Magritte by way of Sokolow by way of Singh: The absurd becomes familiar

Sarah Kaufman
Dance critic April 14, 2013

A man and a woman, their heads covered in white gauze, try to kiss through mouthfuls of cloth. What’s the use? Still, they keep trying. And when they dance, he sweeps her rapturously into his arms, as if she’s as weightless as the shroud that hides her face.

It’s a disconcerting display, and also a tender one. That is the deliciously tumbled-up effect of Anna Sokolow’s “Magritte, Magritte,” which Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company performed Saturday and Sunday at Dance Place. In this seldom-seen 1970 work by a master of dance-theater, a potent mix of movement, monologue and the absurd transports us into a world that feels eerily familiar despite all the bizarre incongruities. Or because of them.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. View Archive

Sokolow, a former Martha Graham dancer and an important mid-20th-century choreographer of dark works about war, the Holocaust and social alienation, was no stranger to surrealist despair. “Lyric Suite,” from 1953, for instance, is full of broken-off impulses, loneliness and sudden illogical actions. Singh’s locally based troupe performed it last year.

Yet the paintings of Belgian master Rene Magritte, seven of which Sokolow brought to life in the suite of vignettes that make up “Magritte, Magritte,” struck her in a different way: They tickled her fancy. Sokolow’s dry wit and perfect timing, and her theatrical flair honed on Broadway (“Candide,” among others) and off (the first iteration of “Hair”), are all on view in this offbeat fantasy. Also on view: such Magritte touches as derby hats, candles and the deceptive innocence of blue skies and fluffy clouds.

It’s fitting that Singh, whose fascination with Sokolow has led to excellent productions of her works over the years, chose to present this gem. The weekend performances, with sharp new costumes by Judith Hansen, were a homecoming of sorts, as the work premiered in 1970 at Towson University in Towson, Md. Lorry May, who danced with Sokolow for more than 30 years, staged the work for Singh’s company. An original cast member, she told Saturday’s audience that Sokolow had grown tired of running a dance company, so she fired some dancers and added actors, and from this hybrid, “Magritte, Magritte” was born.


Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company Dancer Natalia Pinzon (Stephen Baranovics)

The poignancy that accompanies the thwarted but determined romantics in the segment titled “The Lovers” (in which Helen Marie Carruthers and Singh were the veiled dancers) is also present in “The Son of Man,” in which Rob Jansen, dressed in a respectable suit and tie, brought a gun up to his face to pop a green balloon held between his teeth. This unleashed a string of nonsensical utterances — nonsensical unless you listened closely, and heard an obsession with the idea of “going,” a word that Jansen repeated more and more softly until it disappeared (the text for this segment was written by Sokolow’s playwright friend John White).

In “The Reckless Sleeper,” Mark Kranz seemed suspended in midair, sleeping in a floating crate. He jumped down, waltzed around with an assortment of odd objects arrayed on the floor, then piled them all into the crate and climbed back inside with them. A victory! And a sadness.

So it went. But “The Threatened Assassin” was different: Here was true suspense and laugh-out-loud farce. Magritte’s painting shows us a dead woman on a divan, a man standing by a phonograph and two others lurking outside the room looking menacing. Sokolow’s scene has the victim refusing to be dead and the audience fearing for the assassin — because, in this production, the two other guys were so creepy, and one was downright bloodthirsty. A marvel of dramatic tension, writ tiny.

Yet Sokolow isn’t so surreal after all. If Magritte’s paintings take us away from reality, Sokolow’s treatment of them returns us to this world. It can’t help but do so. We’re watching human beings. In Sokolow’s hands — as interpreted by May and Singh’s strong cast — they speak to the outsider in all of us.

The program also included three works based on bharata natyam, the classical Indian dance, performed with charm and great animation by Kasi Aysola and Madhvi Venkatesh. Storytelling was as important here as in the Sokolow work, as well as the use of gesture.

At Saturday’s performance, Singh was presented with the 2013 Pola Nirenska Memorial Award for outstanding contribution to dance, a honor richly deserved.

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