Down 'n' Dirty

It's a wonder Jennifer Wood ever choreographs anything. According to her own press release, she's constantly battling her fears that the audience will think she's boring, conventional, tasteless, dumb, flippant, self-serious and not well rehearsed. In reality, Wood is none of these things, and if that needed proving, her latest dance-theater creation for Suchu Dance, The Dirty Show, does the trick.

The Dirty Show was designed to force Wood to face her fears, and, perhaps because of the stream-of-consciousness nature of insecurity, the results are scattershot -- everything from sandwich-board poetry and ballet spoofs to audience clapping lessons and the Macarena. In one amusing scene, a dancer makes fun of Wood, the other performers and the choreography itself. Some of these oddball components work; others do not. But the show has enough funny and thoughtful moments to keep it entertaining for a full two hours -- no small feat.

The stage itself embodies one notion of the word "dirty" -- its back wall littered with foam rubber, takeout containers, egg cartons, beer cases and Tidy Cat boxes. But Wood's most intriguing exploration is of the dirtiest subject of all: sex. Don't expect Madonna-esque lewdness here. Wood has a subtle touch; none of her choreography speaks directly to the subject. In fact, it's her oblique approach that makes the work provocative.

Wood calls her most compelling piece the Boring Dance because it lacks her signature "firecracker" moves. It's far from boring, but the Suchu dancers do spend the first couple of minutes simply standing on stage, one of them ankle-deep in an island of dirt. In their old-fashioned, khaki-colored suits and dresses, they look like prim colonials in a wild and unexplored land. Slowly, dancer Jenny Magill begins a search for something, walking up to the other female dancers and giving them sidelong glances, as if she wants to get their attention but is too shy to ask. Finally she comes to Daniel Adame, and the coupling clicks. The chemistry they generate by just standing next to each other sparks movement across the stage. As Adame and Magill circle each other, the rest of the company begins to do exactly what we've been waiting for: get their nice clothes dirty. They slide and roll through the dirt, scattering it all over the stage in a primal frenzy. The churchy organ music only makes it feel more forbidden -- and therefore more enjoyable. Then, just as suddenly, the company begins to walk through every formation known to dance: the diagonal line, the circle, the horseshoe, the cluster, the V, the pyramid. A reference to standard sexual positions, perhaps?

It's a shame Wood can't seem to carry this subtlety into her investigation of nudity. The problem may stem from the fact that her reasons for asking her dancers to bare it all are conflicted: Wood, who makes her own costumes, says she tends to hide her choreographic insecurities behind great clothes. What better way to face that fear than to have no costumes? One of the dancers announces that the nudity in the show is purely for the purpose of titillation; it's not about art challenging social conventions. It's a lie. Remember, Wood is also afraid of being perceived as unintelligent or flippant. She ends up burdening her nude sections with as many "intellectual" references as she can squeeze in.

Wood's first step toward taking it all off has her hiding timidly behind the skirts of Yoko Ono. Dancer Tina Shariffskul stands in for Ono in a replication of the artist's famous performance commentary, Cut Piece. The dancers each cut off a piece of Shariffskul's dress until they eventually expose her left breast.

Later, two nude dancers sit in chairs facing each other with their profiles to the audience. The setup recalls the famous 1963 photograph of Marcel Duchamp playing chess with a nude woman -- only this time the male dancer is naked, too, and instead of playing chess, they're reading from cue cards. It's difficult to make out exactly what they're reading, especially since the woman is shouting her lines for no apparent reason. The program credits Philippe Comar's Images of the Body and Harold Koda's Extreme Beauty. In any case, names such as Goethe and Rilke get dropped like they're going out of style. Wood says she wants people to know that she actually does "read stuff and think about things." We get the point.

Meanwhile, topless women are nonchalantly sweeping dirt up off the stage. This recalls the work of another great 20th-century intellectual: Jerry Seinfeld. "The thing you don't realize is there's good naked and bad naked," the wise man said. "Naked hair-brushing, good. Naked crouching, bad."

Wood claims that The Dirty Show is not just about facing her own fears, but about breaking through boundaries for the entire city. "In New York, South America and Europe," she explains, "nudity on stage is ho-hum; it's been done so much that it hasn't been shocking for 30 years or so…I wanted to do something to help remove the stigma from nudity on stage in Houston." But Houston, or at least the part of it that's Suchu's audience, isn't as provincial as Wood thinks. Nudity isn't shocking here, either. And nudity delivered with a big dose of art philosophy is banal anywhere. Besides, it's unnecessary. Wood's got nothing to prove.

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Lauren Kern
Contact: Lauren Kern