October 18, 2010 5:59 pm

Ralph Lemon, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York

 
 Ralph Lemon in New York

More than most dances and multimedia works, Ralph Lemon’s How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? has a message: art will always translate life inadequately. Because it attempts this impossible translation, How Can You (in the midst of a US tour) proves a paradox – fruitful at first, then exhausted by zealous doubt.

Since we last encountered the 58-year-old choreographer, visual artist and writer – for the third and final part of his Geography epic, in 2004 – Lemon has lost his partner to cancer. He recounts this awful fact seated in a white plastic patio chair near the front of the stage; beside him is a large video screen that will supplement his eloquent ruminations on the tenuous connection between life and art with scenes from both.

To ennoble his loss, he explains, he asked his small-town Mississippi muse – a man named Walter, aged 102 – to re-enact scenes from Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 Solaris, the most metaphysical of science-fiction films, in which a man in outer space hallucinates his dead wife. Walter, decked out in a homemade spacesuit, plays the husband and his 82-year-old wife, Edna, sits in for the resurrected wife.

The faux-wood walls and plethora of plastic furniture covers in the old couple’s home translate 1970s sci-fi tackiness with delightfully uncanny accuracy but their love has lasted too long to approach tragic hauntedness. This disjuncture turns out to be the point. All the mediations involved in an ageing one-time sharecropper rehearsing cinematic Soviet love scenes that stand in for the choreographer’s own recent loss cause us to become unmoored, like the grief-stricken.

How Can You relinquishes this layered depth, however, when it goes live in its second act. With six dancers spinning and jumping and mainly falling down, and later on one dancer wailing offstage, the piece reiterates how hard it is to convey an experience. But this time, the difficulty has no pay-off.

The dancers are enacting ecstasy, Lemon has said, but they do not look ecstatic. They look discombobulated and harassed by effort. Like most things in life and unlike art in all its subterfuge, their bumping and falling stands only for itself.

I think: “It must be more engrossing to do than to watch.” And then I think of other things. (

3 star rating
) www.bam.org

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