‘Parades and Changes’ undresses at BAM/PFA

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Any choreographer knows that a performance at, say, the Guggenheim will not sound or look exactly like a performance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, et cetera, et cetera. A heedful choreographer will adjust the performance, within reason, to compensate for particularities of a venue’s space. When the two cooperate, the entire piece snaps into a striking harmony. This past weekend marked the final staging of Anna Halprin’s seminal “Parades and Changes” — a work that was perfectly tailored to the contours and acoustics of the Berkeley Art Museum.

Conspicuously overdressed in “theater” uniform (black suits, bowler hats and umbrellas — red, white and black) dancers careered around the museum’s atrium before five of them recited short soliloquies beginning with “I remember” (one was in French: “Je me souviens”). Halprin’s frequent collaborator Morton Subotnick orchestrated the overture like a conductor — or rather a puppeteer — cutting off some performers and coaxing crescendos from others.

However, this prelude was upstaged completely by the most prosaic of rituals — the act of dressing and undressing. Dancers slowly began to ceremoniously peel off clothing until they were completely naked. A frequenter of Pilates classes will recall that the slowest exercises are the toughest tests of endurance. But unlike athletes, dancers are forbidden from letting fatigue show on their faces. Though flexes were held unbearably long, dancers’ gazes were directed at the audience, and they were unnervingly focused. The re-dressing was just as glacial in its pace, which varied from person to person. Once clothed, dancers purposefully traipsed around the stage. To reflect the new mood, Petula Clark’s jaunty “Downtown” played.

It’s about this time that you started to become curious about the extent of Halprin’s hand in the management of details: Did she personally OK the blue Diesel briefs at rehearsal? Did no one foresee the prolonged noisiness of taking off Velcro shoes in slow motion?

Nudity in post-modern dance has become commonplace to the point of banality, but to criticize Halprin on the basis of banality is like a millennial thinking Marilyn Monroe’s look is tired because pop stars like Gwen Stefani and Christina Aguilera have been channeling the same one. The chronology is all wrong. Originals have dulled into cliches over time: Monroe’s pinup wasn’t a cliche when she first arrived, just as nudity in contemporary dance was far from ordinary in 1967, when Halprin showcased “Parades and Changes” in New York. In fact, it was so out of the ordinary that it warranted Halprin’s arrest for indecent exposure.

But at Friday’s performance nudity, was met with neither puerility nor mutinous outrage. One segment, the most collaborative one, even prompted audience encouragement and spontaneous clapping. In it, the naked dancers triumphantly ripped apart rolls of brown butcher paper, tossing shreds into the air. The tearing of large sheets of paper is one of those sounds you don’t realize you love until you are forced to concentrate on nothing else for several minutes. Distinguishing between person and paper soon became hopeless, but the scene cast beautifully rendered amber shadows over the museum’s concrete walls. Standing in a compact herd, the dancers gathered these shorn remnants close to their bodies, like a dozen or so Adams and Eves. In keeping with the warm tones, The Beach Boys’ “The Warmth of the Sun” played.

Near the show’s end, Halprin had dancers drop one by one on a large wooden block. Some would collapse upon contact while others would melt onto it through a backbend. In this exercise, the rule that governed all of the evening’s performances emerged: The surprise of “Parades and Changes” came not from watching what was going to happen but rather how it did.

Contact Neha Kulsh at [email protected].