DOLL PARTS: Review, Glen Rumsey, “little virtue”

Review: Glen Rumsey, little virtue

We have to be careful. In our culture that is ever more prone to valuing appearance over substantive quality, it is easier and easier to get by with mediocrity without really being held up to the light. The panelists that sit as judges on the average reality talent competition are rarely articulate or insightful enough to really hold anyone to close scrutiny. More often, we get a situation where two of the panelists are plaquating and encouraging, and the other, usually with a British accent, asserts his critical authority with insults and careless badgery. There is little conversation about what is worthy of our attention, what is truly marvelous and exceptional, what is challenging in idea and unmatched in skill. If there is anything we can hope to gain from “downtown” performance, it is a conversation that is risk-taking enough to hold up even its beloveds to a critical eye in the hope of understanding.

With that said, I was disappointed in Glen Rumsey’s new work, little virtue, which premiered last night at Danspace.

Ok. The work, coming from Rumsey’s creative mind, is already steps ahead of a lot of what is out there. I feel I must say that in order to situate this criticism in its proper place. As a choreographer, he seems to take a cue both from artists like Jaspers and Gutierez andfrom the more balletic elements of Merce (Rumsey and several of the dancers come out of the Cunningham camp). And as a director, he achieves visual and theatrical ideas that are as imaginative in their sensibilities as they are in the choice of materials used to realize them. And to top it all off, there is a drag sensibility that escapes the cliches of cross-dressing and hits a more compelling note of gender ambiguity that–for the most part–is less about entertaining than it is about questioning.
But the thrust of social critique I had hoped to find in little virtue never materialized. (Say all you want about approaching new work with a “hope”.)

The minimal set–really just two short, round white pedestals and a couple of white screens off the sides (“Set Production” credit going to Randy Shown although no general art direction credit is given)–appeared to make a bold statement with the incusion of a stuffed pink dollie (resting on the closest pedestal), the surface of which looked like a mosaic of pink and brown tiles, echoed off to the side on one of the panels by a rendering in mural of the same doll. I was thinking, is this “little virtue”? Meaning, the name for a doll. But the doll itself only got brief play during the performance, getting picked up really only twice, and once appearing as back packs on a couple of the dancers; and once the lights went up on the mural; but it turns out the image and the object were just along for the ride in what spun out to be a series of patchwork ideas with little unity to speak of.

The piece, running just under an hour, gets off to a good enough start. The ensemble of dancers, both male and female, enter from the sides mysteriously, sporting frumpy-looking gray dresses that reveal all limbs–feet stuck in stilettos–while obscuring the torso. Each has on a long-haired wig. They come in in darkness, each having a flashlight that they shine out into the space, then look down into them and shake their bodies. The sound of duct tape tearing (actually being torn by the dancers) is a chilling affect. Then, as seen in the promotional photograph, they all converge in a line at the top of the sanctuary like a corps of defunt barbie dolls, holding hands, tearing around in all directions as if a playground group dance turned into a rave. The evocation of stereotypical feminine hysteria is wonderful here, and knowing that the dancers are both male and female directs one attention to the fact that this kind of gesturing is choreographic in the way it suggests a unity of character through movement.

After a brief interlude where Raquel Cion (in a what looks like a hold-over outfit from Rumsey’s last piece–bustier, Elizabethan hips, and a silver staff) reciting into a microphone excerpts from some kind of old women’s ettequit manual, comes the first costume change. The dancers emerge now in white musin overlays. Sequins are used to give the effect of stiching on dolls clothes, some of which rely on general “boy shapes” and “girl shapes.” In this passage there is a brilliant moment, very Rumseyan (if I may coin); a minimalist choral moment; the dancers in a line, each given the same movement (a double twirl, back and forth) and doing it just a fraction of a second later than the person in front of them, growing further and further apart in the way of a Steve Reich piano phase. This repeats for some time, to the point where one can no longer observe the individuals, but rather, the attention relaxes and observes the mass of dancers together as one giant, undulating object.

The next costume change ushers in a duet between Rumsey and Todd Williams, which is actually excerpted from a piece they created together in 2006, “Exquisite Corpse.” They came out tied up in scraps of nylons and frayed fabrics, their faces covered, their bodies bound by the materials. The dance was actually really wonderful, full of straight up “choreography,” and the two were impressive as dancers. But here, the costumes played an even more conspicuous role, as the dancers stripped away parts of them throughout, culminating in a fishing-line-style reel-in/reel-out twist-a-thon. This was all fun and entertaining, but the costumes–the design credit for which is given to David Quinn–often drew attention away from the amazing body achievements that the garments were attached to.

At this point, there seemed to be a progressive rendering of dollism. From the opening image, the evoking of Barbie and her perma-pointed heels, to the muslin suggestions of the “Raggedy” siblings, to the frankenstein scrappiness of the nylon trappings.

Then comes the neeeext costume change. This time, the dancers are wearing hospital gowns, with hip and breast padding to suggest female, and their faces taped up in surgical gauze, with plastic eye-goggles that from a distance make their eyes look huge and their faces look fake. Is this the final life of the doll? Is the doll us and we have used plastic surgery as a means to imitate the doll? I’m fine with these as ideas, but the doll itself–the pink one from the beginning–has been doing nothing but been sitting (with a twin) on the pedestal since the end of the second part. Perhaps the descriptive language on the Danspace site gave fair warning in calling this work “abstract.” But still, it is at this point when the piece begins to unravel.

The movement is not much to speak of, slow, and I’m assuming, to evoke the idea of age and decrepitude. Raquel Cion plods down the sanctuary, singing in a cello voice a Dionne Warwick song a capella, humorously getting cut off when a recording of the song comes back in, and goes out, and then comes in again; her silver staff has now become a walking stick.

Now, I’m still enjoying parts of the work, obviously. But now we’ve gone so far away from the aesthetics of the begining of the piece the we are unable to recover any sense of continuity. We’re now stuck in the hostpital (glaring florescent lights on the sides and in front have been turned on and wash out the stage area), wondering not only what our fate is, but what the fate of the work will be.

Lighting change, the final costume change, and now the dancers come out in black, whispy outfits with small, blue and white bird wings affixed to them in random places. I’ll say it: I didn’t get it.

Then even the dance started just kind of fluttering into nothingness for some time. I didn’t get anything out of the last section. And by that point, not even the fade-out–OF COURSE ON THE LITTLE DOLLS THAT STILL HAVEN”T MOVED FROM THAT PEDESTAL–could have saved this piece from the directorial tailspin it had spun for itself.

And to be honest–since that is what we try to be about here at Counter Critic–the ensemble work was a little rough, not generally in sync, and could certainly use some more time in the studio. Yes, the dancers are great (Banu Ogan and Jean Freebury are two other standouts), but that doesn’t help when the ensemble isn’t coherent. Perhaps Mr. Rumsey spent a little too much time stressing about the costume conceits than he did on directing the dance.

little virtue‘s virtue is that the imagination behind the work–Glenn’s imagination–is powerful and witty, elegant and wild. But the majority of this work seems to rest on the edgy fantasticism of its costumes. But then, isn’t that the novelty of drag?

“litte virtue” continues at Danspace through Sunday.

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2 Comments

  1. Note: John JASPERSE.

    PS: Wher’d you get those shoes?

  2. […] Okay.  Our review of Glen Rumey’s latest at Danspace is getting lots of traffic (still no comments, though…).  And we’ve had a few days to […]


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