There’s a lot going on in Yvonne Rainer’s “Hellzapoppin’ What about the bees?” performed by eight dance artists and actress Kathleen Chalfant as special guest. A founding member of Judson Dance Theater, writer, and experimental filmmaker, Rainer’s wit and breadth spans several mediums in her newest work. At 87, with two Guggenheims and the MacArthur Fellowship under her belt, Rainer claims this show is her finale.
Co-presented with Performa, “Hellzapoppin’” begins with two video clips played side by side: the original film Hellzapoppin’ (1941), with Frankie Manning’s Lindy Hop choreography, is paired with a boys’ boarding school pillow fight scene from Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct (1933). Once the stage lights come up on the live dancers, it becomes apparent Lindy Hop is also their subject. But where the Lindy Hoppers of the film bounce, grin, and fly in a party of a dance, Rainer’s ensemble is doing a walk-through version. They take signature Lindy moves apart at the seams to reveal the performance mechanics that lay beneath. (Pat Catterson is credited for providing jitterbug research.) At this slow pace, we find new appreciation for a shoulder twitch, the way a leg stretched out with a flexed ankle can rock the body backward. Performing in two clusters of four on opposite sides of the stage, the dancers repeatedly take care to set up flips, walkovers, and other spring action partnering. Without velocity as an assist, it takes a team to accomplish what one Lindy Hopping couple makes appear as effortless.
While Frankie Manning’s dancers are all Black, Rainer’s ensemble is mostly White, which underlines the central statement of “Hellzapoppin.’” Black dancer David Thomson in pre-recorded voice-over reads a script as the character of Apollo Musagetes. Written by Rainer, a White woman, it’s a biting commentary on racism in the United States, delivered with deceptively warm intonation: statistics of racial inequality, an anecdote about a White woman who cluelessly insults a coworker of color, quotes from the poet Terrence Hayes, comedian Tracy Morgan, James Baldwin and more. At just the moment when one might question the wisdom of proposing that a Greek god from Mount Olympus, where he notes there are no people of color, might chastise a progressive New York City audience about race, out jumps a White woman (played by Chalfant) from said audience to indignantly demand of the performers, “What about the bees?” followed by “Why aren’t you dealing with Roe v Wade”? and a litany of other urgent issues not being addressed in the show. It’s a goofy moment that allows Rainer a cameo as she enters to calm the outraged woman with, “Come and sit down, we can talk about this later.”
Another nice surprise is when the dancers switch from a crouched, ready to spring Lindy posture, to the upright spine of ballet in a rendition of Fokine’s “The Dying Swan.” Suddenly, the lithe Brittany Engels-Adams is fluttering her arms like a bird. This “Dying Swan” sample refers me back to the earlier screening of “After Many a Summer Dies the Swan: Hybrid,” Rainer’s 2002 collaboration with White Oak Dance that shares the “Hellzapoppin” program bill. It’s an example of a doubling effect that serves to hold together otherwise disparate elements of the production—throughout the evening there are always two activities happening onstage simultaneously, such as two film clips, two clusters of dancers.
Other unrelated features also have elements that mirror each other, like when we see Emily Coates performing in both the video from 20 years ago, and live today onstage. The boarding school pillow fight too is an echo. Pillows make an appearance in the White Oak Dance choreography and Rainer has famously made use of pillows in her Judson-era work. That the video title is a literary reference (both a Tennyson poem and an Aldous Huxley novel) speaks to the way Rainer juggles multiple influences together. The evening ends with a passage from Joyce’s Ulysses, recited by a spotlight encircled Chalfant, next to a video screen image of a cresting ocean wave. Unclear what to make of this ending, we might look to Rainer’s compositional pattern as a possible lens: two balls in play at once, always offering a choice of where to look. The crowd gave her a standing ovation.