HELLZAOPPIN' WHAT ABOUT THE BEES
October 8, 2022
When I saw Yvonne Rainer in the lobby of NY Live Arts after the premiere of Hellzapoppin’ What about the bees?(1941) I told her the program did not signal her purported "swan song." Rainer laughed and said "the words just slipped out of my mouth, but who knows what might happen next." No truer words spoken.
Divided into two halves, a film by Rainer and Charlie Atlas butts visuals up against text that describes how culture and history are intertwined in the rise of the 20th century Austrian empire.
The treatise ramps through anti-semitism, the connection of corrupt politics, and how culture becomes the handmaiden of the oppressors generating the fall of empires. Through slits and variously shaped windows, parts of White Oak Dance Project dancers in work out clothes step and drop, swirl and lunge.
Part II underscores the dance craze of the 1930's and 40's, the Lindy Hop. Born of the two-step and Charleston, the Lindy was celebrated at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, the home of "Happy Feet." That's where Whitey's Lindy hoppers tore up the floor. These athletically mouth-dropping dancers appear in the film "Hellzapoppin'" that includes one of the world's most turbo-charged dance sequences on film.
Despite her post-modern, "less is more" aesthetic, Rainer maintains she can't get enough of this routine by four Black Lindy Hop couples. Men toss women over their heads, flip them to the floor and slide the gals between their legs; men split their legs apart in flying leaps and women's feet slap the floor so fast the image blurs.
Balanced next to the film is an old black and white film of a boy's boarding school and an erupting pillow fight.
None of this jives with the manifesto Rainer wrote in 1964 and can't shake: "No to virtuosity; No to spectacle; No to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer...." I mean right there, Hellzappin' breaks at least three if not more of the commandments of the Manifesto.
True to her post-modern ethics, when the screen rises, the predominantly white dancers are grouped by 4 on either side of the stage. Dressed in casual clothes, tees and track pants, they start to reproduce a deconstructed "Hellzapoppin,' only the dances are absent the the high-powered athletics, dynamics or showmanship.
They take the very same choreography and whiten it up; denude it of any sexual power, slow it down, and open spaces around the moves instead of the original tight, corkcscrewed, whirlwind sequences.
Arms pump up and down in loose grooves, while one person climbs slowly up and over another. Loose hips swing side to side, dipping into slippery slides on the floor. Rather than jamming the camera with personality, the two teams of 4 dancers retain a sense of cool and casualness, supportively assisting one other.
One more thing, the original, cosmic jazz music was removed when the original played, and parts of it played over the post modern version.
Near the end, Kathleen Chalfant sitting in the front row, interrupts the performance, critiquing the dance only to be quieted by Rainer.
Always in the crossroads of art and politics, Rainer once again comments on contemporary issues through dance and text.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis