The setting of Danspace Project’s home at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery seemed markedly different from the moment one walked in to attend Jack Ferver’s Death is Certain on Saturday night. To accommodate an intimate audience, facing double rows of chairs had been arrayed on the wooden Sanctuary floor that we usually experience as a fully open performance space. The seating arrangement stretched along the length of both sides and gave the look and feel of a fashion runway, hemmed in at the far end by a grand piano, and, on stands, a microphone and an electric guitar.
Lively chatter suddenly quieted as Ferver, John McGrew, Liz Santoro, and Tony Orrico walked in pairs between the rows of onlookers. But the house lights did not fade for many minutes. And although familiar enough to anyone who has entered a room filled with voluble folks of a sociable evening, only to have them stop and stare, the self-consciousness of these four performers smacked of a heightened sense of play at once intriguing and slightly precious.
Mr. Ferver bears a strikingly impish resemblance to Rowan Atkinson of Mr. Bean fame, and has achieved a certain celebrity of his own both as a dance maker and as an actor in film and television. Having taken a seat next to McGrew on the bench at the piano, he puckishly handed sealed envelopes to Orrico and Santoro. These two, flanking the stand mic, opened his dispatches with all the pregnancy of award presenters. After exchanging slightly pained glances with the choreographer, they launched into a somewhat stilted reading of the dialogue which Ferver had ostensibly prepared just for this evening's show.
While the text has proved forgettable, the radiant performers have not. One of the many gifts Ferver has bestowed on his audience with this 50-minute dance one-act arrives in the exquisite way in which he allows us to get comfortable with and take in this talented tribe. The most telling moment in this sequence Saturday occurred when Orrico stepped on one of Santoro’s lines and the luminous Liz covered by simply repeating the phrase with wry and antic aplomb. All at once, she has overcome awkwardness with charm. Who says dancers can’t act?
Near the end of the dialogue, the script calls for Santoro to walk away from the mic toward the sanctuary entrance, stop and return. Not only does this, and its subsequent repetitions, reinforce the catwalk set up, but it also allows us to recall the group’s initial entrance. At the same time it introduces the evening’s major spatial design motif. With a minimum number of elements in movement, song, spoken word and light (as designed by Kathy Kauffman), the four performers achieve a maximum of impact through the precise deployment and development of Ferver’s themes of desire, subversion, control, chaos and social and sexual discomfit.
Below: Liz Santoro (ctr) kicks and flails away between Jack Ferver (l) and Tony Orrico
These excucursions take place in relation to a sense of gravity as a force of both physical and social attraction. Santoro kicks and flails down the runway 5 times surrounded by the ineffective ministrations of Ferver and Orrico who, at the conclusion of each pass, bundle her between them as if she were a trussed turkey and haul her back to the starting point. Orrico later drags the other two, who lie behind his feet and in tow, down this same path as he leans forward against their resistance in a hobbled and struggling walk. All three repeatedly pull their own mortal coils painfully along the floor from either a seated or prone position. Ferver’s work puts me in mind of fine architecture embellished with rude and raunchy gargoyles. The performers'intricate teamwork finds its compliment in the way each has been allowed to shine.
McGrew’s music, building from a simple five note repeated figure to related chords to hummable songs, often breaks out of its intermittent role as movement accompaniment to stand alone as the choreography stills. These oases of sound provide welcome respite amidst the angst-ridden sojourns I’ve described. Whether delivered solo in the composer’s sweet high tenor, or in harmony with Ferver’s mostly able baritone, they allow us to refresh and absorb.
Right: Tony Orrico, Jack Ferver (with mic), Liz Santoro, and John McGrew (guitar)
Ferver’s own American Idol moment, sung with the mic occupying the center of the playing space and separating Santoro from Orrico provides the single most cogent explication of Death’s themes in its lyrics and delivery. All the while it reasserts and underlines the writer/choreographer’s, well, centrality in the piece’s unfolding. This counterbalances the other two dancers’ primacy in the movement end of the evening’s proceedings.
The voluptuous Santoro, with her Bernadette Peters hair and her glorious skin shining from the scoop necked, short sleeved summer dress in which she begins the work, dances and acts vibrantly, if not always fearlessly, in her many moments as the piece’s sly kinetic catalyst. The lean and tattooed Orrico’s brilliantly off-center solo near the piece’s close matches some of the most original and profoundly humanistic choreography I have seen this year with some of the most virtuosic and soulful dancing. Combining some of the hung-from-above qualities of Petrushka with a feel for tilting invention reminiscent of Yvonne Rainer’s “Trio A,” dance design and dancer meet in an unlikely apotheosis as Orrico pitches himself from side to side down the runway.
A slightly uncomfortable, somewhat sheepish adolescent quality extends to many moments in the evening and finds overemphasis in the five costume changes that the three dancers undertake; from various clothing through underwear to nakedness and back to underwear with shirts. It can also be seen in the winningly nerdy dancing that engages McGrew during a passage in which he echoes the trio's terpsichore to some of his own recorded music. Think of a masculine version of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s dancing as Elaine on Seinfeld.
Jack Ferver, Tony Orrico and Liz Santoro (l to r above) in the final moments of Death is Certain
Death is Certain plays out as a fun evening with cool and sexy friends whose hidden drives and agendas one warily and sometimes giddily perceives. But if the smell of teen spirit adheres to the work, it cannot undermine the weight and Walt Whitmanesque resistance to convention and to the dark side at its generous heart. Death may be certain, but the search for love and a place in the world can be anything but.