A New Take on ARENA Dances

Lightsey Darst had an epiphany at the latest performance by ARENA Dances, "I hate myself. Will you please love me?" She says she's been all wrong about the company (led by Mathew Janczewski) up to now - read on to find out why.

1Photo courtesy of Jake Armour of Armour Photography

I USED TO THINK OF MATHEW JANCZEWSKI as Minneapolis’s Doug Varone: a maker of fluid swirls of dance, silky and effortlessly coordinated, abstract yet visceral — sudden exhilarating flights, spinning breathless balances, deathly falls. I thought of his as pure dance in refuge from meaning, simply bodies in motion. This was such an idée fixe with me that I would get a little irritated with him, critically speaking, when he strayed from this moody and poetic mode into storytelling and especially (gasp!) when he ventured on topical statement.

Well, after seeing ARENA Dances‘ new show, I hate myself. Will you please love me?, I have to admit that I’ve been wrong about Janczewski. In fact, I have no idea what he does — but, looking backwards, I now see he’s been doing it, or angling towards it, for a while. How could I have been so blind?

Like many of Janczewski’s evening-length pieces, I hate myself takes a pop culture item for its subject — the Carpenters — treating this subject not as fodder for irony (as the local postmodernists would), but seriously, as if Karen Carpenter were part of the family. I wouldn’t have thought the Carpenters would make promising material, and what do you know, they don’t. Beyond a quick characterization of brother and sister (Karen: deep and troubled; Rich: shallow) and the obligatory vomitous vomiting passage, we get mainly that no-applause-can-cure-me ennui-of-glory story that performers love. This emotional ground is familiar from other Janczewski works: trouble at home, beauty and glamour, self-hatred and ugliness. I hate myself contains lots of music (including a Carpenters cover band before the show), a little talking, some singing, spates of dance, and a lot of what I want to call emoting-emotional motion, as when the girl-Carpenters (there are four of them) set up stuffed animals carefully in lines and the boy-Carpenters (two) knock them down. This last mode reminds me of ballet acting, and I would liken the whole to story ballet, except that it’s not pictorial. Instead, I hate myself presents itself directly to the audience, confronting us. Taken altogether, what this piece (and others Janczewski’s made, as I now see) most closely resembles is musical theater.

But why all this concern over genre? Can’t a thing be in whatever form it wants? Certainly, but it’s a little idealistic to think that we can have a full experience of a work of art without grasping what field it’s playing in. If you’re unaware of the sonnet form, you’ll miss the cleverness of a modern sonneteer like Nick Demske; having some sense of the ballad tradition enriches one’s hearing of The Decemberists. All this is to say I must recuse myself from offering much opinion on I hate myself; I don’t know what people go to musical theater for. But Janczewski’s full house seemed to know why they were there and to enjoy themselves immensely. Wonderful! Here’s to every work finding its audience.

What I can talk about a little is the dance. The most fascinating moment, for me, came in a short passage between one Karen and one Rich, with Karen lashing out at Rich in sinuous floor-based full-body swirls that spent most of their energy before impact, and that didn’t hurt when they landed. That’s just how I remember it: fighting with a sibling is mostly fighting with oneself. But I don’t think I’ve seen this on stage before. The two Rich-es have a poppy, half-soft-shoe phrase that’s addictive to watch, and throughout there are glimpses of luxuriant motion — with arms too often entirely straight, I think, but not in one especially tantalizing passage that’s hidden upstage behind a screen of still dancers. Here, I tried to be a good critic and keep track of the steps, but I couldn’t: one step ripples into another on a current of want that carries you with it.

This dance is beautiful — but (and I know I sound like a jilted lover) it doesn’t seem to hold Janczewski’s interest anymore.

Noted performance details: I hate myself. Will you please love me? by Arena Dances was recently on stage at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis, March 4 – 6.

Lightsey  Darst

Lightsey Darst is a writer and critic based in Durham. She has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts for both literature and dance criticism, as well as a Minnesota Book Award. Her books of poetry are Find the Girl and DANCE (2010 and 2013, both from Coffee House Press). Her criticism is online at mnartists.org, walkerart.org, The Huffington Post, and Bookslut. …   read more