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    2018-2019 reviews:


      figures on a field
    To the rescue

    With a spirit of sadness as well as humanoid faith, Dean Moss translates Laylah Ali's paintings into space in "figures on a field."


    Dean Moss saw Laylah Ali's paintings in the 2001 Freestyle exhibit at the Studio Museum of Harlem. They feature fighting or running stick figures with large round brown faces. The paintings inspired a three-year collaboration in which Moss, with Ali's dramaturgy and input, made "Figures on a Field." The evening-length dance translates the spirit of the paintings into real time and space.

    Choreography by: Dean Moss.
    Directed by: Dean Moss in collaboration with Layla Ali.
    Dancers: Kacie Chang, Keila Cordova, Pedro Jimenez, Wanjiru Kamuyu, Okwui Okpokwasili, David Thomson, Dean Moss.
    Music by: Marcel Duchamp, MEXI, Nguyen van Coung.
    Production design by: Christina H. Lau.
    Art direction by: Christina H. Lau.
    Costumes by: Christina H. Lau.
    Lighting design by: Jonathan Belcher.
    The Kitchen
    512 West 19th St. (btw. 10th and 11th Ave.)
    May 5-14, 2005

    The piece questions how we look at art and also expresses Moss and Ali's common experience as people of color in a white society. A performer is pinned against a white square painted on The Kitchen's denuded brick wall backdrop. He scales the square with his wide strides and drops to the floor where a large white square identifies the performing area proper.

    Ali was content to direct this cross-media translation; the idea of enlarging one of her small gouache paintings to backdrop proportions was uninteresting to her. Belts and balls that are dramatic elements of her paintings are props in "Figures on a Field." Okwui Okpokwasili and Wanjiru Kamuyu place red rubber dodge balls inside their shirts and face off as hunchbacks or with puffed out chests. The group runs, slamming the balls at each other. Breaking the rules, they aim for Keila Cordova's head. She turns around and fights back. The belts strike the floor like angry whips; they are nooses or leashes for six non-white performers, who are sometimes on all fours.

    Moss, David Thomson, and Pedro JimŽnez stand against the brick wall like a line-up of alleged criminals. JimŽnez moves on his side encased in a mesh sack, or pushes himself up from the floor on his arms like a paraplegic. When Kamuyu raises her torso and head, her arms wobble with the strain. Later she stands in a follow spot with a belt tightened around her waist. She is bloated, beseeching, and incredulously unheeded.

      "I'm trying to reflect on things begging for examination...that's what we're going through as a country too."
      — Laylah Ali
    Meanwhile, Kacie Chang portrays a pretty blonde museum docent with an element of cynicism. She murmurs to a crowd of audience volunteers (who registered and paid $1 for the tour). In the performing area, they confront the line-up of men but Chang only asks the volunteers how it felt to be inside the square, and nothing about the men's predicament. Chang uses her body as a compass, in a delicate lunge she draws a perfect circle on the floor. There the performers throw each other into a pile, like refuse; their play/military attire is brightly contrasted against their dark skin.

    In a pre-performance talk, Ali said, "I'm trying to reflect on things begging for examination...that's what we're going through as a country too." My companion didn't go to the talk but clearly understood. He thought of Rwanda; I thought of slavery and post-slavery America. I'm reminded of Ralph Lemon's "Come Home Charley Patton," in which Thomson and Okpokwasili danced also.

    Ali's paintings are a unifying inspiration for this cohesive choreography. The tour group breaks down the fourth wall and at the same time, distances the seated audience. But it reflects a troubling picture of consumers of culture. That critical layer aside, the dance is an exploded view of Ali's work. Without our ever having seen it, the excellent performers portray her sensibility that inspired Moss. Her 'Greenheads' series consists of disembodied heads and missing limbs, testimony of war and terror. "Figures on a Field" intimates friction between neighboring countries or races with movement that is social and sporting or violent and defeating. The dancers embody both innocence and injustice.

    Music is by Marcel Duchamp, Mexi, Nguyen van Coung. It consists of moans, thunderclaps or cannon fire, and a passage of brisk rock 'n roll. Just when you begin to feel inconsolable sadness, "Figures on a Field" uplifts with its faith in our power to prevail. Ali's humanoids rise above. So much for the notion that art will never save the world.

    MAY 18, 2005

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  • Dean Moss's Figures on the Field   from Butterfly716, Feb 8, 2007

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