Cardboard Cut-Outs

by Martha Sherman

Dean Moss isn’t the first choreographer to draw inspiration from film – only to get swallowed by it. In “Petra,” his multi-ethnic re-take of the Fassbinder film “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant,” Moss shuffled the themes of ambition and desire with issues of race, gender and the experiences of being a dance artist in New York City. The performers attacked these rich themes with gusto; but the gap here, was that these powerful dancers did almost no dance. Instead, a deeply edited text of the Fassbinder story was swirled with a trio of dancer confessions, each text training a lens on the performer’s own life. There was neither comparison, nor linkage between the stories. The overall effect felt smaller than the sum of its parts.

Beginning in the still fully-lit house, composer-performer Samita Sinha wandered into the audience, and sat facing the stage to intone a mystical chant. As the lights faded, the song summoned cast members from behind a square panel in the center of the stage. First Mina Nishimura emerged, her disembodied head floating up until her body came from behind the panel. She carried a large puzzle piece: a jagged chunk of a painting that she positioned as the first piece of the set. Sari Nordman and Paz Tanjuaquio were similarly summoned by Sinha’s chant, and added their own puzzle pieces. But the real focus of the song was to call Petra, played as an Amazonian force by Rwandan artist Kaneza Schaal. Partly emerging from her extravagant bed, wrapped and unwrapped in a huge fur skin, Schaal dominated each scene from the moment she entered. Her stride and her strident voice – especially as she called to her powerless, voiceless servant Marlene – towered over the rest of the cast.

Kaneza Schaal and Sari Nordman in “Petra.” Photo © Maria Baranova.

The tension in the drama was Petra’s passion for her lover Karin, a cold temptress, also played by Sinha. Advising, demanding and consoling Petra were her mother (Tanjuaquio), sister (Nishimura), and needy daughter (Nordman), who buzzed like so many flies, unable to relieve any of her pain. The three also played interchangeable Marlenes, floating wordlessly in quick response to Petra’s increasingly petulant demands. Their dance movement was proxy for the passage of time as they slipped through the stage shadows. Arms waving gently, oozing across the space, sometimes they shifted the puzzle pieces to change the scene. As large a persona as Petra was, her world was small, and continued to shrink.

Schaal inhabited Petra’s story, dressed in extravagant costumes and headdresses, and re-imagining the character Fassbinder created. The three Marlenes, though, had their own stories to tell – the stories of the actual dancer/choreographers who jointly played that role. Pulling a simple chair onto the stage, each recounted a tale of her own life, often one that put a mirror up to Petra’s. Nishimura described “growing up” with her husband (the choreographer Kota Yamazaki) and her trust in him, just before Petra told a bitter story of her abusive former partner. In Nordman’s story, she talked about her childhood fear of failure and how dancing had set her free – then she leapt joyfully around the stage, as Petra waited, frantic and trapped, for a call from Karin that never came. Finally, Tanjuaquio pulled in the chair. She mused about being “less willing to tell the personal story” that Moss had asked of each of the three, and wondered aloud why she should expose herself in that way. These breaks in the fourth wall seemed purposely disorienting, as was the dizzying background video, which included an image of a car careening along a distorted drive on an uncertain highway.

Samita Sinha and Kaneza Schaal in “Petra.” Photo © Julieta Cervantes.

At the end of Petra’s story, as her mother tried to comfort her, and her daughter tried once again to get some attention, Karin finally called. In a last bid for control (if now, only of herself,) Petra responded, “No, I can’t make it. We’ll see each other sometime.” But Petra’s story was again interrupted. The houselights abruptly came up, and three audience members (who had been enlisted earlier) were called to join Sinha onstage to read a script about art marketing and audience building – a bitter little coda, a reminder of what is really required to make art. Not the creativity, not even the personal struggles and triumphs, just how to get the audience to show up.

Although little dance actually told the story, a final frantic solo did accompany that last sad script, as if to recapture some screen time for the dance. Scooping her torso forward and back, the dancer reasserted some mastery, in a long diagonal across the space. As the lights faded, all that was left was the last shadows of the movement. It was too late to pull us back in, though. In spotlighting only the characters (real and invented) for this hour’s journey, the art itself had gotten too short shrift, and we were left in the disorienting space, unmoored.

Copyright ©2018 by Martha Sherman

“Petra” – Dean Moss
COIL Festival
Performance Space New York
New York, NY
January 23, 2018

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