Parts can Blur the Whole

The Village Voice 20 Jan 1975English

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I've become obsessed with trying to understand the paradoxes seemingly inherent in dramatic dances-why parts that ought to work don't and why some brief, unostentatious moments often express the ideas behind huge chunks of plot. Take some "successful" dramatic ballets: Limón's The Moor's Pavane, Tudor's Lilac Garden, Robbins's Fancy FreeFancy Free to immensely metaphorical ones (the moment in Moor's Pavane when Iago attaches himself to Othello's back like a leech and rides him across the stage.)

But there's something else. All three of these ballets take place in situations where "dancing" is one of the things that's going on, and so you don't feel that dance passages interrupt the plot, but rather that they carry it along. Limón chose to contain the action of Othello within the framework of a pavane; every change of partners, every unison passage prods the tragedy along, and the constant return to the formal "dance" measure also becomes a metaphor for the meticulous, hierarchical social structure that is about to become unstable and fall apart. In Fancy Free, the sailors coolly get up and dance for each other and the girls they're trying to impress. Solo dances might not be appropriate in the real-life equivalent of this situation, but something with a similarly showoff structure would: a card trick, a risqué joke. And Lilac Garden takes place at an Edwardian party. (There may even be dancing going on in the house.) The encounters and exchanges dictated by decorum or motivated by passion belong to some vast dance-like structure (approach, dance closely with someone, separate, change partners). The form of the dance and its content (thwarted love, mismated couples) are structurally identical.

But in doing a dramatic ballet, many choreographers adhere to the operatic patterns of recitative and aria. They stop the plot so that characters can elaborate on how they feel about what they're doing. And, unless the dances are extraordinary or reveal something I didn't know about the character, I become impatient for the story to continue.

All this musing was generated by Pearl Lang's The Possessed, an expansion of her earlier short piece, Legend. Lang, attracted to the dance-like characteristics of Ansky's play, The Dybbuk, has tried to create a three-act drama without words by means of a series of interlocking danced episodes. Unlike Jerome Robbins with his Dybbuk Variations, she has stayed close to the play's structure, even using pantomime when necessary.

Sometimes, the ideas in the play bloom vividly. The score by Meyer Kupferman and Joel Spiegelman provides a sound environment that includes music, muttering, shushing voices, wind, bells-it intensifies seen actions and evokes unseen ones. Lang is adroit in her use of stiffly exuberant Hasidic dances steps; and the way the men clutch themselves, hunch forward, and twist their torsos from side to side in short jerks eloquently expresses the doggedness, the blinders-on view of life, the frustrations of the Talmudic scholars. Lang's own rippling, sweetly sinuous style makes a poignant contrast.

There is a wonderful scene in which Leye (Lang) comes to the synagogue-to mend the cover of the Torah scrolls, I think. We see the young men sitting around a table, bent over their books, swaying. We hear their mutter, almost like a humming of bees. Channon (William Carter) stands by a lectern watching Lang. No one "dances." And suddenly we see Lang-very beautiful and gravely devout in her white dress-through his eyes, see that she is a spring in this dry desert. Lang gives you time to feel his thirst. In this one scene, the events of the whole play become explicable; no further justification is needed for their love, her dutifulness to her father, Channon's fever and death and his subsequent possession of her spirit, her acquiescence to the terrible exorcism rite.

Some of the dances work beautifully without stopping the action: the first duct of Leye and Channon (a second draws attention to itself as a virtuosic "love duet"), a fierce dance of scholars, parts of the exorcism, a dance of crippled beggars. This last is one of those fortuitous dances within a dance; the bride is expected to dance with all corners and not look too exhausted or revolted. The moment of possession is suggested with eerie succinctness: still photographs of Carter fly, frameless, across a dark sky (projections by Virginia Hochbert) while Lang stands motionless.

One key scene that didn't work for me is the dance that expresses Leye's possession. In the first place it's a solo; and we don't see anyone seeing it. Lang, doesn't show a body being molded by an alien will, she just shows us a distraught woman; the fingers that she flutters near her mouth-to indicate Channon's voice, I suppose-seem unconvincing as an expression of this climactic moment. Perhaps she didn't clearly differentiate in choreographic terms between Channon's way of her moving and her own; you can see his themes take over her body, but they neither seem alien to her, nor deformed by the macabreness of the situation.

The cast, Lang, Carter, Bertram Ross as the Rabbi, Alexander Mintz as Leye's father, and a large number of other skillful and sensitive performers, dance and act wonderfully.