shemy Changing Sites


Deganit Shemy& Company
Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 West 37th Street, Clinton
September 15-17, 2011
(212) 866-811-4111, $20
Reviewed by Jack Anderson, September 17, 2011

Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Deganit Shemy won praise last summer for "2 kilos of sea," an outdoor site-specific work in the courtyard of the John Street United Methodist Church. Now she’s back with it, this time inside a theater. In its new incarnation, the 45-minute piece for four women and a man has moments of interest, yet remains strangely uncompelling. Something always seems missing: quite possibly, a proper site.

I didn’t see "2 kilos" last summer. I’m not sure if I’ve ever passed the John Street Church. But here are some of the kinds of things I did see on stage. As designed by Lenore Doxsee, the space is slightly messy, cluttered with fences of plastic netting and little strips of artificial greenery, one with a tiny toy car parked inside it. That car later takes to the road, so to speak, when the cast’s male dancer runs it up and down the highway of a woman’s body. But "2 kilos" actually begins with its women gathered by a tubular object resembling a large caterpillar or Slinky toy, kicking it with curiosity, then quickly recoiling from it as if it were simultaneously tantalizing and threatening, attractive yet icky. Although the women’s actions can look childlike, they seldom seem innocent. Even holding hands, they could be competitors as well as friends, and after the man’s entrance, the rivalry sometimes assumes an erotic dimension. But nothing ever grows very intense. These people appear to be alienated individuals, even when together. That impression may be one of Shemy’s intentions. But she never makes clear why she wants to make it. Jim Dawson’s sound score for all this includes street noises, children’s voices, and maddening repetitions of a little polka tune which, once heard, is mighty hard to forget.

Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Now I venture into pure speculation. If what I saw indoors was more or less what happened outdoors at John Street, how much did the church site affect the overall choreographic effect? What changed when events moved indoors? And these questions raise thoughts about site-specific works in general.

Site-specific dances insert artifice into reality, the dance being the artifice, the site the reality. Dancers may come and go at a site, but that site remains when all are gone. Doxsee’s set will surely be struck once Shemy’s run closes; nevertheless, the John Street Church still stands, put to other uses on other occasions and perhaps awaiting another choreographer to treat it in a different way. Site-specific dances establish tensions between the evanescent (the dance) and the unbudgeable (the site) and part of the effect of such productions derives from the ways a choreographer builds on and manipulates these tensions. In contrast, everything in a dance on stage comes and goes: beautifully, perhaps, or thrillingly, in a new world of fantasy or an imitation of everyday kitchen-sink reality.

Yet it’s all, inevitably, transient and purely the invention of a choreographer and, possibly, a designer. However, confronted with an existing site, constructed sometime ago by other people or by nature itself, choreographers must do morethan invent; they must confront or enter into dialogue with the thereness of that site. Whatever exists in that church courtyard I’ve never visited, it is surely something solid, quite possibly of stone. But everything in the set for "2 kilos" seems flimsy. How could it be otherwise? After all, it’s "only a show," a show Shemy has never quite managed to look real. Perhaps, instead of reworking "2 kilos" she should explore the possibilities of sights in other sites: theaters, of course, being special sites all their own.

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