Fluorescent Future

"I Love Dan Flavin"
Laura Peterson Choreography
Dixon Place, New York
January 12, 2007

by Tom Phillips
copyright 2007, Tom Phillips                             

Laura Peterson is a minimalist, but it’s a full-bodied minimalism, expressed not just in choreography but the creation of a whole artistic setting. Her original conception for “I Love Dan Flavin” was a dance in a gallery space — maybe an attempt to enliven the ideas that went into Flavin’s strange, baleful art, fashioned out of fluorescent tubes of light. The gallery idea hasn’t worked out yet, so the piece had its premiere in the converted living-room space of Dixon Place on the Bowery. It will probably go better in a gallery, where the audience can be installed in the weirdness of it all.  But even across the fluorescent footlights, there was plenty to see.

“I Love Dan Flavin” opens in a world reduced to three colors — black, white, and red — and people reduced to a few robotic gestures — turning and whirling flat-footed, flapping and pointing their arms rigidly, rising and falling to the floor.  With the droning techno-pop of the 1980s German band Kraftwerk, it evokes the beginning of our computer age, the age that was supposed to set us free.  The story line, if you can call it that, is about how it hasn’t.

The mood of the piece for me recalled a much earlier work of futurism, Fritz Lang’s 1927 film “Metropolis.” Like the workers in Lang’s subterranean industrial hell, Peterson forces herself and her three dancers through what looks like an ordeal of repetitive motion.  Among the repeated gestures:  Peterson is flipped heels-over-head by Christopher Hutchins, then seated on the floor and slid toward a pillar, slamming into it with legs straight and feet flexed.  Ouch.  Later, in a solo section, she repeats a ronde de jambe en l’air that goes too far back and around, then rebounds past her straight standing leg, like a broken piece of machinery.  What’s the difference between Lang’s modern dystopia and Peterson’s post-modern version?  Maybe just that the dehumanizing forces have become invisible, or internalized. 

Nothing seems quite natural. Hutchins, a macho guy with a scruffy beard, performs a little ballet with chaine turns and other feminine touches, including a phony ecstatic grin. Later he returns for a mock fashion show, sashaying down the runway along with slack-jawed models of misery Peterson and Katie Harris. Peterson and Harris have a violent floor section that looks like a Pilates mat class speeded up to the point of torture. There’s also a slow-motion race by all four dancers — headed straight into the wall.  The last section reprises the first, but with a visible weariness, even exhaustion in the rising and falling. 

“I Love Dan Flavin” is an uncompromising piece of work, not as audience-friendly as “Security,” the sexy satire on American surveillance culture that Peterson made in 2005.  It reminds me of the feeling you get in a gallery with an in-your-face exhibit that tells you in no uncertain terms just how sick this world is.

I first saw “Flavin” as a short work-in-progress, just a few minutes long, nearly a year ago. At that time I thought it worked as a tongue-in-cheek piece of retro-futurism, a sly comment on our naïve faith in technology back in the 1980s.  I also remember wondering, how are they going to turn this into a full-length piece? The vocabulary of movement was strictly minimal — the dancers were tubes, never bending their limbs. It was like the endless strings of ones and zeros that have produced our virtual environment in the 21st century, but after a while watching it would have to feel like reading bar code.

Peterson’s solution has been to expand the vocabulary of movement, thereby sacrificing the strict minimalism, and with it the clarity of reference to a particular time.  It’s no longer a tongue-in-cheek peek at the past, but more of a lip-biting gaze at the present, in the stark fluorescent light that signifies a world where everything, even pleasure, has been reduced to slavish “work.”

At 45 minutes, “Flavin” is twice as long as anything Peterson has done before, and it doesn’t quite all hang together. For example, Hutchins’s clowning and mugging is welcome relief, but not stylistically integrated with the stone-faced demeanor of the women. In the short version he was just another digital symbol, interesting for his hairy face and variant shape. Now he’s a wild-card comedian, showing too much individuality to fit the format.  

Still, this is 45 minutes of fearsome dancing, with Peterson in the lead, pushing herself relentlessly through punishing moves at unforgiving tempos. The costumes are all variations on a silver and black, space-cadet theme, but hers is the only one with no sleeves. Her wiry, muscular arms seem to tell the whole story, bearing the weight of an atrocious existence, wrestling with an inflexible, accelerating fate.

“I Love Dan Flavin” continues on Fridays and Saturdays through January 27.

Photo by Janusz Jaworski.

Volume 5, No. 3
January 15, 2007

copyright ©2007 Tom Phillips
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