High Risk Pays Dividends in The Intriguing 'Other Here'

East meets West in Big Dance Theater's passionate and poignant melding of Japanese tales with high-pressure pitches for insurance.
East meets West in Big Dance Theater's passionate and poignant melding of Japanese tales with high-pressure pitches for insurance. (By Paula Court)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 30, 2006

Put a spare Japanese narrative about duty and honor alongside a feverishly delivered sales pitch from a Million Dollar Round Table insurance seminar -- and you'll have a colossal train wreck. That is, unless you're Big Dance Theater, in which case East and West, and the surreal and the sublime, will be expertly layered into a provocative work called "The Other Here." With a handful of convincing dancer-actors, an artfully loopy concept and first-rate production elements, the result is funny, smart and unexpectedly moving.

Also, it's daring. Choreographer Annie-B Parson, who founded the Brooklyn-based Big Dance Theater with director Paul Lazar 15 years ago, adds great, colorful splashes of Japanese imagery, music and dance to this hour-long production, with not a smidge of reverence. In Thursday's performance at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, Okinawan pop songs served as accompaniment to ancient dance steps (speeded up to serve the work's brisk pacing). Wide silk obis were tied around tweed jackets, and overcoats were buttoned over kimonos. In our ultra-sensitive era, where anything other than obsequious tiptoeing around other cultures can ignite instant offense, Parson has helped herself to what intrigues her without apology.

The result feels bracingly fresh. "The Other Here" does what art ought to do: It shows us something new. (A caveat: If you've never sampled Okinawan rock bands from the disco era, with their tremulous vocals and rumba-style downbeats, don't say you weren't warned. They're addictive.)

"The Other Here" starts out as a flurry of images, intersecting in inscrutable ways. The effect is a bit like the film "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," whose fragmented story was told in reverse. Except here there are two stories, inspired by Japanese writer Masuji Ibuse. One concerns an insurance salesman and his lazy servant; the other, a man obliged to care for a fish given to him by a friend who has since died. The stories are intimate and touched with fateful sadness, recalling Chekhov -- whom Ibuse admired, Parson writes in a program note.

This is no dry literary exercise, however; that's clear from the cast members' ironic portrayals. (Lazar's salesman as a transplanted and evolved Willy Loman was especially fine.) In a true touch of brilliance, there were frequent cut-aways to performer Jess Barbagallo's delivery of modern-day American insurance-selling tactics. The diminutive, delicately featured and somewhat androgynous Barbagallo looked like a well-scrubbed schoolboy dressed up in a suit, but she had an iron grip on our attention when she launched into a recitation of why insurance matters. Her words, she explained in a post-show discussion, were taken verbatim from audiotapes of sales techniques.

"It's a contract of love," Barbagallo purrs into her microphone at one point, summing up the lofty pact between the insurance salesman and his client. "There is so much magic in what we do."

What emerges from the whole culture- and time-shifting affair is an exploration of passion and risk. What explains the earnest energy behind a successful selling system but passion? How can you hope to close a deal, hook a client, hook a fish, without passion? And what is an insurance policy, or a love affair, or a promise to look after something so small and vulnerable as a carp, but a life-affirming acceptance of risk?

"Only a person who risks is free!" Lazar bellows, in an ecstatic, Julie-Andrews-bursting-into-song moment.

"The Other Here" lacks only an ending -- still a work in progress, it fizzled to a close Thursday, which, as Parson explained, was the first time all the elements had ever come together. Some essential sharpening needs to happen before its New York opening in February.

But a good deal of power is there already. Of all the wonderful things that happened in "The Other Here," the way videotape of a bone-white goldfish was used was perhaps most moving of all (credit video artist Peter Flaherty). Wiggling around in a searching, restless way, it anchored the otherwise bizarre happenings in the realm of poetry. Whatever you made of the tangents and juxtapositions that the six performers embarked on, there was something real at the core of "The Other Here," and it found its fullest expression in that little fish: alive, fragile and beautiful.

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