Published Attitude: The Dancer’s Magazine Winter 2009

This is the Rorschach: be born of more-or-less humble origins.  Grow up, get the 1) acting, or 2) singing bug, and make your way to the big city.  After a few stumbles and starts, your talent outs in a notable way and Hollywood takes the bait; go there and break through to the big time; meet a tragic end (the ways one goes about this are limited only by imagination) while still in youth’s bloom and watch the adulation soar.

A Legend Is Born.  So often has this trajectory been mimicked, that the parade of biographies heralding their ascensions (and demises) might all be titled, If Only They’d Lived: Marilyn Monroe, Bruce Lee, Freddie Prinze, and Health Ledger are but a few of its charter members.  And of course, there’s James Dean.  A proud Method actor who flamed out in a car crash at the age of 24, he refuses to fall out of fashion, if acting styles (Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, Christian Slater, and James Franco, who won acclaim playing Dean in a telebiopic) and Madison Avenue, who made Dean the face of a recent GAP campaign, are indicators.

His legend feels indivisible from the three films that cemented his reputation: East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and the posthumously released Giant.  They tell the history of America on the brink of seismic change across myriad eras, and Dean embodies its squirming unease: the leather-jacketed kid bucking against the staid conventions of the post-war 50s; a writhing, Steinbeckian Cain in post-Gold Rush California who acts out in a bid for his father’s attention; Edna Ferber’s uneducated ranch hand who aspires to an American Dream of gentility and wealth as Texas transitions to a land where oil, not cattle, is king.

These tortured Everymen creep at the edges of Miquel Gutierrez’s Last Meadow, his new work that premiered this fall at Dance Theater Workshop.  Gutierrez, aided by his excellent company, made a game stab at distilling the essence of Dean, the Technicolor cinema from which he sprang, and its connections to the choreographer’s own struggles with dislocation and the archetypal roles of fathers and sons.

Guttierez seems the right artist to engage with this most mysterious of film icons.  His is a talent anxious to probe the lives of men, and the lies inherent in the roles we’ve been prescribed; in 2005’s Retrospective Exhibitionist/Difficult Bodies he deconstructed his own life as a dancer and artist with humor and trenchant honesty, while giving us a movement vocabulary that synthesized modern and pop idioms in an original, organic way.

In Meadow, the movement didn’t disappoint, especially in the intriguing trios that entwined and unfolded with a sensuous, often lurid, eccentricity.  There was virtuosity, but as effective was the choreographer’s use of the simplest gestures—bodies that swayed in place, or dashed and darted across the stage—to evoke a range from heedless impetuosity or intriguing inscrutability.  When the three dancers stood center stage using only their eyes and subtle tilts of their heads, we felt a wave of disparate emotions: pure pleasure at the notion of a celluloid close up made corporeal; a repressed longing one associates with the buttoned, Eisenhower-ed 50s, and the gay milieu of backrooms and bars where the potency of a sidelong glance makes words unnecessary.

Meadow began powerfully.  After a heraldic orchestral flourish, we saw Dean sprawled on the floor caught in some eternal dark night of the soul.  Michelle Boulé, the evening’s Dean doppelgänger, wallowed and writhed as she mumbled tiny bits of words into a microphone (“pretty Leslie,” a reference to the Elizabeth Taylor character in Giant) before she collapsed.

The visuals alone made it worthy; lighting designer Lenore Doxsee shrouded the dancers in a twilight abyss that veered from a streetlamp’s glow to the stark white of a shrieking headlight.  During the aforementioned trio, the moody illuminata transported us back to that unreal world of 50s cinema where carnality and deviance coalesced in whispery shadows.

Other images spoke eloquently.  Tarek Halaby’s characterization in Meadow might easily be labeled Every Brunette Who Ever Played Opposite Dean; his mop of a wig later prompted his comic complaint, “I have the hardest hair.” But his ankle length skirt—in a shade of baby blue that appears to be lit from within—became one of the evening’s visual signposts.  Darting from scene to scene, Halaby’s portrait dissolved into our ghostly memories of the young, vibrant Julie Harris, the tempestuous Elizabeth Taylor and the ardent, feral Natalie Wood, alongside a bevy of 50s era musical comedy stars: Dolores Gray, Cyd Charisse and Mitzi Gaynor.

Movies, performance, high drama—Meadow was strongest, and weakest, when it set about deconstructing the smoke behind the mirrors of both stage and film.  Complemented by Neal Medlyn’s sound design, Gutierrez’s exploited his penchant for the spoken word when he spun the pre-birthday party scene from East of Eden into a bizarre world of sound and vision by having Boulé and Halaby repeat and rewind it in bits and pieces; the effect was like watching snippets of film morph into flesh.  This heightened awareness of method—the idea that performance is constructed, built from a slew of elements—reminded me less of Elia Kazan, George Stevens or Nicholas Ray (the directors of the aforementioned films), and more of Andy Warhol’s films from his Factory days when the artist asserted, “the camera jiggles so everybody knows you’re watching a film.”

But when Meadow left those film tropes and the world of Dean to show the dancers stepping out of their roles into a present day rehearsal situation, the piece felt off-message.  With one exception, all the contemporary depictions paled next to the evening’s noir-ish dream world.

In program notes and elsewhere, Gutierrez discussed the idea of fathers as one of the piece’s motivating drives, but such declarations set up expectations that Meadow barely skims. The father-son relationships in Giant, East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause are some of the most complex in American cinema, and while the specter of Guttierez’s bear-like presence, dressed in a Father-Knows-Best getup represented one depiction (if fatherhood could be interpreted as a demented puppetmaster), I was hoping he’d go deeper.  After the moody stylings and the ironic comedy, Gutierrez had a chance to break our hearts, but instead Meadow climaxed with a big Madonna-scored dance off lead by Boule, a W-T-F explosion of vibrant movement that felt like a cop-out.  Maybe Gutierrez was making a point: whatever the medium, the glory, the struggles and compromises are all the same.  But tone-wise it felt as if it belonged in another show.

But there was a lovely coda that referenced the show’s pre-beat, a soundscape of children’s voices.  They materialized at the end, played by adult dancers to perhaps remind us that all performance emanates from a state of play dictated not by agenda or result, only imagination and joy.   That evocation of life, before the intrusions of adulthood or parental expectation, was a pure moment that spoke to Last Meadow’s larger, albeit, unrealized aspirations.