Rebecca Lazier and Newspeak Reinvent Rzewski’s Attica with a Bruising Intensity
Midway through the bruising, intense debut of choreographer Rebecca Lazier’s dance version of two iconic Frederic Rzewski avant garde works, Coming Together and Attica, the crowd at the Invisible Dog Art Center last night slowly moved from one side of the second-floor Cobble Hill loft space to the other. “Why are we doing this?” a gradeschool girl protested to her mother. “I don’t want to move.”
The child’s mother beckoned impatiently. “Come!” Lazier had taken pains to explain in the evening’s program that the performance wass meant not to be dogmatic or carry any specific political meaning, but rather to encourage individual interpretation and questioning. If one possible interpretation is that fascism begins not with a bang but with a whimper, in the case of this child, Lazier made a mighty impact. In prison, you move when you’re told to, whether you want to or not. The simple act of dislodging the audience from their comfortable seats watching Lazier’s six dancers perform some very uncomfortable, often harrowingly violent kinetics, reinforced that point simply but profoundly.
That this dance diptych wasn’t upstaged by the mighty punk-classical ensemble Newspeak, who played Rzweski’s score with a ferocity to match their nimble, Bach-like precision, speaks to the intensity of Lazier’s work. The dancers began by pairing off in a remarkable graceful, sometimes slo-mo, sometimes punishing simulation of hand-to-hand combat, a good guys versus bad guys – or prisoners versus guards – scenario. In this case, the good guys end up winning, the opposite of what happened at the 1971 Attica Prison riots – that is, if you take the view that the Attica inmates, many of whom where killed when troops swarmed the prison to crush the uprising, were the good guys. The menace was enhanced by several almost crushing encounters between the dancers and the audience seated around the perimeter of the action.
Newspeak gave Rzewski’s piece a mighty swing and turned it into a turbulent, irresistible current punctuated by simple, sometimes portentous accents from percussionist Peter Wise and clarinetist/bass clarinetist Eileen Mack. One misstep from the bassist or pianist James Johnston, who were playing in tandem, would have sent the whole thing off the rails: together, they became a two-headed serpent hell-bent on destruction. Taylor Levine’s electric guitar, Patti Kilroy’s violin and cellist Robert Burkhart’s sometimes austere, sometimes atmospheric lines swept above drummer David T. Little’s groove, which grew more and more organic, shifting artfully further and further toward funk as the piece went on. Overhead, Mellissa Hughes added apprehensive drama, narrating the text of a letter written by Attica inmate Sam Melville, one of the materminds of the revolt, who was killed in the invasion.
Dancewise, the second part began still and silent, the dancers – Rashaun Mitchell, Christopher Ralph, Jennifer Lafferty, Pierre Gilbault, Silas Reiner and Asli Bulbul – seated on bleachers wiping their brows, slowly undoing parts of their prison jumpsuits before a costume change while the music resumed. Then it became more traditionally balletesque, Lazier nevertheless adding an element of surprise by constantly changing the combination of dancers onstage, just as Rzewski shifts the cell-like clusters of his music. This time around, it was proto-Brian Eno, rising from stillness, overtones and distortion ringing from Levine’s guitar, the ensemble slowly joining in an early dawn ambience that offered a bit of a respite from the relentless aggression of the first half but never let go of its underlying unease, Hughes’ resonant, nebulous vocalese adding a sinister edge.