Happy Hour at the BeBe

Let’s suppose the end-of-the-workday routine of cheap pitchers and ESPN has grown a bit stale for you. Maybe the once fine sheen has worn off the barmaid’s charms of late, and your own haven’t been all that snazzy either. I’m not saying you’re lost somewhere in a Raymond Carver story, but maybe life just doesn’t seem all that super neat-o any more. Here’s my suggestion: come 7:15, grab your drinking buddy (and the barmaid too — why not?) and head down to Commerce Street. Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre’s current show, The Physics of Happy Hour, will not only defy the gravity of your postmodern ennui, they’ll also wet your whistle for you.

The program is really a showcase of work by various choreographers, all of them (except Riuben Hernandez and Connie Shrader) ACDT company members. This places the show more in the vein of their last production, Cabaret Fever, rather than of their evening-length conceptual works, like this past winter’s The Last Dance of Mata Hari. As is often the case with such varied programs, some pieces are less compelling than others, and the challenge is always to weave the different pieces together into a coherent evening of work. In a way, ACDT has flown directly in the face of this. Not only have they made no attempt to disguise the fact that each piece is basically its own separate aesthetic world, they’ve actually embraced the heterogeneity by giving each piece its own separate alcoholic drink.

Yes, you heard me: for a modest additional fee at the box office, you can receive a different beverage before each new dance, served by an attractive and ingratiating young lady with a tray as you sit comfortably in your seat. Allow me to recommend you take advantage of this. True: the drinks are “sampler”-sized. And true: I don’t think I’ve ever drunk a Bloody Mary on top of a mojito on top of chardonnay on top of beer before. At least not that I remember. But I have to hand it to ACDT: they’ve found an ingenious way, once again, to make going to a dance concert an experience, and a really fun one.

The performers are ACDT’s usual suspects: company members Jenni Cockrell, Giles Collard, Nori Diesel, Cricket Greer, Kala Hildebrand, Jessy Kronenberg, Jaime Scott, and Diana Stepanova, with guest appearances by Duke Ramuten, Marcus Chatfield, and the intrepid Jim Julien. (Nelson Reyes designed the sound and mans the light-board.) ACDT’s loyal fans will recognize certain pieces. Jessy Kronenberg’s “Transformation” appeared in slightly different form in The Last Dance of Mata Hari, Giles Collard’s “Cremita de Coco” was featured in the recent 48-Hour Dance Festival, and “Beelzebunny,” a collaboration with videographer William Towers, premiered here in the 2009 Fringe Arts Festival.

All the dancers are strong; but there are some impressive surprises. Nori Diesel, the youngest company member, has mysteriously transformed –– as far as I can tell overnight –– into a very dynamic and confident performer. In “Ripe Off the Vine,” an experimental piece by Cuban choreographer Hernandez involving a couple dozen raw tomatoes, salt, a lot of cardboard and Jim Julien, she’s downright scary. (This piece is performed in the street outside the theatre during intermission. When I saw the show, it attracted an interesting and rather, ah, vocal group of spectators from among the clientele of the nearby Firestorm Cafe.) And in the show’s opener, Susan Collard’s “Frank Got the Blues,” Cricket Greer demonstrates –– more or less out-of-the-blue –– an excellent and soulful singing voice.

While all of the pieces have their merits, one of my favorites in the show is Giles Collard’s “Cremita de Coco.” Anyone who saw this piece in its original form at The 48-Hour Dance Festival needs to come see how it’s been developed. The piece begins with the theme-music from Sergio Leone’s classic “spaghetti western” Once Upon a Time in the West, to which Jenni Cockrell and Jessy Kronenberg enter in full cowboy regalia. (Cockrell even appeared to have some sort of chaw-like protuberance in her lower lip. It’s all in the details, people.) Before we know it, we’re watching a strip tease, which somehow morphs into, like, Elvis’s Blue Hawaii and finally, a love story worthy of a 1970’s Mexican soap opera. All of this on a stage populated largely by inflatable plastic beach toys. I guess you had to be there. It’s preposterous, of course; but also really smart, especially in the way it juxtaposes pop-culture stereotypes to reveal bizarre and unexpected congruities.

Most of the other pieces are similarly ambitious. Rarely does one get the sense at ACDT that one is seeing pretty movement for its own sake. There’s almost always some kind of actual thought-content, as well as a bracing shot of irreverence, irony, creepiness, or all three. And in the rare instances where this seems to be missing (there are two such instances in this show), the performers are strong enough that there’s little chance of boredom. The only really weak moments in the show are the transitions. Sometimes it’s a question of getting someone on or off stage in a way that supports the internal logic of the performance, rather than being merely an embarrassing bit of business one is supposed to overlook. (Audiences never overlook it). At other times –– and I noticed this in several pieces –– something happens, maybe a prop is picked up or put down, without any clear dramatic motive. It’s as if the choreographer said, “Okay, now go over there and put on this hat.” If unmotivated action is an essential part of the logic of the piece, fine; otherwise it’s incongruous and distracting.

That is the only criticism I might level at the most moving piece in the show, Connie Shrader’s “Tarot,” which enacts two people’s tentative discovery of each other. As interpreted by Hildebrand and Collard, this duet (which requires the performers to be blindfolded for much of it) is a study in vulnerability, trust and a kind of beautiful attentiveness. It is also earnest in a way one rarely sees done well. What makes it succeed is the two performers’ absolute present-ness to each other: no emoting, no thinking, no “acting.” Just being. If that Bloody Mary had been just a bit stronger, I would have been in tears. 

The Physics of Happy Hour runs tonight, June 5 through Sunday, June 7, 7:30pm. Tickets, $15. The BeBe Theatre, 20 Commerce Street, Downtown Asheville. 254-2621 or www.acdt.org

   

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