The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland; January 31, 2014
The ideas behind David Rousséve/REALITY’s “Stardust” intrigued me. The program notes describe the piece as one that “explores the evolving nature of intimacy in our technology-driven, furiously paced world,” and a work that “follows a gay African American teen as he negotiates a difficult adolescence.” True enough, “Stardust” delivered those themes, but I was left in the cold with regard to the dancing. This surprised me, as Rousséve is an award winning choreographer and professor in UCLA’s World Arts and Cultures/Dance department.
It’s a huge challenge to successfully incorporate mixed media into dance. I applaud the effort. But few dance companies reach the right blend. All too often the dancing suffers when one’s attention is turned to video, for example, or spoken word. In “Stardust,” the challenge was even greater. The majority of the narrative was told through text messages that were projected above the dancers’ heads onto the scrim at the back of the stage. Even though the texts were relatively short in length, as text messages usually are, the amount of time it took to read those texts took away significant time from watching the choreography.
I’ve seen the Mark Morris Dance Company dance when foreign words that were being sung were projected onto a screen in English. I could more easily focus on Morris’s dancers, though, because their bodies were doing the heavy lifting in the storytelling department, and the story being told wasn’t unfamiliar. In this case, “Stardust” was offering a new tale, and the dancing, what I saw of it, didn’t make the connections necessary to follow the story without reading all of the words. Even during the periods when there were no texts for the audience to read, the dancing remained abstract. No single dancer embodied the teen at the center of the drama. Instead, at different times, different dancers, or all of them, as in a Greek chorus, reflected the emotional life of the teen.
The teenage boy who was the subject of “Stardust” was not only a gay African American teen, he was alternately a bully and a bullying victim, a foster child, and a rape survivor. The notes called his adolescence “difficult,” but that’s an understatement! His life was pretty lonely and miserable, and the bits of joy he found were few. He admired his grandfather and his grandfather’s taste in music (Nat King Cole), he loved looking at stars, and he got pleasure from spilling his secrets anonymously on the internet and through texts. He also got brief pleasure from taking care of a virtual pet hamster and from a class trip to an art museum. The youth was introspective and naturally longed for human warmth, but he didn’t find much love. A school therapist gave some advice, along with his grandfather – in his dreams, but the teen had to rely mainly on himself to navigate in the world.
I give credit to the dramaturg Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns and to Rousséve for putting together a lovely, cohesive, and compelling story. Yet I was annoyed by the amount of purposeful misspellings in the texts. I know teens aren’t generally too concerned about spelling when it comes to texting; nonetheless, I felt it made the young man appear unnecessarily unintelligent, and he was clearly an extremely thoughtful guy. (He had a “therapiss” and observed that the “innernet” is like God because you can tell it your troubles and someone will listen). I also felt there was a disconnect between the teen’s poverty and his access to technology, like Skype. According to the narrative, he obtained a secondhand device with a cracked screen, but even so, it seemed a stretch that someone in such dire circumstances would be so at ease with Skype.
The frequent loud “pings” when there was a new text message to read and the overacted, squeaky-voiced, one-shouldered overalls wearing “Granpa” who advised, in a hokey fashion, “Believe who you are on the inside” (played by Rousséve, on recorded video) annoyed me, too.
Leah Piehl’s dull blue/gray costumes made the dancers recede into the background, which may have been the point, but it didn’t assist me in focusing on the choreography. Cari Ann Shim Sham’s video art looked attractive (I admired the fuchsia butterfly and the pigeon taking off in flight), but I struggled to watch the dancing many times in favor of enjoying the video elements. As for the dancing, the large number of audible gasps and breath cues grated on my nerves. I’m also not entirely sure how Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” spoken in a monologue by one of the dancers related to the story, but it was a light-hearted moment, at least.
If it sounds like “Stardust” irritated me, I guess it did. I expected to be touched, and I ended up a tad grumpy. Although I appreciated the heartrending story that was presented and the deep thoughts that were provoked, as a dance critic, I was hoping to fall as much in love with the dancing as I did with the teen, but that didn’t happen. That doesn’t mean the dancing was of poor quality. It means I missed a lot of it, and what I did see didn’t further the story. In reflecting on the evening, I recall two female dancers screaming at each other, piercingly, at the top of their lungs, which seemed to last for minutes, as they came closer and closer to each other with open mouths as if they were about to share a kiss, and another dancer’s hiccupping-like panic attack, where she choked and wheezed like she was having a seizure or was about to vomit a hairball. It’s too bad those were the moments of “dancing” that stood out. I could tell the dancers put a lot of passion into performing “Stardust,” but I simply wasn’t drawn to what their bodies were doing. The movement circled around and went nowhere. I waited and waited for the teen’s story to be propelled by the dancing. I waited to no avail. I found myself looking forward to the next “text” rather than the next sequence of steps, which is a compliment to the drama but not to Rousséve’s choreography.