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 firstname.lastname@example.org