House of Dance: In brief
Richard Maxwell's American Playwrights Division unveils its first project: Tina Satter's look at the birthing pains of performance, set at a small-town dance studio. The cast includes Jim Fletcher and Jess Barbagallo.
House of Dance: Theater review by Helen Shaw
Walking into the tiny studio underneath the Abrons Arts Center will, for a specific kind of ex–dance nerd, be a trip back in time. Silver paper stars haphazardly decorate cinder block; mirrors cover the concrete walls (and are in turn covered in faded, hanging duvetyn); sequin-bedecked costumes look like they will only hang on for one more wash. There’s an air of tattiness that in no way diminishes the serious-minded ambition afoot—the grubby little room smells like work that is its own reward. If you were a dance kid, Tina Satter’s House of Dance will reach deep into your itchiest nostalgia center to give your lizard brain a friendly scratch. For the rest, it’s a sweet, surprising piece of entertainment, a delicate atmospheric realized with (and dedicated to) puppyish, endearing effort.
Tina Satter (Family, Nurses in New England, In the Pony Palace/Football) has always had an aesthetic that’s two parts leg warmers, one part taxidermy diorama. With her company, Half Straddle, she has specialized in pitch-perfect lo-fi throwback spectacles, arch reminders of high school and its terrible grand stakes. Her artistic relatives include Wes Anderson (we can see a sad, fake little landscape outside the room’s actual window) and—with her ensemble of gender-playful, deadpan actors—Andy Warhol. Speaking of kin, House of Dance is a profitable coproduction with the New York City Players—Richard Maxwell’s droll theatrical outfit. The Players’ home at Abrons is an evocative site, and Maxwell regular Jim Fletcher introduces a marvelously energizing basso hum to Satter’s treble music.
Today is a big day at the House of Dance—Lee (Jess Barbagallo) has an audition tomorrow for a traveling teen tap show, and toupeed teacher Martle (Fletcher) is on the case. Accompanist Joel (Paul Pontrelli) seems put out about something—he flounces over to his piano and seems weirdly sulky whenever he starts the “cool beats” via remote control. As Martle takes Lee through some basic tap rhythms, outcast ex-student Brendan (Elizabeth DeMent) bursts in, searching for her stolen ballet onesie and needing to practice her odd, drunken tapping. “You can’t be standing up!” Martle bellows at her, and she half-crouches, edging backward and keeping her eye warily on him…but managing to get in a decent warm-up nonetheless.
The characters’ hour together progresses aimlessly—they tell stories, accidentally hurt each other (Brendan asks Lee for a tampon, which seems to bruise Lee’s chosen gender), demonstrate bits and then fall, suddenly, into Hannah Heller’s wonderfully well-choreographed routines. The joke (and it is hilarious every single time) is that neither Fletcher nor Barbagallo have great skills in the tap department. Pontrelli does, and he oozes—Fosse-hip—into any routine that will have him, but the other two are riding on good faith and very, very hard work.
The performance-art and dance worlds have long been interested in de-skilling and re-skilling—modern dance choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, for instance, has made performances out of her recent attempts to sing opera. De-skilling is often used as a method of alienation, but in House of Dance it operates as a powerful machine for generating empathy and affection. Here are two actors of serious downtown cred willingly setting aside any notion of cool; it’s uncanny how systematically the experience makes us into adoring audience members, how quickly we feel as proud as papas at a dance recital. Watch Fletcher tucker himself out with a couple of turns—he wheezes and almost falls over—and suddenly you’ll follow him anywhere. And ultimately, affection is very much the subject of the piece: Martle’s deep, teacherly dedication to Lee, who reciprocates with unstinting, harrowing love will again (I may get choked up here) remind some of us of those dance studios that were once our respite from a less-than-sparkling world.—Theater review by Helen Shaw
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