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A Bronx Tale

Theres nothing typical about Arthur Aviles Typical Theater, which draws deeply
on the choreographers Hunts Point roots; Crutchmaster makes kinetic poetry out
of hip-hop.

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By Laura Shapiro

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Arlene Croce, the distinguished critic who spent some 30 years


covering dance at The New Yorker, once published a notorious attack
on what she termed victim art. The occasion was Bill T.
Joness Still/Here, a brilliant, capacious work that drew some of its
choreographic and video material from workshops conducted with
sick and dying people. Croce refused to see it, claiming it was a kind
of messianic traveling medicine show without legitimacy as theater.
Her article was called Discussing the Undiscussable, and I could
feel it hovering over my shoulder at Dance Theater Workshop
recently, when Arthur Aviles Typical Theater shared a week with
Bill Shannon, a.k.a. Crutchmaster.
Not the Disney Version:Arthur
Aviles in Arturella, a reimagining Croces view of theater is narrower or perhaps more refined than
of Cinderella.
mine, and I disagreed with her article. But her stance raises a
(Photo: Richard Shpuntoff)

question pertinent to Aviless new work: Are some artistic choices


beyond the reach of criticism? Aviles puts a 10-year-old girl onstage with his company in Speed of
Sight, a long, somber dance for nine performers working in measured strides and stretches,
arranging themselves in and out of various careful poses. The child, a nondancer, does what the
others are doing as best she can, keeping the same expressionless face as everyone else. The whole
thing is difficult to watch, and Im certainly not about to review it. Aviles has made the dance
undiscussable in exactly Croces terms.
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Aviles, who used to dance with Bill T. Jones (and was sensational in Still/Here), is deeply
committed to Hunts Point, the Bronx neighborhood where Typical Theater is based. Whether he
included the girl for reasons of art or social commentary is unclear (in an earlier dance, he used a
local homeless couple). Perhaps shes meant to defy our preconceptions of dance, of aesthetic
propriety, of childhood itself. Whatever the challenge, I blew it; I just wished I werent there. No
such discomfort haunts Arturella, his gayPuerto RicanBronx take on Disneys Cinderella.
Unlike Speed of Sight, this is a romp, and its political message is delivered with slapdash eloquence.
Employing little more than a shower curtain, a few silver streamers, and a heap of red tulle, the
company conjures a romance far from Disneys yet full of familiar sentiments. The sexual politics is
as uninhibited as the shouted Spanish-English narration, and the choreography is subordinate to
both, but its a taleboy meets boythat will never go out of fashion, at least in this town. Aviles, a
tender-hearted Cinderella, spends much of the piece disarmingly naked. His stocky, muscular body

radiates pleasure with every buoyant turn, and whenever he sprints through the air, he looks like
Nijinsky.

As for Crutchmaster, whose disability is the soul of his career, he defies all categories, including the
burgeoning one for disabled dancers. At age 5, Bill Shannon was an Easter Seals poster child,
diagnosed with a disease of the hip joints that today makes it impossible for him to stand or move
on his legs without pain. So hes developed a version of hip-hop that incorporates his crutches
literally, for they become part of his body. He slips and swirls around the stage with his feet barely
skimming the ground, spins on his knees though his knees never touch the floor, uses the crutches
as feet, legs, arms, and hands.

AOW: Remix is a new, hourlong piece created in collaboration with five personable break-dancers
known as the Step Fenz. Its a dense, textured work nearly overwhelmed by its sweeping video
backdrop and a pounding electronic score. Drugs, war, death, and a burning urban landscape are
the themes; but amazingly, a kind of sweetness prevails. When a wounded Shannon is near death,
an amiable ER team hip-hops in with an intravenous pole and saves him. Now and then, the dancers
assemble for a spree of extravagant solos Crutchmaster, too, though he doesnt do their
spectacular upside-down and angled spinning. Instead, he glides suspended through space, his
physical contact with the earth just a fast flutter of his crutches, so ephemeral it barely seems
enough to keep him sailing. Victim art? Hardly. Like Isadora Duncan, who opened up new
possibilities for art by exploring the bodys natural movementsbut couldnt have done it without
her flowing tunics and high mystiqueCrutchmaster uses every means available to transform
imperfect nature into a thing of beauty.

Speaking of transformations, if you havent been over to the new Dance Theater Workshop building
yet, bring sunglasses; its dazzling. The endearing squalor is gone, but with it went the entrance
lobby in a stairwell, the bleacher seating, the cramped backstage areas, the hideous bathrooms.
Now civilization reigns in a glass-front lobby with caf, and state-of-the-art performance facilities. A
family-friendly management has even introduced 7 p.m. curtain times. I suppose the sign on the box
office warning that the Aviles performance contained full frontal nudity was also aimed at
families. Thanks, but this mom would have preferred to be warned that the sound system in the
theater is permanently set at ear-splitting.
Arthur Aviles Typical Theater
Speed of Sight and Arturella, both choreographed by Arthur Aviles, at Dance Theater Workshop.
Crutchmaster
AOW: Remix, choreographed by Bill Shannon (Crutchmaster), at Dance Theater Workshop.