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Only Connect 

by Michael Bowen


No, this contact isn't the Jodie Foster movie about intergalactic messages and time-travel through wormholes. (For one thing, it's got a lower-case c.) This contact is Susan Stroman's "dance play" composed of three loosely linked, erotic, exuberant stories told entirely through dance and (almost) no dialogue.


When your eyes meet and you both know you look hot and your bodies touch and what happens next isn't just a physical tingling but a psychic explosion -- that's the kind of contact that contact will offer (at the Opera House April 28-May 1). (Houston, we have full ignition. We have liftoff.)


Five years ago, the Times' Ben Brantley called contact "the most potent antidepressant available in New York" and "a sustained endorphin rush of an evening." The show won the Tony for Best Musical in 2000 -- and yet no new music was written for it, the music isn't performed live and the three-part narrative doesn't seem at all unified, jumping from 18th-century French aristocrats to Italian tough guys in 1950s Queens to yuppies in present-day Manhattan.


Stroman -- who has won Tonys for her choreography of Crazy for You, Show Boat, contact and The Producers (along with a fifth one for her direction of The Producers) -- wanted to tell a story about emotional connection and decided to tell it through dance. In her ever-present baseball cap and ponytail, she spent seven weeks redirecting and rechoregraphing contact to make the transfer from thrust stage to proscenium, from Broadway to touring show. The show's eclectic musical approach -- inserting Rodgers and Hart into a baroque French setting and four classical compositions (along with Dean Martin) into the '50s restaurant scene -- has the effect of universalizing the three segments.





The show's second section ("Did You Move?") features Candy Brown, a Central Michigan University grad who has danced on Disney cruises to Aruba and even taught gymnastics on the Upper East Side to Harrison Ford's kids.


One reviewer in Chicago criticized the dancing in "Did You Move?" (in which Brown appears as an emotionally abused wife who longs to escape) for an excess of "Ballet 101" simplicity. But Brown notes that "Actually, it's making fun of ballet. I'm not supposed to be a ballerina.


"When the auditions came around, Fergus [Logan, who conveyed Stroman's exact intentions to this touring company] said -- there were 300 girls there -- 'It's mostly from the top and up,' meaning that it's more acting than dancing. He said, 'We're going to watch you act. We're going to watch you dream.'"


Brown adds that her character wears a "long, flowing dress that's all the way down to my ankles," not some ballet tutu. The contrast between the grittiness of the Italian restaurant in '50s-era Queens and the ephemerality of the dance moves is intentional.


"I do gymnastics, and I definitely have a gymnast's body. So that's why they didn't cast some long, tall girl in the part, because it's not about ballet," says Brown. "And that's why I got the part, because I acted more dream-like." Sounds as if working with the Ford kids helped.





When they're preparing to dance in a dream sequence, do dancers dance in their dreams? "Yeah," replies Brown -- her mind leaning more toward practicalities than reverie -- "especially when I'm first learning the choreography and thinking about the order of the steps. Lots of times in dreams, I mess up. If I'm tired [in my dream] or don't feel as strong, I start to do gymnastics and fall on my head."


"Did You Move?" -- the title comes from the abusive husband's insistence that his wife remain where she is while he goes off to graze the buffet line -- has also come under fire for being too preachy about abused wives escaping loveless marriages. Brown acknowledges that the piece hammers that idea home -- but with variations: "That point does get made, three times," she says. "But it builds. First, I dream by myself -- dream about getting out and getting away from my husband. Then it gets a little more risky when I dance with the headwaiter. And then the third time, the whole ensemble gets involved -- there's all these people who are milling around the restaurant. So it's like I'm plucking people into my dream. And then we frolic all around the restaurant, because it's all part of my dream."


Everyone in the company has to do a little bit of dancing and a little bit of acting, but as Brown sees it, the part of the wife differentiates clearly between the two. "When I get up into the dream, I'm dancing -- and when I'm sitting back down, I'm acting," she says. "My section is 28 minutes long, and it's 20 minutes of ecstatic emotion and eight minutes of totally switching to something a lot more somber."


Of the show's three segments, says Brown, "My scene is my favorite," but she admires all the swing dancing after intermission.


The "long, tall girl" part in contact is the iconic Girl in the Yellow Dress (Allie Meixner), who leaps acrobatically all through the second half of the show. She leaped, in fact, right out of Stroman's real life. The choreographer was in a dance club in the West Village when, according to Stroman, "Out of the crowd came this girl in a yellow dress. She'd step forward, choose someone to dance with, and then she'd disappear.... I thought, 'This girl is going to change someone's life -- tonight.'"


The opening segment of contact -- based on Jean-Honore Fragonard's 1767 rococo painting, The Swing -- "is very erotic," says Brown. An aristocrat woos a lady on a swing who's being pushed to and fro by her servant -- who then more or less switches places with the wealthy wooer, resulting in all kinds of physical entanglements and psychic crescendos that one reviewer referred to as "Kama Sutra on a swing." But Brown doesn't want parents keeping their children away from this show just because of some romantic and erotic content. "I took my nieces and nephews to it," says Brown. "They're 6 and 8 and 10, and they all loved it. They thought [the sexy parts] were funny."


There is a kind of through-line to this supposedly disunified show. (For one thing, all three segments feature a man, a woman and another man playing a servant's role.) Rousing ourselves into physical activity, the show suggests, helps chase away depression and initiate the emotional contact we all crave.


"Only connect," advised novelist E.M. Forster, urging us to find the exhilarating in the mundane. When everyday life seems depressing, just start gyrating on the dance floor. It'll help you make contact, and Stroman's dance play will ignite a fire under your seat.





Publication date: 04/21/05

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