Artistry in Dance: 'American Dance Machine' & 'Noises Off'

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We struck gold twice in a matter of weeks -- my daughters, Lea and Sara, and I -- intoxicating artistry in dance at a pair of performances spanning the old and new year. Just on the cusp of New Year's Eve, we caught the final show of American Dance Machine for the 21st Century's December run at the Joyce Theater; a three-o'clock matinee that packed the wallop of Times Square and a ball at midnight. The following weekend, we laughed ourselves senseless at a matinee of Roundabout Theater's revival of Noises Off at the Selwyn Theatre on 42nd Street (which Roundabout persists in calling the "American Airlines Theater" in an act of sacrilegiously poetic injustice).

What a blast, though, two disparate shows with one thing in common: How they moved! Where American Dance Machine literally recreates the enchanting choreography of great Broadway musicals gone by, Noises Off reconstitutes the slapstick choreography of Michael Frayn's delirious three-act paean to the perils of simply making one's way across a stage -- not in a musical, but in a play.

The two experiences shared way more than you might imagine. The physical virtuosity of the performers in both was breathtaking. The music underlying each was deeply familiar; classic scores like Oklahoma!, West Side Story, A Chorus Line in the former; the rhythms of slamming doors and pounding footsteps tripping up and down stairs in the latter; the music of a well-oiled farce set loose in a theater.

Of course, Noises Off is ostensibly about a rusting old farce that is beyond lubrication. That is the set up. The reality onstage is marvelously double-edged, for the deployment and destruction of Nothing On, the shabby farce within the farce being performed in Noises Off, demands absolutely effortless execution, a caliber of craft that eludes the fictional performers of Nothing On entirely.

To do this right, everybody has to dance. And they do (I must mention them all: Andrea Martin, Campbell Scott, Tracee Chimo, Daniel Davis, David Furr, Kate Jennings Grant, Megan Hilty, Rob McClure, and Jeremy Shamos), as exquisitely as the dancers in American Dance Machine capture the multifarious styles of Broadway's master choreographers. Yes, mastery is the operative word here in both shows. From our curtain-raising Noises Off moments with the rapturously daffy Andrea Martin, the act of exiting with or without a plate of sardines, leaving or taking the newspaper, and not neglecting to return the telephone receiver to its cradle, becomes the stuff of Newtonian physics and Harpo Marxian metaphysics.

My kids had never heard of Noises Off, which knocked everyone's socks off the first time it opened on Broadway in December 1983. (The title refers to the theatrical phraseology for sounds coming from offstage, while onstage.) Lea and Sara were entirely familiar with most of the numbers recreated by American Dance Machine this year, though they had not ever seen a good many of them live (as opposed to in the movies or on YouTube). The girls were ecstatic to be afforded a chance to savor up close the "Dream Ballet" from Oklahoma!, "Cool" from West Side Story, "Coffee Break" from How to Succeed in Business Without Even Trying, "Turkey Lurkey Time" from Promises Promises (my personal favorite), "Manson Trio" from Pippin and "The Music and The Mirror" from A Chorus Line, as well as "Gotta Dance" from Singin' in the Rain. "We'll Take a Glass Together" from Grand Hotel, "Sweet Georgia Brown" from Bubbling Brown Sugar, the "Fight" from Golden Boy, "Pinball Wizard" from The Who's Tommy and "Mr. Monotony" from Jerome Robbins' Broadway were all new to them, as was the name (but not the work) of the pioneering choreographer Jack Cole, who received a celebratory opening medley. Susan Stroman's new steps for the Gershwin brothers' "Slap that Bass" from Crazy for You tickled Lea and Sara, but their preference remains with Fred Astaire's cinematic original in Shall We Dance.

Parenthetically, American Dance Machine's added performance of "Calling You" as choreographed by Mia Michaels for the T.V. show So You Think You Can Dance impressed 12-year-old Lea but not 10-year-old Sara, who is more of a purist.

I've long been aware of American Dance Machine's existence but the name has always thrown me, sounding, as it does, like some generic 1970s PBS television series. "American Dance Machine for the 21st Century," even up in lights, tells us nothing of its noble work and elevated mission. Neither, for that matter, does Noises Off. Lea and Sara hadn't a clue what they were getting themselves into. They know now.

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