Review: A Dance to the Very Short Stories of John Cage

“In Zen, we say: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, 16, 32 and so on. We en...


“In Zen, we say: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, 16, 32 and so on. We end up discovering that it is not at all boring but very interesting.

So goes one of 90 stories, each one minute long, in John Cage’s “Indeterminacy,” a score he first recorded in 1959 on an album with pianist David Tudor. On Tuesday at La MaMa in the East Village, veteran downtown entertainer Paul Lazar, joined by six special guests, recited most of those stories — “minus a few that I didn’t like,” said Lazar at the top of the show – in random order, while completing a non-random sequence of gestures and steps, a choreographed dance.

The “if something is boring” story came about halfway through, and it came back into my consciousness when the work, “Cage mix marathon“, ended earlier than expected. Admittedly, with the stories omitted, it was shorter than the advertised 90 minutes. But it was also the kind of performance that rewarded patient attention, in which, from somehow, the longer you stared, the greater your ability to keep watching.

Or maybe I was just waiting for more to happen. Lazar — founder, with choreographer Annie-B Parson, of Great dance theater – has been performing “Cage Shuffle” since 2017, and the setup, which he explained with the easy familiarity that enlivened the entire evening, is quite simple. A listener transmits Cage’s stories to him in shuffle mode, so he never knows what’s next, but the order of the dance, which he choreographed with Parson, is fixed. Casual-looking moves include a twisting elbow, lowering to one knee, finger tapping the soles of the feet.

In the spirit of chance, which has shaped Cage’s work so much, the alignments that emerge between words and movement are serendipitous, and noticing them becomes a kind of game. On Tuesday, these included a caress from the sternum to the line “free your mind” and shoes scuffing the ground to “the feet are a little above the ground”. The misalignments were equally delightful, like the mundane, labored pivots that punctuated a dramatic question in a story about Cage’s grandmother: “John, are you ready for the second coming of the Lord?”

For this “marathon” version, more scripted than usual, Lazar has recruited a supporting cast made up of performers and writers, all treasures of New York experimental dance and theater: Jess Barbagallo, Patricia Hoffbauer, Jennifer Krasinski, Brian Rogers and Sheryl Sutton. From their seats on stage, around the square of red floor that centers the action, each takes center stage for a single story, giving Lazar a chance to rest. Parson also briefly joins. This is where I found myself anticipating more: it seemed unusual to gather so many distinguished guests for everyone to contribute – other than silently observing – just once.

Their interventions brought welcome variations in timing and energy, beyond the changes of pace required to fit each story, no matter how wordy, into the span of a minute. While the material suited Lazar like a pair of worn-out slippers — to the point where he could throw in a clever meta-comment — the others were starting to feel comfortable with it. The freshness of discovery crackled in Barbagallo’s comically emphatic delivery of a story about an Aunt Marge (“You know, I love that machine much more than I love your Uncle Walter”); in Krasinski’s lively and dazzling vigilance; in Hoffbauer’s mix of concentration and frenzy. Sutton and Rogers, both seated as they spoke, offered notes of calm but lively understatement.

When they all started moving together at the same time, I waited for another phase of labor to begin, my interest piqued. It was actually the end – a burst into a different kind of consciousness, after getting lost in the minutes.

Cage mix marathon

Until Saturday at La MaMa, Manhattan; lamama.org.

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