A Bronx Tale

Not the Disney Version: Arthur Aviles in Arturella, a reimagining of Cinderella.Photo: Richard Shpuntoff

Arlene Croce, the distinguished critic who spent some 30 years covering dance at The New Yorker, once published a notorious attack on what she termed “victim art.” The occasion was Bill T. Jones’s Still/Here, a brilliant, capacious work that drew some of its choreographic and video material from workshops conducted with sick and dying people. Croce refused to see it, claiming it was “a kind of messianic traveling medicine show” without legitimacy as theater. Her article was called “Discussing the Undiscussable,” and I could feel it hovering over my shoulder at Dance Theater Workshop recently, when Arthur Aviles Typical Theater shared a week with Bill Shannon, a.k.a. Crutchmaster.

Croce’s view of theater is narrower or perhaps more refined than mine, and I disagreed with her article. But her stance raises a question pertinent to Aviles’s new work: Are some artistic choices beyond the reach of criticism? Aviles puts a 10-year-old girl onstage with his company in Speed of Sight, a long, somber dance for nine performers working in measured strides and stretches, arranging themselves in and out of various careful poses. The child, a nondancer, does what the others are doing as best she can, keeping the same expressionless face as everyone else. The whole thing is difficult to watch, and I’m certainly not about to review it. Aviles has made the dance “undiscussable” in exactly Croce’s terms.

Aviles, who used to dance with Bill T. Jones (and was sensational in Still/Here), is deeply committed to Hunts Point, the Bronx neighborhood where Typical Theater is based. Whether he included the girl for reasons of art or social commentary is unclear (in an earlier dance, he used a local homeless couple). Perhaps she’s meant to defy our preconceptions of dance, of aesthetic propriety, of childhood itself. Whatever the challenge, I blew it; I just wished I weren’t there. No such discomfort haunts Arturella, his gay–Puerto Rican–Bronx take on Disney’s Cinderella. Unlike Speed of Sight, this is a romp, and its political message is delivered with slapdash eloquence. Employing little more than a shower curtain, a few silver streamers, and a heap of red tulle, the company conjures a romance far from Disney’s yet full of familiar sentiments. The sexual politics is as uninhibited as the shouted Spanish-English narration, and the choreography is subordinate to both, but it’s a tale—boy meets boy—that will never go out of fashion, at least in this town. Aviles, a tender-hearted Cinderella, spends much of the piece disarmingly naked. His stocky, muscular body radiates pleasure with every buoyant turn, and whenever he sprints through the air, he looks like Nijinsky.

As for Crutchmaster, whose disability is the soul of his career, he defies all categories, including the burgeoning one for disabled dancers. At age 5, Bill Shannon was an Easter Seals poster child, diagnosed with a disease of the hip joints that today makes it impossible for him to stand or move on his legs without pain. So he’s developed a version of hip-hop that incorporates his crutches—literally, for they become part of his body. He slips and swirls around the stage with his feet barely skimming the ground, spins on his knees though his knees never touch the floor, uses the crutches as feet, legs, arms, and hands.

AOW: Remix is a new, hourlong piece created in collaboration with five personable break-dancers known as the Step Fenz. It’s a dense, textured work nearly overwhelmed by its sweeping video backdrop and a pounding electronic score. Drugs, war, death, and a burning urban landscape are the themes; but amazingly, a kind of sweetness prevails. When a wounded Shannon is near death, an amiable ER team hip-hops in with an intravenous pole and saves him. Now and then, the dancers assemble for a spree of extravagant solos— Crutchmaster, too, though he doesn’t do their spectacular upside-down and angled spinning. Instead, he glides suspended through space, his physical contact with the earth just a fast flutter of his crutches, so ephemeral it barely seems enough to keep him sailing. Victim art? Hardly. Like Isadora Duncan, who opened up new possibilities for art by exploring the body’s natural movements—but couldn’t have done it without her flowing tunics and high mystique—Crutchmaster uses every means available to transform imperfect nature into a thing of beauty.

Speaking of transformations, if you haven’t been over to the new Dance Theater Workshop building yet, bring sunglasses; it’s dazzling. The endearing squalor is gone, but with it went the entrance “lobby” in a stairwell, the bleacher seating, the cramped backstage areas, the hideous bathrooms. Now civilization reigns in a glass-front lobby with café, and state-of-the-art performance facilities. A family-friendly management has even introduced 7 p.m. curtain times. I suppose the sign on the box office warning that the Aviles performance contained “full frontal nudity” was also aimed at families. Thanks, but this mom would have preferred to be warned that the sound system in the theater is permanently set at ear-splitting.

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Arthur Aviles Typical Theater
Speed of Sight and Arturella, both choreographed by Arthur Aviles, at Dance Theater Workshop.

AOW: Remix, choreographed by Bill Shannon (Crutchmaster), at Dance Theater Workshop.

A Bronx Tale