Sunday, April 26, 2009

Amelia Figg-Franzoi's BORN, NEVER ASKED

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Back when I’d been working out the theatre schedule for the coming, year, I saw Marquette University’s listing for an Alternative Theatre Festival in April. I had no idea what was going to be on the festival, but new I had about 300 words in print for it. As it turns out, the Alternative Theatre Festival is a two-week thing featuring work from senior-level students. Amidst the busy bluster of last week’s flood of openings, I missed the first two programs on the festival: acting and directing capstones that staged performances of Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love and David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole. With much less opening this weekend, I have an opportunity to see both of this weekend’s programs—original works by Conor Sullivan and Amelia Figg-Franzoi.

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing choreographer Amelia Figg-Franzoi’s Born, Never Asked. Going in, I had no idea what to expect. Had I been a bigger fan of Laurie Anderson’s, I would’ve instantly recognized the title. It’s from a song on Anderson’s 1981 album Big Science. The entire feature-length show, which features six distinct pieces in two acts, is choreographed to the music of experimental artist Laurie Anderson—largely her work from the ‘80’s. The whole thing has a very ‘80’s feel from music to motion to costuming and color choice.

I distinctly remember the music of Laurie Anderson being checked out of the local public library when I was in grade school. It has a very distinctive feel to it that reminds me of the visuals I used to see late at night on PBS during airings of the Anderson-hosted series Alive From Off-Center. Figg-Franzoi’s costuming and choreography isn’t that far from the type of thing I used to remember seeing on that show. The lighting of Biomedical Engineering major David Herzfeld (who could also be seen in the program) featured a large scrim in the background being slowly bathed in the light of simple, soothing primary colors.

Laurie Anderson’s distinctive work animates a small army of dancers (well over 25 in total.) The dancers in question are from a variety of different backgrounds. Majors represented here include criminology, sociology, nursing, English, biochemistry and no less than two biomedical engineering majors. Figg-Franzoi gets  startlingly graceful movements out of the entire troupe considering the diversity of their backgrounds—the real pleasure here being the fact that we’re seeing dance being performed by people with a pride wide range of different body types.

As people filed into the theatre, a series of dancers could be seen casually walking across the stage to look up at a light bulb dangling from a cord just out of reach. The bulb is unlit. One by one and in groups, dancers attempted to reach the light bulb as people continue to file into the theatre. A bespectacled dancer came out to address the audience on a couple of different occasions. With carefully studied and elegantly executed shyness, the bespectacled dancer asked as politely as possible that everyone turn off their cell phones and asks that we not use flash photography. What starts out as a visual “how many dancers does it take to turn on a light bulb?” joke becomes the opening visual of the show, takes place as one dancer finally hit the visual punch line: she brings out a ladder.

From here, things get kind of narrative. In the printed program, Figg Franzoi speaks of a simple story featuring an character archetype based on the character of Sharkey from Anderson’s 1984 album Mister Heartbreak. An army of people reaching for a light bulb hanging underneath a single ladder and the beautifully dream-like voice of Anderson get the program going quite pleasantly. Some of the other more memorable moments include a particularly hypnotic bit of choreography to Anderson’s song From The Air. A lead dancer in a captain’s hat moves around amongst a number of passengers. The choreography for Sweaters had to be the single best bit in the entire show. A number of dancers come out wearing what appear to be very thin, form-fitting knit sweaters. One by one, they move around taking one sweater off after the next—all of them brightly colored. One sweater is taken off to reveal another, then another in a visual trick not unlike a magician’s chain of silk scarves out of a top hat. The song ends and the stage is littered with brightly colored sweaters . . .

The movements and visuals all weave together to tell a story, but it’s not at all forced. The story being told here is more abstract than it is descriptive. The recurring business motif is interesting . . .and its oddly natural seeing people dance around in a ballet with white shirts and ties. The whole thing is very dreamlike, with the everything ending on a much more unified image of everyone reach for the bulb under the ladder. The really interesting bit with that last piece was the fact that it was choreographed to Anderson’s song Sharkey’s Night. It’s a track featuring the worn, world-weary voice of William S. Burroughs speaking the words of Anderson. It’s oddly appealing and discordant seeing people move around gracefully to muic that feature Burroughs’ voice. Burroughs says, “Paging Mr. Sharkey.” They’re gathered around the ladder. “White courtesy telephone please,” says Burroughs. The lights fade out. Wow.

In just a few hours, I will be seeing the final performance of the festival—a matinee of Conor Sullivan’s Life Story Project. I have almost no idea of what to expect. If Figg-Franzoi’s piece is any indication, it could be really interesting.

 

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