MALE BONDING IS NOT A PRETTY SIGHT. The violent rituals through which men affirm their social groupings--from fraternity hazings and gang initiations to high- school pals frog-punching each other in the arm--are not performed for others; the participants are the only audience necessary. They also lack much in the way of subtlety or artfulness. So deciding to build a performance work around these sorts of rituals can be hazardous; as sociologically interesting as the rituals may be, their participants spend a lot of time hitting one loud note.

The Young Composers Collective built their recent performance SCREAM!LionDogs on the bones of an event which took place in Olympia near the beginning of this decade: an Asian guy was beaten to death by racist skinheads in an Olympia train tunnel. Haruko Nishimura, who choreographs the Collective's performance works, knew only a few details about the event, the most salient being that the murdered youth had been a racist skin himself, before converting to the SHARP (skinheads against racial prejudice) camp. The only image Nishimura had to work with showed him stage-diving at a concert.

The performance piece Nishimura conceived for the story relies heavily on the rituals of inclusion and exclusion among men. Nishimura, a very gifted dancer, appears at the piece's very beginning, and in places throughout the work, but center stage is given to a group of three white men covered in oatmeal-encrusted white makeup, wearing abstracted versions of skinhead outfits. Entering with a notable dance where they wield oversized plungers like ninja staffs, the three men are then further riled up by the Collective's conductor, Joshua Kohl, who breaks from the front of his 11-member orchestra to lead an ersatz Nuremberg Rally, throwing leaflets out of a lighting booth over the audience, shouting an almost incomprehensible slogan ("We will not kneel down before the destroyer," as best I could make out.) Thus inspired, the men enact long, rambunctious, noisily soundtracked scenes of bonding and brawling, while Willy Manalang, playing the Asian youth Ghen, attempts to insert himself into the games and thuggery, with varying levels of success.

These scenes, like the entire performance, happen at a fairly high level of abstraction--the men aren't giving each other wedgies or frog punches, but instead screwing handgun-barrel phalluses onto each other's crotches or competing at breakdancing. But the rituals seem familiar nonetheless. Occasionally, Nishimura or d.K. Pan, a butoh dancer who rounds out the cast, appear onstage, where they provide scapegoats for the skinheads' virility and rage.

The cast of SCREAM!LionDogs is split between dancers and actors, and the actors suffer in comparison. While the three men playing the white skinheads are adept enough with their bodies, their movements lack the precision and directness that allows dancers to hold attention without requiring such fripperies as plot or dialogue. The trio's wild movements too often descend into almost out-of-control flailings, so that I spent one whole scene worrying that a particular actor was about run into the trumpet of the musician he was maniacally running around, causing serious damage to the poor guy's embouchure. Too often, the actors performed their lack of restraint with a lack of restraint, which can ruin the theatricality of a performance. This is a goal of some performers, I know, but it's a bad trade-off: the best realism is accomplished with huge helpings of artifice, and the best surrealism is as well.

The program notes tell the audience, "This piece is us--asking ourselves, 'Where does this violence come from?' It is our sadness, our confusion--our own voyage into our own darknesses--to find the violence inside of ourselves.... To know the atrocities we are capable of." The piece does exactly that: several of the dancers and orchestra members put themselves in the position of the racists, trying to understand the darkness by embodying it. I'm sure it is a moving and sometimes frightening experience for them, but it leaves the audience in the same position it entered the theater in: sophisticated urbanites who are encouraged to see the problems lying elsewhere, in others. The audience learns very little about their own darknesses. We become the audience for a rally, and dancers move among us, often in a threatening way, but we are passive throughout. We're not drawn in, and we don't leave shaken by what we might have found within us.

The piece has some wonderful musical passages, especially some beautifully melancholy trios for two violins and a cello, and the stagework is touched with felicitous invention and surprising uses of scenery, especially during the piece's climactic bloodbath. These, and other previously touched upon aspects, kept the evening from ever truly grating, and kept me encouraged to watch the Collective's further developments in performance works (they also play concerts and compose film scores). But this ambitious attempt at exploring a by now almost hackneyed theme about the extremities of human behavior fails to spark new insights on its subject.

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