Brian Brooks Moving Company
Summerdance Santa Barbara
Center Stage Theater
July 9, 2005

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Nicholas Duran in Brian Brooks Moving Company’s “Pinata.”

Santa Barbara is a town that knows how to party, so it?s not surprising that Summerdance Santa Barbara executive director Dianne Vapnek imports companies (mostly from New York) that offer equal parts sophistication and fun. Last year, Brooklyn-based Brian Brooks Moving Company brought out ?Dance-o-Matic,? a minimalist rhapsody in bubble-gum pink. The group also started creating a new full-evening work, ?Pi?ata,? which received its West Coast debut last weekend during the company?s return to the Center Stage Theater. ?Pi?ata? is a fiesta, to be sure, a suite of rigorous musical structures dressed up in confetti and camp. But in its most striking moments, the silliness becomes just a backdrop for a mesmerizing revelation of order in chaos, like reading an elegant geometric proof rendered on purple construction paper.

The conceit for ?Pi?ata? is the exploration of the full color spectrum as it explodes upon a canvas of white. The floor is white, Roxana Ramseur?s clever pseudo-athletic costumes are white, and the confetti is white as Jo-anne Lee bashes the first pi?ata of the evening. Brooks is a former dancer with Elizabeth Streb, a lineage that shows in the strenuous physical feats he uses as building blocks. The first third of ?Pi?ata? is set on the floor as the dancers lay in a line, rolling into ab crunches and arching backwards to the chord changes of Cesaria Evora?s exotic music; at the trumpet fanfare, their plank-like bodies launch straight into the air like popcorn kernels on a hot pan. Later, legs and arms spiral upwards as though to pierce the surface of water, an effect reinforced by the dancer?s sundry bathing caps (Alexander Gish?s is a hunter?s hat with flaps over the ears; Weena Pauly?s millinery looks like Mennonite garb). It?s like watching the world?s most musically attentive synchronized swimming routine.

Weena Pauly in Brian Brooks Moving Company’s “Pinata.”

But at last the five dancers stand, and gradually red and blue and yellow and green enter the picture, and here the seams of Brooks?s packaging begin to strain. There are many lovely and entrancing moments. Pauly introduces blue, jumping into the hands of Duran and Gish, treading her legs and arms as though to push through water as they carry her around the floor. Lee and Duran appear in rooster-like headdresses, moshing with mathematical exactitude to the Scissor Sisters in a red square of light. The company crosses the stage in curiously serene scissor steps, dropping orange paper like breadcrumbs though the forest. And the whole gang stacks up to scoot across the floor on their butts, throwing rainbow-hued fistfuls in Brook?s winking idea of a conga line.

Brooks knows how to stage a laugh: The funniest interlude of the evening sends a choir of pi?atas skidding across the stage as they appear to lip-synch Cyndi Lauper?s ?True Colors.? But then Lee appears in black, with a baseball bat, to wreak pi?ata carnage. And after this mock-execution, something far more engrossing than any comedy skit commences.

Brooks lines the dancers across the front of the stage in black flamenco dresses, where they begin to swirl their arms in precise patterns. The music is Ravel?s ?Bolero,? and your first instinct is to think Brooks can?t possibly pull this off. But the music continues its slow build, and so do Brooks? canons and counterpoints and his unexpected new gestures that seem to illuminate all the minute wonders that have come before like a flash of light. And soon enough watching the paths of the dancers? hands is like watching the paths of planets, like watching some kind of Nova science show where the workings of the universe leave you feeling very small and overwhelmed, and then?bang?it?s over.

Brooks? dancers are as hypnotizing as his calibrated structures. Lee is the resident ing?nue; Duran has the chiseled face of a runway model and a lanky grace, while Gish takes deadpan to the edge of self-parody. Brooks is a bit of a ham, not afraid to exchange a confidential glance with the audience. But Pauly tends to steal the eye. She?s as muscled as an Olympic rower, but glamorous, too; she played the ?Bolero? section with the drama of a 1940?s silver screen diva.

And yet that final ?Bolero? section would have stood stronger on its own. Like other ?Pi?ata? segments, it was a cosmos unto itself, and the pressure of fitting it into the grand scheme of an extended skit only undermined its mysteries. Brooks seems to realize that the chromatic conceit that served him so well with the pink ?Dance-o-Matic? and the green ?Acre? is wearing a little thin. Monday night, at a Summerdance open rehearsal, the company showed phrases from his new work-in-progress. The movement was expansive, sweeping, even downright ?dancey.? When an audience member asked if he?d ?abandoned color,? Brooks said that he wanted to start creating without a design concept this time, to see where the movement leads him. Now that?s a party I want to be there to see.

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