Artists of the Year

For an artist like Jones, who spent much of the '90s making vital works that were sometimes a bit too insistent in delivering their messages, this dance stakes a new position on the frontlines of the culture wars. Jones asks us to join him in contemplating a complex picture, one colored by the force of discovery and the depths of hatred that have distinguished the 20th century.

With We Set Out Early, Jones conjures a place of absolute quiet obscured by the chaos of events past and the promise (or threat) of things to come. His dancers pass through this sanctuary before embarking on new journeys, ones that resemble everything from religious pilgrimages to individual vision quests and nocturnal club-crawls. Though the dancers may be unsure of their fates, they prepare for their inevitable departures by relying on an unidentified faith to guide their safe passage. In a world where the potential for violence seems to loom everywhere--from classrooms to city streets--these dancers are bold adventurers, surrogates for what we all hope to become.

Artists like Jones become such iconic forces through the accumulation of critical and promotional attention, and it is often too easy to take their gifts for granted. We Set Out Early offers a renewed opportunity to consider this particular choreographer and his important role in the continuing battle to make dance that matters.

 

Caroline Palmer is a Minneapolis writer and a frequent contributor to City Pages.

 

PHIL HARTMAN

by Michael Tortorello

Let us attempt to enumerate the ways in which actors are funny. First the body. Actors move their eyes, their lips, and the skin on their foreheads into positions that are seemingly uncomfortable or just atypical, and that is funny. Actors also contract their facial musculature so as to draw attention to the contraction, which can also be funny. Actors trip, fall, or drop objects, or trip other people, or are themselves dropped, and the pain they inflict or appear to experience themselves is funny. Actors gesticulate in a manner that draws a unique level of attention to the movement, sometimes in the course of punctuating a thought or iteration, or sometimes punctuating someone else's thought or iteration, and punctuation like that is funny. Some actors walk funny.

Actors study the way other people move their eyes, their lips, and the skin on their foreheads, and also how the other people contract their facial muscles, and how they walk, and then the actors bring a certain instinctual intelligence to bear in order to imitate that other person's gestures and movements, and the verisimilitude is funny. Oftentimes, actors will employ their upper thighs, buttocks, lower abdominals, and hips to produce a gyrating or thrusting motion with the intention of simulating human coitus--which is an inherently funny act when you think about it, whether or not it's simulated.

It is not unheard of for an actor to move in an exaggeratedly hurried or lethargic manner, drawing attention to how fleeting time is, and also alluding in a subtle way to the fact we're all going to die, which isn't funny on the face of it, but in a really deep sense is probably funny. Just not laugh-out-loud funny.

And then there's speech. Some actors pronounce words in ways they are not commonly pronounced, and the novelty is funny. Actors also pronounce words in exactly the way they are often pronounced, sometimes seeming to be overdeliberate in the process, and the actors' precision can also be funny. The process of diverting the flow of air into the nasal cavity while speaking can produce an annoying timbre in the voice, and some actors divert that air to funny effect.

There are actors who emphasize the iambic syllables at the end of a sentence, thus introducing a certain tentative or conditional mood into their statements--making everything sound like a question?--and that implied indecision is funny. Sudden changes of volume for emphasis are funny. Keeping volume conspicuously unchanged at any level can also imply certain traits in the speaker--like timidity, mindlessness, or fury--and some of those traits are funny, unless you have them, and then it's only funny to other people.

A certain tonal slide either up or down in the vocal range can be performed within the course of a single word or a phrase, and as a result of that tonal slide the credibility of the word or phrase can be called into question, and the implication that the actor has lied, or has been something less than truthful (and, by implication, that maybe everyone is lying, or being something less than truthful)--this can all be very funny.

Phil Hartman started performing in the improv troupe the Groundlings and was a longtime performer on Saturday Night Live. More recently, he'd worked as voice talent on The Simpsons, and as a cast member on the wonderfully mordant sitcom NewsRadio. Until his murder last spring, Hartman performed all the acts listed above with great virtuosity. He also invented another thousand that have yet to be categorized, and these continue to exist in the vast afterworld of syndication. Cue laugh track.

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