During the performance piece by dancer-choreographer Stephanie Woodard and trombonist Peter Zummo at the Washington Project for the Arts last night, it struck home forcibly that unless a critic has some idea of what a work is striving to achieve, then that critic--namely me, in this case--is at a fatal disadvantage.
Often when one finds things obscure or confusing, minor or accessory clues will shed light--program notes, a title, something one read somewhere, or some vaguely recurring image or motif within the work itself. On this occasion I must admit to being totally buffaloed, and lacking even the vaguest notion of what Woodard-Zummo and collaborators were up to, I'm not in any position to assess how close to or far from their mark they came.
The duo has reasonably imposing credentials. As collaborators since 1969, they have been awarded grants by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Jerome Foundation and other sources, and their work has been shown at New York's Dance Theater Workshop, the Kitchen and other vanguard sites. Woodard was a member of the David Gordon troupe and currently teaches at Oberlin.
"Headlights in Space (Coming Home)," the work which received its premiere last night, was choreographed by Woodard (with some contribution from the evening's four other dancers); Zummo wrote the music (performed by himself and cellist Arthur Russell) and devised the slides; audio tapes were prepared jointly by Zummo and Woodard.
The piece proceeded in more or less distinct phases. The first was a showing of color slides (of city and suburban streets, a churchyard, and so forth, automobiles being the most frequent icon) accompanied by a tape of buzzing and muffled conversation. The projector and screen were removed, and the dancing commenced, backed by various mewlings, growlings, pluckings and meanderings on the two instruments (the music may have had its sophistications, but it sounded to these ears like untutored horsing around). The dances, too, fell into sections--in one, the five dancers brushed feet sidewise and wheeled their arms in large arcs; in another, they all rolled on the floor with small balls in their hands, sometimes exchanging them; in another, the group coalesced to trot lazily onto stage with small world-map globes, which they deposited in various corners. There were occasional solos, duos and trios. Dance steps were few; most of the movement was of the quotidian variety. None of the dancers exhibited any particular skill, flair or spirit. The most interesting thing that happened was a section in which a tall woman staggered or stumbled from position to position as if half-crocked or asleep--that, at least, had some character to it.
Like I say, I haven't a glimmer of what all this was for; I wasn't even sure when it ended.