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Chunky Move
University of California, San Diego
Mandeville Auditorium
Thursday, March 8, 2007
Presented by ArtPower!

I want to dance better at parties. Well, don’t we all. But what exactly does that have to do with contemporary concert dance? The Australia-based dance company Chunky Move is seeking to find out in their new work that tells the story of ordinary men, as performed by extraordinary dancers. Presented at UCSD’s Mandeville Auditorium on Thursday, March 8, “I Want to Dance Better at Parties” brought some fierce partnering, awkward social dancing, strong visual projections, and a loose story to the stage in what was overall an entertaining evening.

The premise is this: artistic director/choreographer Gideon Obarzanek documented over seventy men about their relationship to dance. From these dozens of stories, he chose five that he explained (in a post-performance talk) conveyed many of the general themes he found in his interviews but that were also unique and engaging stories that in one way or another inspired in him a strong visual idea or movement vocabulary.

There is the gay clogger. There is the competitive Greek zorba dancer. There is also the mathematician that has coded thousands of Israeli dances, the amateur salsa dancer, and the non-dancer. Each is portrayed onscreen overhead in five large screens, spread out across the stage and each is embodied by one of six dancers with the company (four men and two women).

Though the story begins grounded in their relationship to a specific dance form (or non-dance as is the case with one), the literal dance soon gives way to a more abstract representation of these men and the issues they face in their life. For example, the salsa dancer’s detailed explanation of the anxiety attacks he felt following his wife’s death is shown through a sequence of synchronized exaggerated breathing by the dancers. The clogger departs from his quick tapping when describing the way his partner left him to engage in aggressive, athletic, exhausting spasms of movement in a duet that consists of throwing himself to the floor, slamming into the other dancer, struggling to get up only to fall down again.

In this way, cultural dance provides the setting but modern dance supplies the substance.
Obarzanek attempts to move from cultural dance forms that do not (or cannot?) shed light on his characters to more expressive abstract contemporary movement that allows the audience to feel the emotions of these men. As such, the work is an interesting commentary that pits social/cultural dance against concert dance. What is an exhilarating dance form to participate in, such as Israeli dance, doesn’t translate very well to an audience sitting a hundred feet back.

Indeed, it’s an interesting dilemma that Obarzanek acknowledged when creating the piece – how do you transition from standardized group dances to his quirky, individual style of contemporary movement? The answer, at least in this work, is not very smoothly or easily. There was something abrupt in the shift of styles, something harsh, ungraceful, and unsatisfying in seeing beautifully trained dancers attempt a Greek zorba and essentially fail.

All of which may be part of the point. The real men, according to Obarzanek, weren’t all great dancers, so there is something very human about the awkwardness and imperfections about the way they are portrayed. The contrast between the cultural dances and the choreography created to delve deeper is quite stark, which, while serving the story well, doesn’t necessary create a good flow.

This approach to creating a dance – using cultural or social dances as a jumping off point to contemporary movement – is sometimes clever, sometimes uninteresting. But in terms of conveying characters, the work was more successful in portraying multi-dimensional characters than many narrative-driven story ballets this writer has seen.

What Obarzanek was able to get across was the way in which dance can say a lot about a person. The way each relates to his body, and the way that the impetus for each of them to discover – or fear – dance speaks to the power of the form and in effect serves to celebrate it. Not in the self-congratulating way that concert dance often does, but in a way that is based in reality, situated in real people’s real lives, and influenced by all of the various factors that each person brings to it, awkwardness and all.