General 9-29-2004

Whatever Happened to Grace Jones?: “Slave to the Rhythm” at the Southern

Natalie Harter reviews “Slave to the Rhythm,” Ballet of the Dolls’ terpsichorean tribute to Grace Jones, the disco diva of the 70s and 80s. Through October 3 at the Southern.

Slave to the Rhythm

Confession #1: I haven’t thought about Grace Jones in a long time. A really long time. But then again she hasn’t been very visible in recent years. I remember her most from bad 80s pop culture, like Conan the Destroyer (Schwarzenegger tellingly found her “too tough” during shooting) and Pee Wee’s Christmas Special. She last popped up on public record back in 1998 for flashing her breasts at a Disney World performance (take that, Janet…Grace always was ahead of her time). So when I heard that Ballet of the Dolls was doing a tribute, I was certainly intrigued. She may be off the radar, but she’s rather difficult to forget.

Confession #2: I have lived in the Twin Cities my entire life, and this is the first Ballet of the Dolls production I have seen. As they are now in their 19th season, it’s not like I haven’t had ample opportunity. I am ashamed, as I have been all these years when I’ve meant to see them, and now I’m mourning for all the glorious spectacle I missed.

My first-time impressions of this fearless troupe? They’re a corps de ballet in a circus funhouse mirror, simultaneously more beautiful and more frightening than the original. They’re the Theater de la Jeune Lune of dance, taking classic (and not so classic…) themes and twisting them to just the right fantastical and wondrous degree. They’re the physical embodiment of this really cool trunk of costumes I had as a child, overflowing with sparkly tiaras and hoop skirts and dreams. In brief, they’re stunning.

Diva tributes have been in style at the Southern this year, with Jazzdance’s homage to Judy Garland and Jawaahir’s recent encomium to Egyptian songstress Um Kalthoum. This performance shares similarities with those–each being a love letter from the artistic director to his or her heroine, each using the songs of said heroine as backdrop (here ranging from “La Vie en Rose” to “Warm Leatherette”), and each prominently featuring video or audio footage of the heroine herself–but this tribute is markedly different. I can’t say if that owes more to the riskiness (or should I say risque-ness?) of Ballet of the Dolls or that of Grace Jones herself. You’ll just have to see it and judge for yourself.

The performance opens with our version of Grace Jones taking the stage, played with a model strut by Vance Holmes. It’s quite fitting for Ms. Jones to be portrayed by a man, for she never seemed entirely female. Strike that, she never seemed entirely human. Holmes, aided by an abundant supply of vinyl and funky sunglasses, expertly captures that androgynously alien quality. In the opening medley of “Slave to the Rhythm” Holmes is accompanied by an entourage from the nightlife underworld, typified at the extreme by a masked and straightjacketed ballerina clacking in her tutu of plastic chains.

One might think that the movement would be overpowered by all this strangeness of presentation and premise, but instead it seems a natural complement. It flows out of the dancers so effortlessly, with so much attitude, that you have to watch carefully to realize just how challenging it is. These dancers are all classically trained in ballet, they simply decided to punk it.

The choreography by Myron Johnson is an innovative and fresh collage. The ballet base is peppered with a hefty dose of jazz done Broadway style (very Fosse-esque, whose influence is also visible in the underwear used as costumes), dashes of Studio 54 and Afro-Caribbean moves (reflecting Ms. Jones’ Jamaican roots), and even a sprinkle of Martha Graham. The ballet itself ranges from the mechanical bourrees of a jewelry box dancer or one of Herr Drosselmeyer’s wind-up toys to the sweeping gestures and gorgeous extensions of Balanchine.

This is truly fearless dancemaking, but that’s to be expected from a company that performs an “adults only” version of the Nutcracker. The Dolls aren’t afraid to bare their souls or their asses. There’s a lot of flesh on stage, but it’s far from distracting as the dancers are so comfortable in their skins. Stephanie Fellner, who was technically exquisite but much more restrained in the recent “Telephone Joan” by Penelope Freeh, is in peak form here, whether in plastic bustier, bird girl costume, or West Indian attire. I still can’t decide which is more formidable, the power behind her movement or the power behind her eyes.

So whatever did happen to Grace Jones? I’ve caught myself several times here referring to her in the past tense. In the program notes Johnson argues that she simply pulled a “Dietrich” and is hiding away from her fans, but she is certainly present in this performance, and she still appeals to that wild and beautiful freak in all of us. Just like the Dolls do.

Performances run Wednesday, September 29th and Sunday, October 3rd at 7 PM, and Thursday, September 30 through Saturday, October 2nd at 8 PM at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis. For reservations call 612-340-1725.