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Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Sandman, Review

Sinister doings in 'Sandman' premiere
by Robert Johnson, The Star-Ledger
Sunday October 05, 2008, 9:54 PM
Terra Firma Dance TheatreWhere: Dance Express, 131 N. Washington St., DunellenWhen: 8 p.m. SaturdayHow much: Tickets are $25 general admission and $18 for students. Call (347) 451-1876.
With an eye-thief on the loose in choreographer Stuart Loungway's new ballet "The Sandman," darkness comes early to hopeful young things taking their chances on the singles scene. Terra Firma Dance Theatre gave this ghoulish premiere its second performance Saturday at the Middlesex County East Brunswick Vo-Tech, adding a sinister, new meaning to the words "blind date."
Based on the story of the same name by the reliably creepy writer ETA Hoffmann, "The Sandman" goes where "Coppelia," the famous 19th-century ballet adaptation of Hoffman's story, dared not -- into a dead zone of anxiety, fear and thwarted desires. "Coppelia's" young lovers radiate vivacity and witless charm, counteracting the menace of seedy old Dr. Coppelius, the inventor who builds mechanical girls in a spare room. Without these characters, Loungway's work revolves around Nathan, an artist plagued by nightmares and romantic longings.
As a child, Nathan was told at bedtime that if he didn't shut his eyes and go to sleep, the Sandman would come and pluck them out. This parenting strategy has since been discredited, but meanwhile it has left our hero with some serious issues. Sketchbook in hand, he attempts to seduce women by offering to draw their portrait. Initially flattered, they become terrified when they look at the sketches and see only -- eyeballs. Nathan doesn't have much luck with women. In fact, he repulses them. Is it any wonder that he turns to the mechanical babe, Olympia?
There's more going on here than the titillating combination of sex, fear and the desire to control a love object. Typically, Loungway has packed his work with intellectual conceits, asking but not answering provocative questions about relationships -- what do people see when they look at each other? -- and also about voyeurism and the relationship between artists and the models who inspire them. Klara, Olympia's "real girl" counterpart, strikes the pose of Degas' young ballerina.
Though a relatively short, one-act ballet, "The Sandman" incorporates a film, text, original music and scenery. The choreography is also densely packed, involving an actor (Liam Joynt) who plays Nathan, with dancers David Sonne, Maria Phegan and Emily Wagner representing Nathan's dilemma in movement that ranges from stretched, balletic elegance to robotic staggering, shakes and clunky falls. Phegan, a performer of gutsy lyricism, seems especially well suited to the role of Klara.
This work could easily be expanded to fill a whole program. Instead, Terra Firma offered two more premieres: Heather Jeane Favretto's "Bedlam Blitz," a post-modern Punch 'n Judy duet set to a live rock 'n roll score; and veteran choreographer Randy James' "Catskill Coyote."
"Coyote" works through movement and music alone, yet it captures some of the same poignancy as the moment, in Loungway's dance, when Nathan stands over the disjointed body of Olympia and plaintively insists, "I love you." In "Coyote," five characters -- not a lucky number -- try to pair off. The action becomes predictably desperate. Yet what stands out, at the beginning and again at the end, is the vivid, sensual yearning of people stretching their necks. Can these gentle souls nudge love in their direction?
Robert Johnson may be reached at

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Review, OYOU, Terra Firma Dance Theatre

Ambitious ballet provides food for thought
by Robert Johnson, Star-Ledger Staff
Sunday November 18, 2007, 8:56 PM

Emily Wagner and Justin Peck dance in the Terra Firma troupe's production of "Of You, Of Us... and the Deconstruction of the Obersvational Other."
Ballet choreographer Stuart Loungway is working to discover new means of expression. The academic vocabulary, by itself, doesn't satisfy him. When his Terra Firma Dance Theatre performed Friday at its home base, the Rock Theater in Dunellen, the dancing incorporated nervous twists and dramatic falls to the floor, and liquid phrases juxtaposed with moments of classical poise. You could tell from the program title, "Of You, Of Us ... and the Deconstruction of the Observational Other," that Loungway also has a lot on his mind. Yet this dance both invited and resisted interpretation. The scenario incorporated a pair of actors, and a script by Louis Wells, with an elegant score by Eric Schwartz and video projections by Justin Bates. All these texts appeared fragmented, however, taunting viewers in an archly modernist way to fill in the blanks.While asking provocative questions about our ability to communicate, and about the relationship between spectator and performer, what Loungway ultimately may be striving for (it's hard to say, for sure) may be a performance in which sensuality triumphs and understanding, if it dawns, arrives via the instincts. Otherwise, "Of You, Of Us" goes out of its way to show how isolated human beings are. The actors, Stacie Lents and Joachim Boyle, speak in half-sentences, continually misunderstanding each other and referring to third parties who do not appear. When Lents and Boyle portray lovers (more or less), they worry about his absent wife or girlfriend. When the actors impersonate other actors in rehearsal, their voyeuristic director is the problem. These characters are unhappy, yet their confusion and frustrations can appear comic: Wit is among this production's saving graces. Scenes come and go, as Loungway weaves a choreographic fabric from contrasts between dancers and actors, or calm versus urgent movement. Sometimes the dancers land in the actors' laps. Then we have another question to consider. What do theatrical performers owe an audience? And what do we owe them? Is the spectator just a creepy intruder like a stalker, or an albatross like an overweight spouse? At one point, Boyle complains that he can't relate to dancer Emily Wagner's solo. It's too abstract. She doesn't smile at him. What she's doing, he says, doesn't inspire him to dream. Perhaps, although he doesn't say so, the dance violates this observer's expectations and the sense that he is entitled to see something familiar. Are performing artists required to feed our expectations? Surely not. Should they give a damn what anyone else thinks? That's more complicated. Among art's greatest values is its ability to communicate what "other" people feel. A reflection of human experience, art overcomes the viewer's existential isolation by giving him or her the gift of empathy. Even in an abstract dance, we can sense the dancers' physical impulses. We feel their movement vicariously and share their daring or suspense. In the intimacy of the Rock Theater, Loungway's choreography offers many such moments. He is a sophisticated dance maker, whose background includes training with Ballets Russes star Tatiana Riabouchinska and a stint in San Francisco Ballet. For his work to be successful in larger venues, where the audience sits at a distance, he may need to adopt a more rhetorical approach. Cynicism is everywhere. People must at least attempt to understand one another, however, if the human race is to survive.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Welcome to the Terra Firma Dance Theatre Blog. Please visit this site for updates on our current activities, performance calendar, and commentary from the Artistic Director, Stuart Loungway . Visitors are encouraged to share their thoughts, feelings and opinions regarding art-related matters, but please be respectful and considerate in doing so.