Beware: Even though Clever Hans bills itself as "dance theater" and is listed in the theater section of most papers, this production is overwhelmingly pure dance. Moreover, it's smart choreography and well-performed dance at that. It may not be for everyone, though—especially if one expects traditional "theater." One man who looked like a stereotypical Midwestern tourist—trucker hat, un-ironic T-shirt, unintentionally low-riding jeans cut for a proverbial plumber, and palpably bored as hell at the shenanigans—left with his wife after the first dance.
Too bad. They missed the third dance in the triptych, which is a hilarious Beckett-esque send-up of vaudeville dance numbers that makes especially creative use of old-fashioned metal trash cans. If they had stayed, I bet they would have laughed along with the rest of the audience at the incongruous antics, which required no explanations.
Panel one began with three dancers who appeared vaguely like cat burglars. Dressed in black hoods and skirts, they shuffled crook-kneed around in a circle. Off to stage right, a woman in a green tulle dress stood tied up with a rope, which was attached to a miniature house at the back of the stage. The three dancers, crouched into each other like Russian dolls, slunk over to the rope. They began testing the boundary of the suspended rope—ducking or dipping under it and alternately popping up on either side.
One dancer, who often made frenetic, scissor-like motions with his arms and legs, touched the woman in green for a moment. Then, the three dancers scampered off, embraced, lifted each other, and formed a ring where they braided their bodies under one another's arms amid hanging tubes that their movements set off into pendulum motions. Meanwhile, the woman in green slowly turned backward as she wrapped herself in the cord, eventually entering the small house. At the end, the woman in the long green dress glided offstage on roller skates; the three dancers scurried into the wings.
Whereas the first dance was accompanied by an original classical score for a live violin, cello, and piano, the second dance was accompanied by two violins that were plucked more than they were played with the bow. The real audio accompaniment for the second dance, however, is a text: the dancers tell the fairy tale of "Clever Hans" as they enact it.
Clever Hans is anything but—each time Gretel gives him a gift, he eventually fouls it up. Hans has put a goat in his pocket, dragged a slice of bacon on the ground, and carried a cow home on his head. He finally brings Gretel herself back with him, then tosses eyeballs of barnyard animals at her.
The movement of this darkly comic dance thankfully does not limit itself to a strictly mimetic acting out of the story. Rather, three dancers playing Hans and one dancer playing both Gretel and Hans's mother linked together and pushed apart, screamed that they'll do better next time, and dryly recapped the text. More traditional dancing, which grows increasingly manic, was interspersed with pedestrian motions that resembled such things as a game of "rocks, paper, scissors" and the semaphore-like arm motions of an air traffic controller.
The third and most entertaining dance is the last, a study in awkwardness and sadomasochism. Accompanied by archival copies of Charles Ives's There is That and W.C. Handy's St. Louis Blues playing with a few cracks and blips on a phonograph, a male dancer soft-shoed on a pile of large rocks laid out in a line downstage. Meanwhile, a female dancer with pigtails hunched over on all fours with shoes on her hands, and mock-danced as if she were a trained dog. The male dancer then whirled the woman around like a dervish as he simultaneously tried to keep large metallic garbage cans spinning.
The dance took a sinister turn when he pinged a pebble off a garbage can lid that the woman held over her like an umbrella. Dissatisfied, he forced her to eat a pebble and then poured an entire bucketful of pebbles on her head. Undaunted, she stood atop an upside-down garbage can and performed a parody burlesque dance. The man retaliated by shining her shoes—and then her face. Next, he stuffed her in the garbage can and overturned it. She, however, refused to yield and continued to use her foreshortened limbs to perform a puppet-like dance. In the end, he grabbed her by the pigtails and rode off on her back into a door that wouldn't open.
Choreographers Lynn Brown and Lynn Marie Ruse show deft touches of humor throughout, which the dancers enlivened with their suppleness and physical wit. With only six performances, make sure you don't let this clever "dance theater" piece fool you into missing it.