Losing Contact

Not everyone is doing the happy dance over this award-winning musical.

Apparently, controversy abounded when Contact won the Tony for best musical in the year 2000. The show has no original tunes (the music ranges from Robert Palmer's "Simply Irresistible" to Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin"), and though the cast dances itself dizzy, it never bursts into song. Critics, however, were rapturous. They asserted that creator/director/choreographer Susan Stroman had found a potent new form, bringing sophistication to Broadway hoofing while making ballet accessible to an entirely new audience.

Contact consists of three pieces. The first is a randy little appetizer, based on a Fragonard painting, "The Swing," which is painstakingly re-created in the dance's opening image: A lovely, rosy-cheeked damsel in a flowery garden disporting herself on a ribboned swing while two men watch. Soon one of them -- the servant -- is pulling the swing back and forth while the other, the woman's husband, showers her with trinkets. She's demure one moment, lewdly open-legged the next. Pretty soon the men are mounting her sequentially and finding astonishing ways to balance on the swing as they do so.

The second piece is called "Did You Move?" and is set in an Italian restaurant in 1954. A woman eats with her husband, a cold, abusive type who's raging because the waiter forgot to bring their rolls. "Don't talk," he tells her, as he stands and prepares to settle the waiter's hash. "Don't smile. Don't fucking move." Left alone at the table, she begins to fantasize. Music starts. Pretty soon she's moving, dancing from table to table in her full-skirted blue dress. The head waiter comes forward to partner her in a full-blown balletic pas de deux. There's something profoundly right about this. It's the duty of the male in a pas de deux to show off the ballerina, and Gary Franco, who's performed with the Boston Ballet, brings just the right combination of deference and pride to the job. Meg Howrey acts the wife with a comic lunacy reminiscent of Joan Cusack, but without the twitchiness. She's also a beautiful dancer. Once she starts flying, you want her never to stop. This piece is richly satisfying, and the dance provides a glorious metaphor for the freedom the poor woman yearns for.

Holly Cruikshank and Alan Campbell in Contact.
Holly Cruikshank and Alan Campbell in Contact.

Details

Through October 28
303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org
Buell Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex

The last sequence, "Contact," is the longest and most elaborate. It features an ad executive (played by Alan Campbell) who's apparently as isolated and lonely as he is successful -- despite the fact that he's just won a prestigious award and all of his friends are calling to congratulate him. He decides to kill himself. As he struggles, he finds himself in a nightclub, apparently based on a real place that choreographer Stroman once discovered, a pool hall in which all the tables were pushed aside late at night and everyone began to dance. "Why do they come here?" asks the ad executive, observing the sexily cavorting crowd. "Who knows?" says the bartender portentously.

A young woman in a yellow dress enters. This character, too, is based on Stroman's nightclub visit: She apparently saw a girl standing on the edge of the dance floor, coolly choosing among the many men who asked her to dance. "By the end of the night," Stroman said -- according to the Denver Center Attractions program notes and every article ever written about Contact -- "this girl is going to change some guy's life."

None of the plot concepts in Contact are particularly original, nor is John Weidman's dialogue (which, in any case, is sparse). We've seen this girl before. She's the star of all the old-fashioned movie musicals, the lovely creature before whom hordes of chorus boys prostrate themselves. She's Cyd Charisse. In the road company of Contact, she's danced by Holly Cruikshank, who's long and lithe and absolutely riveting. The dance in this segment is swing, but with lots of sexy, cunning variations.

The executive tries to work up courage to dance with the girl. The other dancers watch or mock or challenge or swirl around him. It's a moment with which almost all of us can identify. For regular mortals, there's something daunting about dancers -- their presence, their extraordinary bodies, the impossible things they can do. There's a funny sequence in which the majestic girl tolerates the executive's stumblings and fumblings as he partners her. But for the most part, the executive is so whiny and featureless a character that it's impossible to care whether he gets the girl or not, and his intrusions just interrupt the joyous couplings and decouplings of the other dancers.

After a while, I got bored. The males approached the girl, and she rebuffed or encouraged them. Again and again. The ad executive periodically held his head and sobbed. We discovered why Stroman was indebted to Ambrose Bierce and his "An Occurrence at Owl Creek." I felt tired and fluey and wanted to go home.

Now, Susan Stroman has worked with the New York City Ballet and the Martha Graham Company; she has won just about every theatrical and choreographic award there is to win from New York to London; she directed the current Broadway hit The Producers, along with a string of others. She's the critics' darling.

After seeing Contact, I'm not entirely sure why.

 
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