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'Patton' can leave you dizzy

Dancers perform Ralph Lemon's "Come Home Charley Patton."
Dancers perform Ralph Lemon's "Come Home Charley Patton."
Jack Vartoogian, Associated Press

NEW YORK — Audiences heading to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to see "Come Home Charley Patton" would do well to remember an anecdote recounted by actor-dancer Okwui Okpokwasili.

Describing a drum-playing art teacher from her youth, Okpokwasili includes one of the woman's favorite sayings: Honor the experience.

The final installation of choreographer Ralph Lemon's lengthy "Geography Trilogy," which opened Tuesday night as part of BAM's 2004 Next Wave Festival, must be honored on its own terms: a dizzying blend of styles and histories — personal, political and artistic, among others. The experience is served up, in true postmodern fashion, through a host of media, including home video, an animated rendering of writer James Baldwin and what appears to be an electronically manipulated, walking table.

A popular downtown choreographer who got his New York start dancing for Meredith Monk, Lemon disbanded his company 10 years ago and embarked on an exploration that became "Geography."

Parts 1 and 2 of the trilogy took Lemon to West Africa and Asia. With "Come Home Charley Patton," he sticks closer to home, drawing inspiration from Southern culture and history.

Lemon has filtered and remixed at will; those seeking linear or cohesive narrative should look elsewhere.

Instead, the effect is akin to peeking through a curtain as several shows unfold simultaneously. Snippets of an Arna Bontemps story from 1933 collide with recordings of a 1974 Baldwin lecture. Opera shares time with The Smiths, and a video montage bleeds from a sepia-toned silent recording of grazing horses to a homey dance hall to Lemon, chest-deep in water with a tea cup and a book. Delta blues musician Charley Patton, meanwhile, fails to show.

Such catch-as-catch-can storytelling easily lurches into self-indulgent and heavy-handed territory, and the 90-minute work could do with some tightening. But the movement Lemon has developed for himself and the performers — a boneless, rhythmic extrapolation of 19th-century folk dancing — lends the work much-needed respites of simplicity and calm.

In the end, this calm is put to the test as Lemon is blasted with a powerful fire hose, a reference to police tactics against blacks and white integrationists during the Civil Rights era. Knocked down again and again, he keeps dancing — his off-balance, water-logged steps an armor of sorts.

Lemon tries to say so much here, without committing to any one way of saying it. In the end, this proves both a strength and a weakness. Also dancing are Djedje Djedje Gervais, Darrell Jones, David Thomson and Gesel Mason.


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