Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Tosca Project

American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco, CA
June 10, 2010

History is compelling. Representations of real-life events are just more interesting than those that are made-up. These are the true human experience; depictions that, for a moment, allow the audience insight into a past era and the experience of another's reality. American Conservatory Theater's The Tosca Project shares the long journey of a celebrated North Beach landmark: Tosca Cafe. As numerous decades pass onstage, change is there, but so is stability. By the time the lights fade in the final scene, many things have developed, evolved and adapted, but much has stayed the same.

The framework for the historical study of this institution was a dance chronology.  An abundance of movement styles were included but these dance forms were more than just steps; there was definite meaning behind them. The 20s Charleston was all about indulgence, extravagance and a belief that the gloriousness could never end. Enter the Depression, where a fantasy dance sequence graced the stage. In this, you could see the characters needing and wanting to forget their reality and transcend themselves to a different place. The slow, yearning pas de deux to “What'll I Do” signified the separation of wartime and when the fighting was over, the ecstatic jitterbug took center stage. But, amidst this elation also lived sorrow. In the duet's reprise, the returning sailor was incapable of his original movements. He was a shell of his former self; his soul gone. The 60s brought in the broad hippie movements of peace, hope and love, with circular dances of inclusion and belonging followed by the partying disco of the seventies. And then, a solo dancer dressed in black doubled-over with pain as he desperately tried to dance as he once could. This was the devastation of AIDS in the 1980s when it first emerged as a deadly epidemic. All these scenes represented specific moments of the past, and the dances of each decade helped to identify each vignette. But the choreography also spoke to the life of those periods: the emotions, the relationships, the fears, and the joy.

As the 1989 earthquake hits Tosca Cafe, past characters and movement motifs return to the stage while the owners are cleaning up. These variations were unchanged from their original appearance. What we learn here is that walls, windows and furniture are not the building blocks of Tosca; instead, it was these people, their interactions and their presence that created the community of this space.

The most important contribution of The Tosca Project is that finally there is dance theater that makes sense. Carey Perloff and Val Caniparoli have managed to conquer this obscure genre by creating a piece that is accessible but not trite, inventive but not bizarre, intelligent but not obvious. For some reason, the category of dance theater has became synonymous with the strange and the odd. I am tired of seeing dancers scream onstage for 10 minutes or cut their costumes away at a painfully slow pace all under the guise of 'dance theater'. Enough with the weirdness! Dance theater and conceptual modern dance are not the same thing, period. If dance theater artists could take a step back and see that the genre they have chosen requires some type of recognizable story, we would all be better off. The Tosca Project proves that dance theater can be rigorous and challenging while still being delightful, enjoyable and easy to relate to.

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