New York

Heat

The Kitchen

Heat was a mixture of dance, music, and poetry presented by a consortium of performing ensembles: Urban Bush Women, a group of dancers directed by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar; the Dirty Tones Band, led by composer Craig Harris; and Thought Music, a performance group consisting of codirector Laurie Carlos, Jessica Hagedorn, and Robbie McCauley. The piece proposed an examination of various metaphoric aspects of heat—burgeoning sexuality, rage, desire, tropical atmospherics—in terms of an equally multifarious conceptual agenda: black, feminist, politically radical. In this two-hour, polymorphous mélange, the many converging intentions produced only an unsatisfactory sprawl. The performance’s all-too-collective consciousness roamed here and there in sequences of vignettes, each stuffed to overflowing with images, ideas, and summary statements. Precisely because the performers’ intentions were so commendable, Heat’s lukewarm effects were even more annoying than the failures of far less ambitious works.

Heat ran continuously cold with portentous nonsequiturs (“I love you. I hate you. What’s the difference?”), banal metaphors (lipstick as a woman’s weapon), shallow absurdities (a bag lady turned into a knife-wielding stripper), and cliché dance movement—the finale, a “high-energy” dance section, presented gestures and phrases that bordered on a parody of African dance. (It was also erratically performed by a cast of varying talents.) Punctuating this bolus of misguided calculations were some moments that were all the more striking by contrast with the otherwise lackluster goings-on. Craig Harris delivered a spoken monologue about desire that burned with energy and humor; at times, his band provided a smoldering accompaniment that ranged from moody atmospheric sound to driving funk. Zollar, Carlos, and a few of the dancers also established compelling presences, despite the uneven quality of their material.

Ultimately, however, the performance appeared to be that most common of mistakes in political theater: a harangue that lacked appropriate dramatic realization. Its didactic purposes served its agenda and vice versa—nothing more. As a closed circuit, Heat couldn’t work up any energizing power. Like Leni Schwendinger’s lighting designs—swirling patterns of red and gold that were obscured by the Kitchen’s cavernous black space and short sight lines—Heat came off as a sputtering candle rather than the strong, illuminating force it might have been.

John Howell