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.