Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Stepping out and stepping up

Jennifer Bricker in an earlier production of GIMP. Photo by Chris Ash.

It was interesting, I must admit, to see "The GIMP Project" directly after Boston Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty last weekend. The transition from a fantasy land of long legs and languid arms to a world in which arms sometimes end in single digits and legs may be missing completely was bracing, to say the least.

Yet at first, during the 'aerial' prologue to GIMP, out on the twilit patio of the ICA, the two worlds didn't seem so far apart. When Jennifer Bricker - who happens to have no legs - and aerialist Nate Crawford pulled themselves up into sashes of scarlet fabric dangling from an overhead frame, immediately something like the idealized atmosphere of ballet descended over the watching crowd. For a time, Crawford and Bricker floated together unseen, in a fabric chrysalis that conjured up thoughts of erotic reverie. (Yes, sex with the legless. Get over it.) When they emerged - to the soft breathing of composer Stan Strickland - they began a long, tenderly slow dance in space that was unlike anything I've ever seen, even though its pirouettes and lifts had direct analogues in the type of dance I see all the time. The performers exuded affectionate respect and some serious playfulness; the crowd was mesmerized. This is a word that's used too often, and often for the wrong reasons, but sometimes clich├ęs must be forgiven: Bricker and Crawford were transcendent.

But they also set a standard that the rest of GIMP, which took place within the ICA's new theatre, couldn't quite meet. After the group's aerialists had conjured a brilliant equivalent of traditional dance (okay, they needed a bit more apparatus than a tutu and a dance belt, but what difference does that make?), we were primed for more discovery; what other, perhaps even stranger, forms of grace might these folks be able to illuminate? For after all, that's the challenge curled in the fascinating premise of "The GIMP Project:" how the physically challenged might trace their own "meaning in time and space" (a phrase from an artist acquaintance of mine that I think suits dance just fine).

Choreographer Heidi Latsky, however, only occasionally picked up that conceptual gauntlet. Instead she tended to focus on confrontation rather than exploration, with the usual rather-tired subtext of "objectification." And actually, this was fine at first; it was well understood that for once, the attitude of the dancers was a central concern of the audience. But the choreographer stuck to an angry stance long after it had become tedious, because after all, we were there, at the show, and not in a mood to objectify the dancers but to sympathize and explore with them.

Still, Latsky deserves endless praise for going where no choreographer I know of has gone before, and once or twice she did take the dare she'd set herself and began to really use the capabilities these dancers had. Lawrence Carter-Long, for instance, who suffers from cerebral palsy, has a stricken gait that's innately theatrical; it's like watching willpower incarnate, and Latsky used it to wicked effect in a go-for-it promenade to the strains of the Bodyrockers' "I Like the Way You Move." And dancer Leslie Frye had some intriguing moments in which she calmly pondered, or perhaps came to terms with, the arm that "wasn't there," and limned a new standard of body image. But there were many, many more moments of repetitive thrash - the equivalent of choreographic filler.

Still, GIMP is certainly, if you'll pardon the terrible pun, a very big step in the right direction. The group seems to have no plans (or funding) for a larger tour, but that's what it needs, along with more choreographers, and more dancers, both 'able-bodied' and 'challenged,' with the time to develop a sense of ensemble. More aerial work is crying out to be developed. As Shakespeare's Coriolanus once said, "There is a world elsewhere!" and the dancers of the GIMP Project could serve as exciting guides to it.

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