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Review: Andrew Dawson's 'Quatre Mains' at UCLA Live

December 18, 2008 |  2:30 pm


Andrew Dawson has the whole world in his hands. For the moon, though, it takes a torso.

This quirky British choreographer/performer/director/hand artist returned to Macgowan Little Theater Wednesday night as the final presentation for this year’s UCLA Live International Theatre Festival. Seated with Sven Till behind a black-draped lectern, he performed “Quatre Mains,” an hour and five minutes of mesmerizing hand dances. After intermission, Dawson returned alone to re-create the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing.

Dawson created both works in the late '80s and has gone on to grander spectacles. Most recently he choreographed the Metropolitan Opera’s problematic new production of John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic.” Intimacy and low budgets clearly suit him better.

The marvel of these two pieces, in fact, is their ability to create so much with so little. When it comes to high tech, UCLA lately lacks luck. One evening last month, the equipment in Robert Lepage’s “The Blue Dragon” broke down, and the audience was sent home halfway through the show (I still don’t know how it ends). Wednesday night, the university lost heat. Earlier in the rainy day, water had leaked under the seats, creating rivulets along the aisles. Although mopped up in time for the show, the hall was dank and freezing, creating the atmosphere of attending theater in the Third World.

Quatre_mains_3But that also added a sense of urgency to  Dawson’s remarkable ability to produce expression through nothing more than hand gestures and lighting, accompanied by odd selections of recorded music. From the loudspeakers came moments of Hungarian avant-garde, noirish bits of film music by Bernard Herrmann, goofy mood music of Roger Roger, some Jazz Passengers jazz and a little Astor Piazzolla. But “Quatre Mains” ends in magic, the “Moonlight” interlude from Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes.”

Through it all, two men with beautiful hands found a thousand surprising ways of connecting. Their fingers were little men walking the lonely streets on a dark night. They were sea anemones in an underwater ballet. Digits became a geometer’s lines. Hands in choreographed motion were dancers, acrobats, aircraft. Once or twice, Dawson and Till pulled up their sleeves and allowed forearm action. But that’s as far as it went for their bodies. They remained close lipped, expressionless, throughout.

Although Dawson was still only seen from waist up in “Space Panorama,” he here acted as mime in the 25-minute blastoff from Cape Canaveral, landing on the surface of the moon and reentry to Earth. A lively recorded narration told the sequence of events. Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony was the soundtrack.

Written in 1953, the symphony is a portrait of Stalin, the grotesque despot. The music is angry, moody and reaches into the depths of hopelessness. It ends, though, in triumph. The dictator is dead.

Quatre_mains_2_3In “Space Panorama,” Shostakovich confronts the space race. What was angst for a Russian is the excitement of gum-chewing American can-do. To music of dramatic anguish, Dawson becomes the astronauts’ cocky driver delivering them to their spacecraft on the morning of the launch.

But even more impressive is the way, in Dawson’s hands (literally), desolate Shostakovich becomes delicate, mysterious moon music.

Dawson gets it all. His stony face suddenly becomes elastic. He is President Kennedy one minute, an aw-shucks Neil Armstrong the next. Dawson’s magnetic hands mimic the Earth, moon and starry sky. They are lunar module and orbiter uncoupling.

Although this was the West Coast premiere of “Space Panorama,” of which Jozef Houben is the inventive director, Dawson has made the international theater festival rounds with it, from Beirut to Costa Rica to Singapore. Apollo astronauts have seen the show and sent back their publicity blurbs. Their theater criticism is credible.

Better still, bring the kids. "Space Panorama" shows what Americans can do. It shows what theater can do without a lot of technological wizardry. And it’s good for classical music at a time of the year when the “Nutcracker” needn’t be ubiquitous.

-- Mark Swed

"Quatre Mains," UCLA's Macgowan Little Theatre, UCLA campus. 8 p.m. today, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday. $36. (310) 825-2101. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

Photos by Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times