By Joel Benjamin
A messy, but loving, tribute to an influential artist.
West Coast choreographer Lionel Popkin’s fascination with Ruth St. Denis is manifest in his Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, a messy, loving tribute to St. Denis, the pioneer dancer, choreographer, producer, spiritualist and businesswoman, the godmother, with her husband Ted Shawn, of modern dance in America.
The work is constructed as a free-form fantasia of dance, mime and music in which Miss Ruth’s actual words and images of her exotic routines are flashed on the wall. A pile of costume bits & pieces fetched from a large, old-fashioned theatrical trunk, is tossed about, worn and otherwise manipulated (by a leaf blower). The work is accompanied by an original score composed by the accordionist extraordinaire, Guy Klucevsek, performed by him and violinist Mary Rowell.
As Ruth opens, Mr. Popkin is aiming that leaf blower at Emily Beattie, her hair flying in the wind. She holds a microphone up to the blower which, amplified, sounds like ominous thunder. This wonderful opening image—despite the annoyingly loud noise—wasn’t matched by any other moments that followed. Carolyn Hall soon joins in. Mr. Popkins talks a lot, introducing the cast and revealing his Jewish-Indian background as well as philosophizing about the appropriation of other peoples’ cultures for her own gain. He makes a big deal about the do-it-yourself dance kits she sold to amateur dance lovers who wished to emulate her, quoting them extensively, verbally and visually. Although he seems to come down slightly on the worshipful side, his comments certainly are food for thought. St. Denis was a product of her politically incorrect times, but her legacy has been long lasting and her influence deep.
Ruth is talk heavy but light on inventive choreographic manifestations of Popkin’s feelings and ideas, which are mostly revealed in non-dance ways. Certainly, there are vague indications of St. Denis’ work: lotus positions, Indian-ish costumes and stances, etc.; but the structure feels so informal, with far too many tidbits—a whip, lots of pink socks, Ms. Hall’s thriftshop green skirt, Marcus Kuiland-Nazario’s simple, chic layered costumes, etc.—giving off a creative playtime quality. The movements are variations on floor exercises, walking, running and rolling about in the above-mentioned costumes.
Mr. Klucevsek’s score was far more sophisticated than Mr. Popkin’s contributions, running the gamut from folksy tunes to starkly modern sounds. The musical interpretations by him and Ms. Rowell were first rate.
Mr. Popkin has good ideas and a healthy enthusiasm for his subject matter. Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was held together more by good intentions than craft. Meandering, but smart, this dance/theater work provoked thought, which is saying something in a world of glib, show-offy, superficial works.
Lionel Popkin: Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (October 29 – November 1, 2015)
The Experimental Theater at the Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand Street, at Pitt Street
New York, NY
For tickets and information call 212-352-3101 or visit www.abronsartscenter.org
Running time: one hour, no intermission